Mixed Company: Women and Taverns


While interpreting our Half Way House, we’re often asked about women and taverns. Specifically, did women ever go into taverns? Were they even allowed to?

These questions are easy enough to answer, but they’re not actually the right questions. You see, when most people ask about “taverns,” they usually mean “the taproom.” Today, hotels often have a self-contained restaurant or bar, discrete from the rest of the hotel. It is easy to see the taproom in similar terms – an autonomous tavern set within the space of the inn – but in fact, it is the Half Way House in its entirety that comprises the tavern. The taproom is not the tavern itself, but rather, a component of it.

Not a tavern. But part of one! :)
Not a (whole) tavern.
Due to the requirements for a tavern license, there isn't much difference between inns and taverns in 19th century Ontario.
Due to the requirements for a tavern license, there isn’t much difference between inns and taverns in 19th century Ontario.

So, were women allowed in taverns? Absolutely. Undertaking the proper protocols of dress and behaviour, women could in fact travel alone, though etiquette guides strongly recommended taking a companion (of either gender). Regardless, they would be staying in taverns. Taverns were public spaces, social spaces, and there was no reason or evidence for women’s exclusion from them.

The question that is meant is thus: were women allowed in taprooms?

This is where things get more complicated. And you thought they were complicated already, didn’t you? Well, just hold on!

Looking at scholarship of the Victorian era, there is a strong tendency to favour the “separate spheres” model of gendered activities. Men were out in the public sphere, whereas women withdrew to the privacy of the home. However, a model of wholly separate spheres is perhaps too rigid to be useful. When analyzing daily life (not the ideal life prescribed in the manuals and guides of the time), it may be more helpful to think of intertwined, overlapping realms, through which men and women moved with varying degrees of freedom.

Certainly, in the early decades of the nineteenth century there is ample evidence to suggest that women did enter taprooms, albeit generally with a male escort. We’ve looked at paintings of taproom scenes before – it’s not uncommon to spy women (and even kids!) in these scenes, suggesting that they were in fact an acknowledged presence within the taproom. Similarly, in the 1830s, a patron of Dow’s tavern remarked that Mr. Dow conversed with the men, while his wife primarily attended to the women; it seems he refers to the taproom as a site of mixed company.

Julius Caesar Ibbetson's  "Sailors Carousing" (1802). Note women.
Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s “Sailors Carousing” (1802). Note women.
John Lewis Krimmel 's "Village Tavern" (1814-1815). Note woman and child!
John Lewis Krimmel ‘s “Village Tavern” (1814-1815). Note woman and child!
George and I.R. Cruikshank, "Tom & Jerry taking Blue Ruin after the Spell is broke up" (1820). Many drinking women!
George and I.R. Cruikshank, “Tom & Jerry taking Blue Ruin after the Spell is broke up” (1820). Many drinking women!
John Lewis Krimmel's "Dance in a Country Tavern" (1820s, lithographed George Lehman 1833-34). Gasp!
John Lewis Krimmel’s “Dance in a Country Tavern” (1820s, lithographed George Lehman 1833-34). Gasp!

However, from the 1830s onwards, there is a tendency to regard the taproom as more of a male social space. For instance, some taverns emphasize their introduction of separate dining and sitting rooms, disconnected from the barroom. It seems that the kitchens, parlours, and balconies of taverns became spaces of female sociability, whereas the taproom solidified its purpose as a site of male comradeship.

Yet even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Women were certainly still drinking in taverns; accounts show women purchasing alcohol in amounts too small to carry home – a glass, or a pint. While they weren’t necessarily drinking in the taproom (though in some taverns, it seems, a few women were tolerated), they would have still needed to place their order. There are references to women being served from side doors and drinking on back steps, but one wonders if they interacted with male bar staff each and every time.

This is a particularly poignant question considering that there were female tavern-keepers. In 1868, 201 tavern licenses were issued in Toronto (I counted – no, seriously). Of those 201, 156 licenses went to men, and 16 went to women. 29 were assigned under initials only, meaning that gender cannot be stated for certain. This means, however, that approximately 8% of Toronto tavern-keepers were female: a minority, most definitely, but not unheard of, either. Were 8% of Toronto’s tavern-keepers never setting foot in their own taprooms?

My suspicion is that women’s relation to taproom was similar to this analogy. Imagine, if you would, certain twenty-first century bars characterized by a predominantly male clientele, grittier furnishings, and a distinct social code. As a young woman, it’s not that I am forbidden from drinking there – I simply don’t want to.

As much as I liked "True Detective," I'll stick with a cosier pub.
As much as I liked “True Detective,” I’ll stick with a cosier pub.

As Julia Rogers says in her fine book In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada: “…[women’s] aim was sociability, not social equality; and their stepping out did not include stepping into bar areas where they were not welcome” (p. 149). It is perhaps telling that while Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book (1864) devotes a chapter to proper deportment whilst traveling, she never once mentions the taproom. Apparently, it never crossed her mind that her middle-class female audience might be socializing in there.

Perhaps this is really all an issue of semantics. Were women allowed in/did they frequent taverns? Unequivocally, yes. Were they allowed in taprooms? Yes.

Did they frequent taprooms and use them for social purposes in the same way as men?

That depends on time period. Prior to the late 1830s, perhaps. Afterwards…women drank for social purposes, but in different ways than men. While potentially imbibing the same products as the men in the taproom (working class women were much more likely to do so), they found their own social spaces within the tavern. Again, it is perhaps unhelpful to regard these behaviours as strictly “separate spheres,” but rather, as intertwining realms of sociability, and overlapping public performances.

-Katie

PS. Don’t forget, our “Say Cheese! And Cheers!” nights are approaching! Book early to avoid disappointment!

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