It’s winters like this that puts bar-hopping to the test.
Slick sidewalks, bone-chilling winds, 150 channels on the satellite, plus pay-per-view – the temptation is to hunker down and wait till the city melts. You know, that whole cocooning thing.
A new book I’ve been reading, though, has reaffirmed my belief that every citizen – fierce weather be damned – has the obligation, the civic duty to belly up to his or her neighborhood pub. The tome is “Rum Punch & Revolution,” by Peter Thompson (University of Pennsylvania Press). Actually, it’s not all that new; it was published in ’99 and flew under my radar until now.
It opens with an observation from Benjamin Franklin that I think Scoats, the beerman at the Grey Lodge Pub (6235 Frankford Ave., Frankford), should add to his quote-covered tiled bathroom walls. Franklin – the Joe Sixpack of colonial Philadelphia – said there can be no “good living where there is not good drinking. ”
By “good drinking,” I suspect, he meant both the noun and the verb.
The former – whether it’s pre-Revolutionary cider or postmodern microbrew – is a no-brainer. Name one successful culture that didn’t produce decent liquor.
It’s the latter – the actual consumption – that challenges us today.
Two-hundred fifty years ago, Thompson writes, the founding of our nation probably would not have played out the way it did without taverns – and, specifically, Philadelphia taverns. The city was America’s most populous, and though it was designed by Penn to preserve the Quaker character of privacy, its densely packed streets brought together an “uncommon heterogeneity” of cultural and religious values.
Taverns were a place to share those ideas.
According to Thompson, within a year of the first Quaker settlement in 1680s, Hannah Gooding and Benjamin Chambers were running taverns in caves along the Delaware waterfront. (In a development that foretold the heavy-handedness of the Liquor Control Board, both joints were busted for disorderly conduct. ) By the 18th century, Philadelphia had more taverns per capita than Paris.
Most were tiny – the front room of a boarding house or private home, a far cry from Dave & Buster’s. Customers sat around a common table, they may have even shared punch from a communal bowl. Judicial price caps meant everyone, regardless of class, could afford a sip.
In this tight, intoxicating atmosphere, the free marketplace of ideas was a loud, no-holds barred exchange. Laborers drank with merchants; Tories rubbed elbows with Whigs. And the conversation was spiked by visitors from Boston and London.
Today, the taverns are only names, of course – the George on Arch Street, the Blue Anchor on Dock Street, the Old Plough at 2nd and Pine. But in Thompson’s portrait, all this drinking and socializing is the birthplace of our young nation’s belief that “all men are created equal. ”
He points to the sign at the Four Alls on 6th Street as a reflection of this tone inside taverns across town. It depicted four characters: a king, with the motto “I govern all”; a general, “I fight for all”; a minister, “I pray for all”; a laborer, “I pay for all. ”
“Men entered William Moore’s beerhouse or John Biddle’s Indian King as merchants, craftsmen or servants, and they left, slightly drunker, possessed of the same station in life,” Thompson writes. “But while actually in tavern company, men drank and conversed in ways that presumed, or attempted to create, a notional and temporary equality. Heavy drinking, toasting and singing reduced – or elevated – rich and poor participants to a common moral plane. ”
This was the true Spirit of ’76.
And the Spirit of ’01?
Well, the communal punch bowl is gone, and more often we turn to other sources – the office water cooler or the anonymity of the Internet – to share ideas. Meanwhile, few taverns today actually draw a clientele that is so varied as the Four Alls. Rich and poor, brown and white, young and old – we rarely rub elbows anymore.
But on a good night, when the Stones are on the jukebox and the bartender is trading lies with the reg’lars, I still feel the spirit.
Yo publican, another tankard of ale.
Though the word “drunk,” according to my Webster’s, didn’t hit the vernacular till 1779, author Peter Thompson says colonial Philadelphians had some 150 synonyms for inebriation. The vocabulary, he says, is an indication that “attitudes toward drunkenness were indulgent. ”
Among the phrases early residents of our Greene Country Towne were heard to use: Top’d, Tann’d, Tipium grove, Buskey, Bowz’d, Burdock’d.
No word when Schlitz-faced debuted.
None of the taverns in Thompson’s book are with us today, thanks to urban renewal and poor enforcement of building and preservation codes. But there are a few places around where you can feel the history.
City Tavern (2nd and Walnut streets, Old City) is the most historic, though it’s a relatively recent re-creation of the Revolutionary-era pub. The original, built in 1773, was financed with subscriptions from about 50 wealthy citizens who put up 25 pounds each. The Tavern serves a pair of beers, brewed by Yards, based on recipes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The ales will be featured next Friday at an all-you-can-eat/drink German buffet. Tickets are $35; call ahead at 215-413-1443. The buffet opens at 7 p.m., and the Tavern has hotel arrangements starting at $85 for woozy guests.
Standard Tap (2nd and Poplar streets, Northern Liberties) is barely a year old, but it’s believed to be in the same building as the 18th-century Bull’s Head Tavern. Thompson writes that the Bull’s Head was known for freak entertainment, including one show in which the owner invited drinkers to view a “wonderful” female child with “two heads, four arms, four legs, etc.”
McGillin’s Old Ale House (1310 Drury St., Center City) is the city’s oldest continuously operated tavern. It opened in 1860, and was once known as a watering hole for theater people. Will Rogers, John Barrymore and Tennessee Williams drained a few glasses here.
The Khyber (54 S. 2nd St., Old City) opened in the 1870s, and looks it. The tavern will feature cask-conditioned Perkuno’s Hammer from Heavyweight Brewing next Friday, from 5-8 p.m.
Creative geniuses should head over to London (2301 Fairmount Ave., Fairmount) to test their wit – and tastebuds – on the new house beer. The tavern is holding a Name That Ale contest, and the lucky drinker who submits the winning name gets free bar food for a month.
Send your suggestions via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or fax it to 215-978-4915. The top 10 picks will be announced at the bar on Thursday, and the crowd will vote on its favorite.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with Schmaltz’s Alt.