Unearthing the feminine side of tavern life

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Photo Credit: Cody Mello-Klein
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

A dimly lit room full of men, their feet up on tables as they guzzle beer and liquor – this masculine space, where women have no place other than to serve, is the most common image of the tavern.

Through a special series of tours for Women’s History Month, the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum is painting a different picture. “The Feminine Side of the Tavern” tour aims to include women’s narratives in tavern history.

In the 18th century, taverns were the center of life in towns and cities.

“It’s where everyone is going for not only meals but to find out what’s happening, what’s changing,” Jessica Highland, a Gadsby’s Tavern volunteer tour guide, said. “These are your early hotels. You vote in taverns. You get your dental care done in taverns.”

The women involved in the narratives of tavern life are largely limited to upper-class women who could read, write and afford to travel, according to Highland. At the time, travel was dangerous and expensive, and women generally stayed behind to manage the home.

At Gadsby’s Tavern, the upper-class women who took part in tavern life did not often mix with the largely male patronage that took up Gadsby’s public room. Traveling women often did not even stay at taverns like Gadsby’s due to the cramped rooms and bed bug-ridden cots, Highland said.

Instead, wealthy women found their own safe spaces in private dining rooms where they could eat, drink and talk by themselves or with their husbands in relative peace and quiet.

“A traveling woman likely has enough money to rent this space and she can close the door and have a much nicer, much more private meal,” Highland said.

Upper-class women who traveled found safe eating spaces in private dining rooms away from the public room, which had a largely male patronage. (Photo Credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

The tour also celebrates the voices of middle-class, working class and enslaved women.

“There are all types of middle-class women who ran taverns, enslaved women that were forced to be here to take care of the people who came to the taverns,” Highland said.

There are several small buildings in the courtyard behind Gadsby’s Tavern. The enslaved men and women that builder John Wise and owner John Gadsby owned would retreat to these shelters when they could during their 24/7, on-call existence, Highland said. Enslaved women would clean linens and silver from the private rooms and generally serve the patrons as their masters saw fit.

However, enslaved women still found ways to survive.

“We know that women are enslaved to work here and are using these spaces as their only way of surviving a pretty brutal existence,” Highland said.

One enslaved woman at Gadsby’s Tavern, Candace, managed to find freedom. Although there is not a lot of information available about Candace, Highland said, city historians know that John Wise owned her and that her story ended well, partly because of the tavern.

“Being an enslaved person at a tavern offers you a different life than being the sole enslaved person at a residential house,” Highland said.

In Gadsby’s Tavern, Candace had more access to people and relationships than a solitary enslaved woman at a house. According to Highland, Candace met and married a free man named London Payne, had a child and was eventually, with the help of her husband, freed by Wise.

In assembly rooms, which served as everything from ballrooms to medical offices, women did more than just patronize the tavern.

“They also were service providers as well,” Highland said. “They were merchants, they were entertainers. They were making a living for themselves in spaces like this either giving dance lessons or lectures.”

These women carved out a place for themselves in an otherwise masculine space. Other primarily middle-class women found ways to inch into the tavern business itself, Highland said.

Highland cited Mary Hawkins, who from 1774 to 1777 ran a tavern. The lease was underwritten by city founder John Carlyle. According to Highland, finding a wealthy patron – or a busy husband – to underwrite a lease was a great way for some middle-class women to enter the world of business.

“That’s a way that women were able to get a foot in the door and support themselves in the 18th century when you might think that’s not so easy,” Highland said.

Long after the site functioned as a tavern and hotel, women remained involved in the story of Gadsby’s tavern. Rebecca Ramsay Reese was deeply involved in preservation and restoration efforts in the early 20th century, Highland said. Because of her, Highland is able to tell these stories in the place.

“Rebecca Ramsay Reese was here to make sure it was done right,” Highland said. “She didn’t want colonial revival, she didn’t want cutesy colonial, 20th-century vibes. She’s a really big part of why these buildings are standing today.”

Reese’s work paid off. In the years that followed, Gadsby’s Tavern was host to some of the most powerful women of the era, like Eleanor Roosevelt. It was proof that women’s stories were an integral part of tavern – and Alexandria – history, Highland said.

“We see these powerful early 20th-century women bringing Gadsby’s back to life and really being a part of that story,” Highland said.

The last “Feminine Side of the Tavern” tour is on March 30. Tickets are limited.

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