What is a tavern or inn?
In Britain, a tavern and an inn are pretty much the same thing. Taverns are places where people, gather, drink, exchange news, and can hire a room for the night. Inns are establishments which are licensed to house lodgers. So pretty similar. Nowadays, they’ve been all but replaced by pubs (short for ‘public houses’), where food and drinks can be had, but rarely lodging; and motels, where you can rent a room, but they lack the community feel of a pub. The names live on, though, to engender the spirit of adventure and nostalgia.
I’m going to use pictures from Cook’s Tavern in Upper Canada Village, a living history museum in Ontario. The Canadian experience differs wildly from the English at this time (and even from the American), and this museum is Victorian, so the tavern itself was evolved a little to about the 1860s, but the bones are right, and also I can use photos I took with my own fair hands.
Who would use one?
The biggest and most famous inns were in London, where there were several hundred. Ideally, a traveler would stay with family, or rent a furnished house, if they were staying a long time. But for one or two nights, the inn was their best bet. Inns and taverns were stratified according to social class, and the accommodations varied accordingly.
In the city, young men frequented inns for food and companionship, often finding them more inviting than their own homes. You could get a meal, cheap drinks, debate politics, and even stay the night, if you needed to.
On the road, especially on a long journey, a traveler had to stop eventually. Carriages were bumpy and uncomfortable, chaises were impractical for long distances, the mail coach had scheduled stops, and waggons could be pricey for people of lower income.
What one could expect
The landlord would typically meet their guest at the door, sometimes going to far as to meet the ships coming in and lead the tired travelers to their establishment. Posting Houses, the inns of the well-to-do, were grand and often would not serve people who arrived without servants or private transportation. People who arrived on the mail coach had inns specifically for them, as well as people who came by normal waggon. People on horseback or on foot were rarely admitted, as it was feared that they were vagabonds or criminals, or both.
Inns were actually often more comfortable than one’s own home. Because there were so many, they had to be competitive with their offerings. Beds were clean, floors carpeted, walls tastefully decorated, and because landlords chose their patrons, even in days when sharing a bed with a stranger was common, the company was usually pleasant. Roadhouses, the roadside motels of the day, had stables and carriage houses, and took good care of the horses who rested there.
Often, because the inn or tavern was a private residence where the owner took in lodgers, guests would eat at the family dining table or in the kitchens. Some grander establishments had ‘coffee rooms’ for the guests to dine communally, or else private rooms that could be rented by wealthy lodgers. Some had small nooks where women could drink in peace, away from the gentlemen. It was unseemly (and unsafe) for a woman to travel alone, but even with a man for protection, a lady might want some privacy, even if she had to share it with other similar ladies. Some even had large sitting rooms, where the furniture could be pushed back if the guests wanted to dance.
Inns and taverns famously displayed huge and elaborate facades with beautiful signs to grab as much attention as they could. Some of these still exist.
Food and drink
The food, even in lower class inns was exceptional. French and German travellers even wrote home about the food and accommodations of English inns. A lodger at a high quality inn could expect joints of mutton or ham, pies, fish and fowl, cheese, salad, wine, punch, eggs, and even game–which was illegal, but no one asked too many questions. There was such a prevalence of beef that ‘rosbif’ became a sort of derogatory term for the English in other countries and among foreign visitors. Steaks could be chosen right from the grill, but vegetables were coated with soot and boiled, the British had no taste for soups, and Voltaire said that ‘England has a hundred religions, but one sauce,’ which seemed to be a sort of water and flour concoction. Puddings and sweets, however, were something of a speciality, but to heavy for the average foreigner, the likes of which provide the majority of our knowledge on the subject. And they really didn’t like the coffee, but the tea was top notch.
Even stranger to the foreign traveler were the eating customs. It was considered good manners to wipe one’s greasy fingers on the tablecloth rather than a napkin, and the English still used the two-pronged fork with a blunt knife for carving meat. And since the English cuisine didn’t lend itself to the sorts of dishes the French made with leftover meat, the traveller had to finish all of the meat provided, leading to some very expensive tabs.
A good landlord could sometimes get away with serving illegal meats, without much notice, but there was one thing that was heavily regulated: beer. The country ran on beer, and bad beer, wine, and bread could be highly dangerous. As an example, there is a theory that ergot poisoning led to the Salem Witch trials of 1692. Badly fermented beer and wine can lead to botulism poisoning. To prevent this, the government hired men called ale conners, who would visit alehouses and taverns and the like and sample their wares. Landlords who failed the tests could be issued stiff fines. However, it was insanely easy to bribe an ale conner, and a lot of people did. I wrote a short story about my two main characters conning a conner over a tipsy game of piquet.
Cookbooks by women
Historically, professional cooks tended to be male, now as well as then. However, one interesting fact is that probably the most popular cookbook of the time was written by a woman, Hannah Glasse was and still is the name of 18th century cooking (a niche market, to be sure, but a significant one). In fact, many cookbooks were written by women, for women (intended to liberate some of that precious time from the clutches of the kitchen), but used by men. Here is a link to many cookbooks of the time.
Role in my story
Since my story is set in a fantasy world based on history, I can be a little freer with the details. The kingdom is still recovering from the destruction of the Ettin Wars seven years previous to the start of Magic Beans, so the economy is a little funny.
The inn on the Capital Road is my main roadhouse, and the setting for a lot of the action. The Blue Stag is owned and operated by a man named, Emrys, and his son, Tophyl. Early on in Magic Beans, they hire a barmaid, who becomes an important character in the series. Emrys is an uncharacteristically hands-off landlord, preferring to allow his patrons to come and go as they please, and doesn’t inquire too deeply into the reputations of the people who spend their time there. This blind eye allows for a lot of the plot to happen at the inn, where shady deals are done in the relative–if chaotic–open of the tavern.
Unlike real inns of the 18th century, the food is not always top quality, nor do the guests dine communally. There are not that many inns along the Capital Road, and as the Blue Stag is at the crossroads, Emrys doesn’t have to expend too much money and energy competing for business. Food is available for purchase, and there is decent food there, but our heroes can only afford the meagre rations. Likewise, the furnishings are basic, and even then, they have to share most of the time.
There are more recognisable inns, taverns, alehouses, coffee houses, and public houses in bigger communities, but you’ll have to wait a little while to see those 😉
Fun fact: tavern signs
Tavern, inn, and pub signs are an integral part of the local history. They could be named after landmarks, religion, history, royalty, mythology, or sometimes you get double names from when two alehouses merged to become one. The Royal George was named after a ship, a legend about the Red Lion states that King James I decreed that the red lion of Scotland be on every public building, and the Wicked Lady allegedly stands on the spot where notorious highwaywoman, Katherine Ferrers was shot (although the actual cause of her death –and whether or not she was actually a criminal– is unknown).
In one of my stories, I have a tavern called The Fetters because it is near a prison.
What do you think is the story behind the Blue Stag?
- Inns, Lodgings, Coffee-Houses, and Clubs
- Olson, Kristin. Daily Life in 18th Century England. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 1999