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Tavern Tales: War News from Home

Richard Caton Woodville, War News From Mexico, 1848.
Richard Caton Woodville, War News From Mexico, 1848.

The next few Tavern Tales will use paintings to explore the various aspects of colonial taverns. The painting for this week is Richard Woodville’s War News From Mexico (1848).

Though this painting is from the mid-1800s, the focus on the newspaper highlights one of the more important aspects of taverns throughout the colonial period and beyond: news.

Because taverns were places where both locals and travelers interacted, they became focal points for learning about what was going on in the wider world and how that might affect the local community. Locals and travelers debated topics big and small. Regularly scheduling group meetings would meet at the tavern to read the newspaper and discuss anything and everything that was of interest to them. There is even one instance of a tavern’s newspaper being used to help patrons learn to read.

Woodville’s painting centers on the man reading the newspaper because this is how many communities first received important news. This painting is meant to show a slice of American life at the time of the Mexican-American War. But this scene could just have easily occurred at the beginning of the American Revolution. Or even at the start of the French & Indian War.

You have people showing a mix of reactions (e.g., surprise, concern, and maybe some excitement as to what is coming). Though the focus is on the white men, the pair of African American people in the painting shows that the issue of slavery is a large issue that affects society and politics.

There are many other details in this painting that also help us understand various aspects of society at that time. One item (out of many) to point out is that the older man on the right is wearing breeches in the 18th-century style while everyone else has more contemporary clothes.

Another detail in this painting is the red sign on the left porch support that reads “Post Office.” This will be the focus of next week’s tavern tales.


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