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Tavern Tales: More About the "Other" Alexander Hamilton

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Monkeys in a tavern, Studio of David Teniers the Younger (Flemish, 1610–1690)

This week’s #TavernTales highlights a particularly interesting experience that Dr. Alexander Hamilton had at the White Swan Tavern in Chestertown, Maryland (then called Newtown) and what that experience shows about colonial taverns. (If you missed part one, read it here)

On June 2nd, Hamilton arrives at Chestertown and decides to “put up at Dougherty’s, a publick house there.” The next day he eats lunch with his friends at the tavern and is “entertained by the tricks of a female baboon.” As he writes, “this lady had more hangers-on at her levee than than the best person of quality in this town. She was very fond of her compliments and company of the men and boys….”

Though it is definitely odd that a tavern in the colonial Chesapeake would have a baboon for the entertainment of its guests, the baboon’s presence hints at how taverns operated and competed with one another for business.

Because tavern prices were set by the government, taverns could not (legally) compete on the price of lodging, food, or most drinks. But they could strive to have different types of amenities and entertainments available for their customers. In this instance, it is a female baboon. At other places there could be bear-baiting or cock fighting. Some taverns displayed oddities such as a two-headed cow. Or they hosted traveling displays of European royals made out of wax. And some places, such as Mary Howard’s in Annapolis, specifically acquired servants and slaves who could play musical instruments for their guests. These are just some of the ways by which tavern keepers competed with one another for business.

Next week’s post will connect to Central America and Dr. Hamilton’s disbelief about something that exists today.

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