Pubs and Taverns

David Teniers the Younger, “Backgammon Players”
(c.1640-45, oil on oak)
[>>National Gallery, London]

People in the eighteenth century did much of their drinking in public. At a time when most lived in dwellings that were small, cramped, and poorly heated in the winter, taverns, wineshops, and cafes offered a warm fire and refuge from crowded and uncomfortable quarters. But taverns and coffee­houses were more than simply an escape from the discomforts of home. People frequented taverns and coffeehouses to find jobs, conduct business, exchange information, or celebrate important events of their lives. These were places where baptisms and marriages were celebrated, newspapers circulated, stock traded, crimes plotted, votes solicited, ministers attacked, laborers employed, wars debated, freemasons initiated.

Adriaen Brouwer, “Tavern Scene”
(c.1635, oil on oak)
[>>National Gallery, London]

Taverns and coffeehouses were in principle public space, open to anyone who could pay for their drink. This side of taverns continues to find expression in the British term “pub” (after public house), which entered common usage in the eighteenth century. The openness and accessibility associated with public-drinking establishments date back to the Middle Ages, when local statutes or custom sometimes prescribed sanctions against tavern keepers who refused to serve a patron without good cause. Such provisions were rooted in medieval traditions of hospitality, which under specific conditions obliged communities and lordships to offer food, drink, or accommodations to travelers and pilgrims. The publicness of drinking establishments in early modern Europe found expression in the often picturesque signs that beckoned those on the street to come within. The public status of taverns and coffeehouses was also reflected in their function as urban landmarks at a time when it was not yet common for buildings to bear numbers. Street addresses in eighteenth-century cities were often designated by reference to a tavern or coffeehouse. One resided “opposite the Sun Tavern”; a street crime occurred “near the Café du Rendez-vous”; a journeyman newcomer was told he could find his employer “in the shop behind the Grenadier Arms.”

[Excerpt from ch. 7 (“Drinking in Public: taverns and coffee houses”) of James van Horn Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 226.]