Drinking in 18th Century Boston: Cromwell's Head Tavern

1889.0023 Bill from Cromwell's Head Tavern, Gift of Dr. J. F. Pratt

It is difficult to overstate the importance of taverns in 18th century life. In addition to providing food, drink, and lodging, they were venues for town meetings, legal proceedings, and business transactions. Taverns were a place to debate politics, play games such as cards or dice, and catch up with the latest news and gossip. They were the hub of social life, and in Boston in particular, they were ubiquitous. In 1765, there was one tavern for every 79 adult men. 

This bill from General Israel Putnam's stay at the Cromwell's Head Tavern depicts the wide range of services available in a tavern, from liquor and lodgings, to food and care of one's horse. Located on School Street in Boston, not far from the Old State House, Cromwell's Head Tavern was established by Anthony Brackett in the mid-18th century. After Brackett's death in 1764, ownership of the tavern was passed on to his widow. Named for Oliver Cromwell, an English military leader and Lord Protector who played a role in the overthrow of King Charles I in 1649, Cromwell's Head served as a tavern for the gentry. In 1756, a young soldier named George Washington stayed there when he was in Boston meeting with Governor William Shirley during the French and Indian War. 

As this bill shows, Israel Putnam stayed at the Cromwell's Head Tavern in December 1785. Born on January 7, 1718 in Salem Village (present day Danvers), Putnam, also known as "Old Put," was a soldier and later general during the American Revolution. Putnam fought during the French and Indian War and served with Robert Rogers, commander of Rogers’ Rangers. He was captured during the war and narrowly escaped being burned alive by Mohawk combatants, a common punishment for captured enemies. After the war, Putnam worked as a farmer and a tavern keeper and was one of the founders of Connecticut's chapter of the Sons of Liberty. Putnam offered his services to the army following the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and was named a major general. He fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, as well as the Battle of Long Island in August. Following the Battle of Long Island, Putnam's lack of military training became apparent to Washington, and he was given less important commands until he resigned his military commission following a stroke in 1779. Putnam passed away in 1790.

Drinking and the granting of licenses to serve alcohol were closely monitored and restricted in 18th century Boston. More licenses were turned down than granted by town selectman in order to curtail drinking. A tavern keeper was held responsible for the actions of their patrons. They were fined if a person became intoxicated or drank excessively while frequenting their tavern, and it was the tavern keeper's responsibility to call the constable to have an intoxicated person removed if they could not leave on their own.

Anthony Brackett's widow, Elizabeth (Maylem) Brackett, managed Cromwell's Head Tavern from 1764 to 1768, before it was passed on to her son, Joshua Brackett. He managed the tavern for decades, and by the time it was advertised for sale in 1802 it had been in the Brackett family for around 50 years. Although most taverns were owned and operated by men, widows were often granted tavern licenses as a form of poor relief in 18th century Boston. A married woman could not own or acquire property, nor enter into a contract, but she was entitled to hold a license if she was a widow. In 1708, 15 of the 37 tavern keepers in Boston were widows, as well as 16 of the 35 retailers. Twenty-two widows had a license to sell liquor in 1702; in 1737 that number jumped to 71. Elizabeth Brackett was one of thousands of widows throughout Boston’s history to manage a tavern. She was able to run the tavern, support herself, and keep the business profitable enough to pass on to her son.

For more information about taverns in colonial Boston, see David Conroy's 1995 book, In public houses : drink & the revolution of authority in colonial Massachusetts.