Ornamental Separator

For Your Amusement

An online tour illustrates that taverns provided more than just food, drink and lodging

Henry Wetherburn’s punch must have left quite the impression.

In 1736, Peter Jefferson exchanged “Henry Weatherburn’s biggest Bowl of Arrack punch” for 200 acres of William Randolph’s land. The purchase allowed Jefferson to expand Shadwell, his plantation outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, where his son Thomas was born.

But Wetherburn wasn’t known only for his punch. An installation in Wetherburn’s Tavern spotlights the variety of amusements that likely impressed the Williamsburg’s tavern guests. And while the precautions for COVID-19 preclude physical tours of the tavern, you can still experience the tour virtually. Check out a guided tour of Wetherburn’s Tavern in the video below.

This tour is one of a growing number of such online offerings in which visitors can see Historic Area buildings and hear the stories they have to tell.

“This installation is about how taverns provided entertainment for everyday people and travelers in the mid-18th century,” said Amanda Keller, Colonial Williamsburg’s associate curator of historic interiors and household accessories. “Taverns were centers for culture and community. They’re where people came to gamble, drink, eat, learn, talk, sleep. They’re where people came to have fun.”

The exhibition actually draws from Williamsburg’s many taverns for a broad examination of entertainment in such establishments. Original objects as well as reproductions placed throughout the building show the breadth of experiences offered in 18th-century taverns.

Keller spent about nine months researching the story the installation would tell, working with colleagues from across the Foundation to properly furnish the rooms.

“I think what I love most about doing these installations is that we have the opportunity to not only change the focus of the story we are telling and give our guests a reason to keep coming back to see new things, but we are able to pull objects out of storage that may not have been on view in quite some time,” Keller said. “It makes the rooms come to life.”

Evening with the Stars

The Great Room at Wetherburn’s — one of the Historic Area’s original buildings — was often rented out or used to host ticketed events in its heyday. For this exhibition, the large room is set up for an astronomy lecture. Chairs face the scientific equipment and documents that have been staged as if awaiting the start of the lecture.

Popular interest in science grew during the Enlightenment, and lectures in the colonies attracted interest from varying social classes. The Virginia Gazette published articles about celestial events such as the 1758 return of Halley’s comet and the 1769 transit of Venus.

Elite groups including the Virginia Society for the Advancement of Useful Knowledge, which formed in Williamsburg in 1773, promoted “the study of nature...by collecting, preserving, and reasoning from Discoveries and Experiments.”

The installation’s equipment includes an antique reflective telescope, made in London around 1770, that is particularly efficient for astronomy work. Its primary parabolic mirror, at the eyepiece end, first reflects the light to a smaller hyperboloid mirror, where the light is then reflected back through a hole pierced in the center of the primary mirror and to the eyepiece.

The equipment on display for the lecture includes a portable orrery — a mechanical model of the solar system — and a terrestrial globe, both antiques. Though some of the period objects date to after Wetherburn’s death in 1760, they are of the general type that would have been in use during his lifetime.

Up the Ante

Location did not matter much when it came to gambling in the 18th century, but a tavern provided a bevy of opportunities to wager on anything from games of chance to sporting events.

Though the Bull’s Head Room shows a typical tavern dining experience, including a faux calf’s head on display as a main course, a small table in the back of the room offers a glimpse into the side bets often made within the tavern’s walls.

On the table are bottles of wine and wine glasses surrounded by prints that depict horse races, printed race results, a deck of cards, coins and an antique case of cockspurs. The mahogany case, made in England around 1770, is covered with shagreen, a decorative sharkskin material, and lined with silk satin. It contains 12 silver cockspurs, which are blades that were tied to roosters’ talons for cockfighting. Shields Tavern is known to have hosted cockfights in its yard.

In the Middle Room, gaming tables, cards, dice, wine bottles, beer mugs, pipes, money and a checkerboard depict a scene of potential debauchery. Amid all the items is an antique puzzle jug, which had participants guessing from which spout the alcohol would flow. The jug on display, made in England around 1755, bears a verse seen on several similar period jugs:

Fill me with Ale Wine or Water
Any of the three it makes no matter
And drink me dry if You be willing
In doing so You’l win a Shilling

Artist in Residence

A reproduction easel along with painting supplies stands in the middle bedchamber among the beds and trunks that fill the lodging rooms upstairs.

A Virginia Gazette advertisement in March 1773 invites people to see “a small but very neat Collection of PAINTINGS” from traveling artist Matthew Pratt at “Mrs. VOBE’s” tavern, also known as the Sign of the King’s Arms.

Artists would often travel from town to town in search of lucrative portrait work, which typically took place at the homes of the subjects. While in town, some artists, such as Pratt, would also set up in taverns to show and sell copies of original masterworks, which were rare and expensive in America.

Pratt’s copy of Guido Reni’s Jupiter and Europa never sold during his Williamsburg stay, nor did it sell during his lifetime, but it survives. It is currently on display in the exhibition “Every Article...suitable for this Country”: Furnishing Early Williamsburg in the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

The exhibition of tavern amusements will remain in place at Wetherburn’s Tavern after the Historic Area is able to safely welcome guests to visit the building in person.

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