I had a chance to experience some living history last week in Williamsburg, Virginia. I’ve long followed the posts about Colonial Williamsburg on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog, and my recent cross-country travel gave me the perfect opportunity to spend a day there.
An 18th Century Inn
The characters in my stories often stop at inns while traveling, but what were those inns really like? Memoirs and travel diaries give us some idea, but I was happy to visit Wetherburn’s Tavern for an up-close look at a restored eighteenth century inn.
Since it was a rainy day with very few visitors, my husband and I were lucky enough to have a private tour of Wetherburn’s.
The proprietor, Henry Wetherburn, was an experienced tavern keeper who expanded his holdings by marrying the widowed Anne Shields, who had inherited Shields Tavern from her late husband. Here’s an interesting post on these two families and taverns–and their possible ghosts!
Catering to the Wealthy
Wetherburn aimed to draw in wealthy customers with well-appointed rooms and good fare. The public room served hearty dinners of meat, vegetables and breads.
A private dining room could be rented for meals and meetings. Here, the table is set for three, with a punch bowl in the middle meant to contain an arrack punch. I’ve read many stories with characters sipping arrack, but never paid much attention.
Here’s more about arrack, which was apparently introduced into England and its American colonies by the East India company.
A Bigger Meeting Room
Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1779. With legislators and lawyers gathering in the town, Wetherburn enhanced his business by extending the hotel with a large meeting room. This must have been like what Regency folks call “assembly rooms”, available for banquets, dances, and important meetings. It gave me goosebumps to think that George Washington actually visited this room.
Note the carpet: the original was imported from England and would have been woven in pattern strips that were sown together.
Not Just a Tavern but an Inn
When I hear the word “tavern” I think of ale, but our guide told us that in eighteenth century Williamsburg, a tavern also rented sleeping rooms to travelers.
This private bedchamber had a fireplace, a small table and chairs, and three beds (there’s another tucked off to the left).
This private bedchamber was rented on a yearly basis by one of the Virginia legislators. When he came to town for meetings, he slept in this bed. His manservant (who I believe was an enslaved man) slept in the small bed to the left in this picture.
The room was not truly private though, because between the two beds is a doorway into another bedchamber. Patrons would have to pass through this sleeping room to reach the other!
The Public Sleeping Room
Our guide said that the law required all taverns to have a public sleeping room. Up to twelve travelers could lodge in this room for seven pence a night. How, you may ask, since there are only two beds.
I read an account of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams once having to share a bed as they journeyed together to a meeting. At Wetherburn’s, two to three travelers would share each of these beds, and the extras would stretch out on pallets on the floor. Our guide said there wouldn’t be many women staying in inns like this.
The stables are gone, but a few outbuildings stand behind the tavern, some original, some reconstructed:
Note the central chimney of this building. The left side of this structure was the laundry, the right, the kitchen. This would be a hot place to work in a Virginia summer.
The inn drew its water from this well.
The building on the left is the dairy, where cheeses were made. The middle building in the picture is the smokehouse where meats could be cured. The building on the right is the well.
Beyond these buildings are gardens that would have supplied the tavern kitchen.
How does Wetherburn’s stack up against inns in Regency England? From accounts I’ve read, I’m guessing the English taverns and inns on well-traveled routes were much larger, with much better accommodations for well-heeled travelers.
What do you think? Do you have any good resources on this subject, any recommendations for memoirs or travel diaries–or recipes for arrack punch? I’d love to hear them!
Images: All images are the authors except the picture of Wetherburn’s, which is from the Colonial Williamsburg website.