Taverns and Brothels in Early America

Stories that Take You for the Ride of Your Life

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January, 2016

Taverns and Brothels in Early America

Taverns, brothels, and sex shops were an essential part of the cultural fabric of early America. Their emergence attributed to apparent freedom of choice in matters of sociability contributed to a distinct way of life identified with people in the thirteen colonies. A rich historiography gradually evolved out of these institutions and shaped the American identity that become the driving force behind the revolution and the successful fight for independence. In The Rule of Ranging, the Silver Star tavern is based on a real bar from another time and place, but nevertheless it is a part of Ranger history.

Place of Taverns in the American History

Taverns were the most significant place for a community gathering in early America. The preeminence in social life allows them to become a crucial constituent of society and a character in the War of Independence. Located along travel routes, they were meant to offer food, drinking and lodging facilities. With the passage of time, their purpose outweighed the core function and taverns became post offices, polling stations, newspaper delivery places, leisure and game centers and even exclusive meeting places for people in the community.

In its primary role, a tavern was a place of business. But taverns also played a prominent role in military and political matters. Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern was the center of Benjamin Franklin’s political activism. He used the place to recruit soldiers, meet leaders and stage a diplomatic offensive against the loyalists. The cradle of Masonic teachings, the tavern was also the place where the US Marine Corps was first established.

People gather at taverns and discuss politics that gave a fillip to anti-British sentiments while military used the places for recruiting, spying, meeting and strategic discussions. When the Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia, people throng taverns to know about it major decisions. Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern was the center of activities by the Sons of Liberty following opposition to Tea, Sugar and Stamp Acts. Virginia’s Raleigh Tavern played a crucial role in spreading Thomas Jefferson’s Notes.

In August 1775, the first British cannonball targeted New York’s Fraunces Tavern for its importance to American Revolution. This was also the place where George Washington bid farewell to the ranks of the Continental Army following the British capitulation in 1783.

Brothels and Sex Shops in Early America

Despite opposition by Puritans and others, brothels in early America were tolerated by state and local authorities. Discretion played a crucial role in prostitution, which was never an eye-catching public issue except on random occasions. Though it was perceived as morally wrong, the trade thrived under the concept of male sex-right and large-scale migration and over-sea trade. In many areas, taverns were accused of operating as “disorderly houses”— a reference to brothels.

Brothels grew in number in the mid-1700s with war activities dominating the life. Attempts by some ministers, including Cotton Mather of Boston, to create public opinion against brothels went unheeded. As maritime trade expands, brothels in port cities, such as New York, Charleston, Philadelphia, multiplied. The first red light district came into existence in Philadelphia’s “Hell Town.”

New Orleans’ Storyville red light district has its origin in 1721 when 80 women were transported to the colony by the French. Intended to marry colonial settlers, who often had a sexual encounter with the natives, many of these migrant women, instead, opted for the sex trade, as it was very lucrative.

Colonial-era brothels used taverns to soliciting patrons. New York’s brothels have their heyday during the War of Independence. Known as the “Holy Ground,” these brothels were frequented by soldiers who slipped out of camp and visit them.

(Image courtesy: HBO TV Series Deadwood starring John Hawkes, Timothy Olyphant, and Keith Carradine)

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