Early American taverns became gathering places for not only strong drink, but strong talk about the politics of the day.
As early colonial America grew in the 17th and 18th centuries, so did the need for taverns–also known public houses–to accommodate the increasing number of travelers. As the number of settlements increased, more people began to take to the roads for travel, much of that for business. This required food and lodging for not only the person, but their horse as well. Essentially, taverns in America were a combination of two British institutions: the inn (overnight lodging) and the pub (a place for food and drink).
By the mid 1700s, the tavern in America began to develop a reputation that was either fairly acceptable, or highly questionable. Puritans, like the Founders, held conflicting views about alcohol: they recognized its powerful medicinal value, but also feared of its abuse. They regulated the sale of alcohol along with the political power of the alcohol interests, including taverns.
However, due to the many illnesses brought on by bad water, including cholera and dysentery, a certain tolerance was developed for the day-long consumption of alcoholic beverages such as spruce beer, cider, and watered-down rum, known as grog. Rough estimations of annual per capita consumption of distilled spirits in America reached as much as 3.7 gallons by 1776. In the colonies, New England alone was the major consumer of rum, brought from the West Indies where sugar cane was cheap, and was harvested by slave labor.
Many of the Founding Fathers, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all wrote about these “Licensed Houses” in quite unfavorable terms. They worried about its influence in the corruption of young people, leading them to intemperance and idleness. John Adams reasoning included moral, political and class distinction implications. Adams wrote: “...the worst effect of all, and which ought to make every man who has the least sense of his privileges tremble, these houses are become in many places the nurseries of our legislators.” But Adams failed to recognize that American taverns would become the galvanizing force behind the Revolutionary struggle.
Taverns, which spread all over the North, Northeast and South, including Philadelphia, Boston, Delaware, and Williamsburg, Virginia–just to name a very few– became gathering places for men like Samuel Adams, George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to plan and direct the founding of our nation.
Taverns signs also went through a type of “revolutionary change. By the time of the American Revolution, tavern sign imagery changed from typical emblems of British authority, to more “American” images such as the eagle, after Congress adopted the bald eagle as the official symbol of America. Eventually Continental soldiers used tavern signs containing any British imagery for target practice.
Imagery on signs also became symbols for political and patriotic havens. One example is the sign at this web site, titled “Sign of the Pine Tree”. The yellow sun and pine tree were likely intended symbols used by the Sons of Liberty, a political/patriot organization of resistance to British authority.
You can learn more about the meaning of the imagery of this sign at the “Trade and Tavern Sign” link at the top of the web page.
Sources: Taverns of the American Revolution by Adrian Covert; Tavern Signs of America by Helene Smith.