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Bar News - February 13, 2009

Gender Breakfast Features History Lesson on Women Tavern Owners in Colonial Era

Marcia Schmidt Blaine, a Plymouth University history professor, featured speaker at the Gender Equality Breakfast, provided insights into law and social norms regarding women who were tavern-keepers in 18th century New England.

Marcia Schmidt Blaine, a Plymouth University history professor, was the featured speaker at the Gender Equality Breakfast. She discussed the role of women tavern-owners/keepers in New England during the 1700s.

"There were not many ways for a woman to be independent in Colonial times," she said. "In fact, if a woman were to sign her husband’s name in his absence, sometimes she had to add ‘deputy husband’ after it."

One of the few ways a woman could gain some independence, though, was by owning and running a tavern, also known as a public house. To be licensed, a tavern must serve food and drink and provide lodging for travelers—and housing for their animals.

"It was no small thing for a woman to run a tavern. Not only did it give her a measure of independence, but it also provided some domestic employment for other women in the community," said Blaine.

Two of the most notable women tavern owners in New England were Elizabeth Harvey of Portsmouth and Ann Jose Harvey, her daughter-in-law. After Elizabeth died, Ann, twice-widowed herself, carried on as proprietor of the well-known Harvey-Slayton House in Portsmouth. She also ran the estates of both dead husbands and did very well, building their assets into a small fortune for her four children.

Since the mail-drop was usually at the tavern, the first post offices were essentially taverns. And since taverns had to pay an excise tax, clever Ann Harvey asked to be exempt from excise tax in exchange for running the post office.

The tavern was a gathering place for conducting town business and legal affairs. News was posted there, along with notices and other important documents, some of state and national import, such as The Declaration of Independence.

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