June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
To Falstaff’s question, early America gave an unequivocal answer. Its roadside taverns were the traveler’s refuge and the townsman’s club
The old saying about many an American inn, that “George Washington slept here,” is not necessarily so apocryphal as we sometimes assume. His campaigns kept him constantly on the move, and wherever he found himself, there was likely to be an inn nearby. On foot, on horseback, or even in a coach, a day’s journey was very short by our modern standards, and accommodations had to be available nearly everywhere. New Jersey alone, just after the Revolution, had 443 inns.
In earlier days all diversions centered there. The furnishing of food and shelter to travelers and to horses, and of liquid comfort to neighbors, was not the establishment’s only function. Whatever there was of novelty in entertainment or instruction went on at the inn, and it served as the gathering place for folk on scores of duties or pleasures bent. Legal notices and governmental proclamations were posted there, newspapers were on file, mail was distributed, and the taproom was a clearing house for news. A constant panorama passed within the walls and before the doors.
The inn also served the townspeople. Indeed, its importance to its local neighbors was far greater, day in and day out, than to the occasional traveler. Inns and taverns played an important part in the political and military affairs of the colonies. Law courts sat in their public rooms, not only in small towns but in the cities. A center of events, a center of alarms, the inn in many a city and town saw some of the most dramatic acts in the colonists’ struggle for independence.
The inns of one colonial town—Princeton, New Jersey—may serve as examples. They heard the first rumblings of the war; they saw the departure of a company of undergraduate volunteers from the College of New Jersey—later Princeton University—in 1775, the arrival of the British and Hessians in 1776, the colorful visit of the Delaware Indians in 1779, Washington and Rochambeau with their armies in 1781 marching toward Yorktown. Paul Revere plowed through the mud in December, 1773, on his way to Philadelphia with news of the Boston Tea Party; and several times, in 1774 and 1775, he passed by again. Delegates to the First Continental Congress came in 1774 and recorded their impressions. In 1783, the frightened Congress found refuge here and gave Nassau Street unwonted metropolitan airs. And here also, on April 19, 1783, the Reverend Dr. John Witherspoon, president of the college, delivered “an excellent discourse to a very numerous audience” in celebration of the signing of the peace with Great Britain.
In the eighteenth century inns became even more important when the pack horse was replaced by a more modern system of overland travel—the stagecoach. A glamour like that which enshrines the cowboy has been thrown over those stagecoaching days. But the glamour hides the uncomfortable realities.
The stagecoach of colonial days, and of the first part of the nineteenth century until the coming of the railroad, was often a wagon without springs, doors, panels, or windows. On entering it, one was compelled to step in between the front wheel and the horse, then up on the swivel-tree over the driver’s seat to one of the benches. A young English visitor in 1795 described the stage-wagon as follows:
The vehicle was a long car with four benches. Three of these in the interior held nine passengers, a tenth passenger was seated by the side of the driver on the front bench. A light roof was supported by eight slender pillars, four on each side. Three large leather curtains suspended from the roof, one on each side and the third behind, were rolled up or lowered at the pleasure of the passengers.
There was no place or space for luggage, each person being expected to stow his things as he could under his seat or legs.... There were no backs to the benches to support and relieve us during a rough … journey over a newly and illmade road.
Passengers would be badly shaken up and sometimes made ill, or having been in such a cramped condition all the way, would be unable to stand for some time. And despite the slow speed of travel, the level of safety was even lower than today.
There was one curious and most depressing, even appalling, condition of stagecoach travel. It did not seem to matter how long the journey, nor where one was going, nor whence one started: the coach always left before daybreak. One had to rise in the dark, dress in a room most poorly lit, eat a hurriedly prepared breakfast in the dark, and start out in the blackness of night. It is easy to understand why travel diaries of the time are full of references to incessant dram-drinking.
The arrival of a long-distance coach at an inn was heralded as the important event of the day. As the time drew near, a crowd would gather. Then the four or six horse coach filled with people and luggage, often covered with dust, came rolling up the highway with much blowing of horn, cracking of whip, clatter of hoofs and rumble of wheel, and loud huzzas and shouts of laughter. With a final snap of the whip and a blast from the bugle, the coach came to a halt.
During the turnpike era, roadside inns were in their heyday. Some—Princeton’s Nassau Inn, for instance—had been well known in the eighteenth century; now they enjoyed a renascence, and were to remain famous long after coaching days were done. The original building of the Nassau Inn was erected in 1756—57 as a fine private residence for Judge Thomas Leonard, but it was an inn continuously from 1769 to 1937, when it was clearly the oldest one in Princeton still in use. Here the trustees of the college held their moistly generous commencement dinners, until the Revolution and rising prices broke up the custom. Committees of the New Jersey legislature often met here. Its “Long Room” seems to have been the largest in the village and was used for concerts and entertainments.
Host to all these gatherings was the inn’s landlord. Few more prosperous callings existed in the coaching days; no greater symbol of good cheer could be found. He may not have been the greatest man in a town, but he was certainly the best-known, often the most popular, and always the most picturesque and cheerful.
But he had one failing—an overweening curiosity—so common among those of his profession that it was a standing jest. Benjamin Franklin, a constant traveler, said that in his younger days the first step he took “for his tranquillity and to obtain immediate attention at the inns” was to anticipate all unwelcome inquiry by telling the innkeeper: “My name is Benjamin Franklin. I was born in Boston. I am a printer by profession, and am traveling to Philadelphia. I shall have to return at such a time, and I have no news. Now, what can you give me for dinner?”
It was the perfect squelch.