The Little Person of the Wayside Inn

Drawing from Adrian Covert’s “Taverns of the American Revolution, I learned that Benjamin Franklin was critical of inns and taverns. In 1764 this Founding Father wrote:

“It is notorious, the Number of Taverns, Ale-Houses and Dram-Shops, have encreased (sic) beyond all Measure or necessity. That they are placed so near to each other, that they ruin one another.”

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were no big fans either. Adams wrote:

“[Y]oung people are tempted to waste their Time and Money, and to acquire habits of Intemperance and Idleness.” Jefferson wrote to his grandson in 1808 to “avoid taverns, drinkers smokers, idlers & dissipated persons generally.”

Covert goes on to say that one of the reasons for the dramatic increase in taverns was the Triangular Trade.  What is the connection? It brought many “side effects,” in today’s parlance, including the production and distribution of cheap rum.

It is possible to visit many restaurants and pubs today that are in former colonial taverns. Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts is a wonderful place to enjoy fine meals and modern takes on early American drinks.

If you visit a colonial tavern, most of the surviving ones are well appointed. However, back in the day, country inns were known as “cramped shanties with fleas and spoiled food” that were ill stocked (p. 25). The Wayside Inn is about thirty miles west of Boston, putting it in the category of country inn. It was likely not the genteel place of today.

The following satire printed in a New York newspaper gives a picture of the less than desirable conditions in many inns:

“TRAVELER: Can you furnish provender for my horse?

LANDLADY: No, we have none.

TRAVELER: Can you furnish me with supper?

LANDLADY: We have no bread. My husband started for the mill this morning and will return to-morrow.

TRAVELER: Can you furnish me with a glass of whiskey?

LANDLADY: We have none. My husband took his gallon bottle, and will bring some when he returns.”

TRAVELER: Madam, can you tell me what you do keep of the entertainment of the travelers?

LANDLADY: We keep a tavern, sir (p. 25).

It should also come as no surprise to readers of these pages that enslaved persons worked at New England tavern, and at the Sudbury’s Wayside Inn in particular.

An unnamed “negro garll” was bought in October 1779 for 200 pounds to help keep things running (Smith).

When Portsmouth, a man of color and believed to have been a dwarf, was thirty-three years old, he was bought and enslaved by the Wayside proprietor. He slept in the attic on a bunk and was known to hide under a hallway shelf when visitors whom he was not already familiar with came calling (Smith).

The Wayside Tavern is a worthwhile place to visit when not in need of the current “social distancing” but let’s not forget the folks who helped work that place back in the day.

And if you do venture to Sudbury’s famous establishment at some point, give a nod to Portsmouth and to the woman who was enslaved there. They stepped where your feet will fall.

Susan Elliott

Independent Researcher


Covert, Adrian. Taverns of the American Revolution. Chapter 1.

Smith, Helene. Tavern Signs of America. 1989. p. 36.

PHOTO: Greenwood, John. “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam.” c. 1752. Of course Surinam was a long way from the Mass. Bay. If you know of a tavern painting, engraving or drawing from New England, please let me know. Surinam was the closest I could find from the era.

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