America’s Bar Scene: History Made over Drinks

Thanks to Henry Moore (henry@fitwelltraveler.com) for contributing this post:

It is easy to think of a bar is simply a place to blow off steam after a long week. However, America’s drinking establishments are much more than a liquor-fueled pool of debauchery; they are an important part of our history. A history that might look very different without them.

The first bar in the United States was opened up in 1652. The White Horse Tavern in Rhode Island started out in the residence of one Mr. Francis Brinley. In 1673, after having been acquired by William Mayes, Sr., the White Horse was converted to an official tavern. Its name is derived from the white horse insignia which, at the time, identified a place to get a strong drink and a good meal. Over the course of the next hundred years, the White Horse Tavern served as the unofficial headquarters of the Colony’s General Assembly, City Council, and Criminal Court.

The White Horse is not alone in its position as a historically-significant meetinghouse that also happens to serve alcohol.

Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a staple of New Orleans’ French Quarter, was founded in 1775 by Battle of New Orleans war hero Jean Lafitte. The building, which was originally built before 1732, is reported to have served as a neutral meeting grounds where wealthy Creole could make their deals with Lafitte who, along with his brother Pierre, ran a smuggling operation in the city. The Blacksmith Shop Bar continues on today as a throwback to a time when discretion was a must, and clandestine collaborations were the norm.

In Boston, the Bell-in-Hand Tavern is an important reminder that street corner news was the social media of yesteryear. Founded in 1795 by town crier Jimmy Wilson, the Bell-in-Hand was the place to get the scoop on everything from local happenings to the notorious Boston Tea Party. Wilson served as the city’s primary source of news for more than half a century. The bar’s current owners continue to honor Wilson’s memory with a full menu of libations sure to incite gossip in every corner.

Few establishments can claim to have potentially played such an important role in American politics as the Old Ebbitt Saloon in Washington, DC. The Old Ebbitt Grill, as it is known today, started out in 1856 after the purchase of a boarding house by innkeeper William E. Ebbitt. Ebbitt made a place for his establishment in history by catering to such nobles as Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Grover Cleveland. President McKinley is even reported to have taken a room in the inn while serving in Congress. As Washington’s first saloon, the Old Ebbitt Tavern no doubt holds in its history some of America’s best-kept political secrets.

The City Tavern in Philadelphia is another 18th-century piece of American Revolution history. Hosting such notables as John Adams and Paul Revere, the City Tavern once served as the unofficial meeting place of the first Continental Congress. On July 4, 1777, the City Tavern further etched itself into American history by hosting the world’s first Fourth of July celebration. President George Washington was honored at a banquet at the City Tavern in 1789 while en route to New York for his inauguration ceremony.

Throughout history, anywhere drinks have been served, people would meet and mingle. Many of the most important decisions in American history have been made over a stout ale and a hearty meal. Today, bars in the United States continue to serve as a respite for weary men and women. They are an open venue to recharge and wash away the worries of the day and, perhaps, a place to change America’s future one drink at a time.

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