The lives of women

The beginning of summer and the influx of tourists to the city of Boston has me thinking about a fun activity I did last year: a historic tavern tour. This was an entertaining group outing where we went on a historical tour of the city, all the while stopping at historic bars and having a beer or two at each. I enjoyed this experience as it combined two of my favorite things, history and beer.

Shortly after the tour I came across a book in our library called, Old Boston Taverns and Tavern Clubs, by Samuel Adams Drake. When I began to look through it I noticed that it contained references to one of my favorite parts of the history and beer tour, old tavern signs. As it turns out tavern signs were quite literal in Colonial Boston. One factor was that many people were illiterate. However, based on these easy-to-read tavern signs, people could easily find the nearest watering hole for a drink.

The tour and the book on old taverns got me thinking about this topic from an angle that I often gravitate to when doing my own research. I ask myself, What about women? Were they involved? If so, how?

I enjoy researching the social and cultural history of women in Colonial New England.  I have researched the roles of women in Puritan society and the changes that the American Revolution spurred for Massachusetts women both individually and within society at large. Hence, digging a little bit into colonial women and tavern-keeping, or “drink selling,” was right up my alley.

What about women? Were they involved? If so, how?

I spent some time browsing through the NEHGS library stacks for books that might contain information about women and their role in taverns. One book in particular that I found was In Public Houses: Drink & The Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts by David W. Conroy.

Conroy found that women got in on the tavern business as well.  Sometimes they would help their families or husbands run the tavern, while other women ran them on their own. This kind of enterprise was generally frowned upon for women to be involved in, as it was in the public sphere, a traditionally male arena, but the one factor that allowed this was when a woman was a widow. Widows often had no other choice but to work to support themselves and their families, and selling drink was one such avenue. (Of course, working as tavern-keepers was not all that out of the realm of “women’s work”; after all, they were the ones responsible for cooking, cleaning, and domestic manufacture.)

Widows who operated taverns did not do so without challenges. They often had trouble getting a license to operate. If a widow remarried, she would often be unable to have her own license and would need to get her husband to apply for the license in his own name. According to Conroy, “in 1707, women operated twenty-six of the sixty-three legal houses” in Boston.[1] By 1768, “11 of 25 new retailers were women. However, after the Revolution these women began to be pushed out of this enterprise with virtually no women operating their own taverns.“ By 1796, only 9 of 128 retailers in Boston were women.[2]

Conroy’s use of inventories is impressive.

What I found particularly interesting about these accounts of women in the business of “drink selling” were the sources that were used to gather information. Since working at NEHGS I have a new appreciation for how historical documents can be used and how we can tease out bits of information from them. Conroy’s use of inventories is impressive.

It is truly amazing what you can decipher from these sometimes overlooked sources. Inventories can actually be a wealth of information on ancestors including occupation, daily work, and social status. They also provide useful information on women’s activities during the colonial period. For example, Conway uses inventories to learn how well each tavern was stocked, how well it was lit based on the number of candles listed, and how many patrons it might have served based on the number of glasses used, etc.

All in all, inventories are an excellent source that can be used to discover more personal or detailed information about our ancestors that cannot be found in official documents. While inventories do not contain the standard information we seek as family history researchers, they are an important source to keep in mind during your research.


Samuel Adams Drake, Old Boston Taverns and Tavern Clubs (Boston: W.A. Butterfield, 1917).

David W. Conroy,  In Public Houses: Drink & The Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Goodwives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650–1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).


[1] David W. Conroy, In Public Houses: Drink & The Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 71.

[2] Ibid., 318.

About Michelle Norris

Michelle holds a master’s degree in history from Salem State University, where she specialized in women in colonial New England. She completed her bachelor’s degree with concentrations in history and gender studies from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Michelle has a background in public history and has worked with the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, the Beverly Historical Society, and the Sargent House in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her research interests include women’s history, society and culture, early America, and the American Revolution.

9 thoughts on “The lives of women

  1. I love inventories too, as they are such a glimpse into daily life. The accounts submitted by guardians, the executors, etc. also tell much about the small details of life for the deceased and family members. I am a happy historian with wills becoming more available online.

    Interesting post- thank you!

  2. My ancestor Dionis Stevens Coffin 1610-1676 was one of the early women to run a tavern in Massachusetts, although, as you said, it was her husband who received the license. She even had to go to court to defend her selling practices.

    “Dionis’s business career probably began with an education in England that included rudimentary arithmetic (enough to keep account books) and domestic arts such as beer-making. Dark beer or ale was “the common table beverage” in the diet of mid-seventeenth century Massachusetts men and women.

    In 1644 (renewed 1647) Tristram Coffin received a license from the Essex County Court to run a ferry and an “ordinary” – or tavern- to sell wine on the Newbury side of Carr’s Island on the Merrimack River. The older Coffin sons ran the ferry while Dionis presumably operated the “ordinary.”

    In 1653 Goodwife Coffin was called to court and accused of selling beer at 3 pence per quart without the requisite amount of malt; she proved by evidence of witnesses that she used even more than the required amount of malt, and the case was dropped. This kind of over-regulation by the Massachusetts Bay Colony may have contributed to the Coffin family moving to Nantucket in 1661.”

    Not too surprisingly she passed on her good business sense to her daughter, Mary Coffin Starbuck, who became known as the “Great Mary” of Nantucket.

    New England Ancestors Fall 2008 p. 21-24

    Bonnie Ladd Hamilton

    1. Thank you for this information. Tristram & Dionis Coffin are my ancestors, too. I haven’t gotten around to doing this kind of in depth research on them yet. This gives me a good starting point.

  3. Was it mentioned at all about the Post Office or Stage Stop (any comminication center perhaps before the US Post Office was established) being at the Public House?

  4. A common ancestor of almost everyone with Nantucket roots—as well as other spots in New England, since not all of her children settled on the island—is Dionis (Stevens) Coffin. In 1648 she and her husband Tristram Coffin moved to Newbury, Massachusetts. Here her husband operated a ferry across the Merrimack River and the two of them ran a tavern. In 1653 she was “presented” for selling beer above the legal price of two pennies per quart. However, she was acquitted when it was found that her beer was much stronger than the ordinary. Within a decade, the Coffins had moved to Nantucket, and some think that the overly-intrusive government regulation of the tavern played a part in their migration to a remote outpost.

  5. While researching a branch of our family during the early 1700’s I came across connections to the Bunch of Grapes Tavern on State Street. It was run by the couple, Mr and Mistress Holmes, with connections to Nantucket and the Coffin family, interestingly. The one fact that stands out is that Mr Francis Holmes, after twenty years uneventfully drawing beer, died an untimely death by drowning in a large keg in the back room of his tavern. His wife Rebecca Wharfe, continued to run the tavern for many years after his death. Their daughter Anne married William Coffin and they were the tavern keepers until the year 1731. This was a tavern where many men met who were influential in Boston’s cultural and political life. The first Masonic lodge was started there. Later Paul Revere, also a Mason, frequented this watering hole with other activist and patriotic gentlemen.

  6. Thank you for this Vita Brevis blog, Michelle. Beer and history are two of my passions also. The Partnership of Historic Bostons ( had Food and Drink in 17th-century Massachusetts in our 2015’s Charter Day commemorations, and we touched too briefly on the role of women. There is never enough time! Thank you for the Conroy and Drake references and thank you to the commenters.

  7. You mention that many people were illiterate. I thought New Englanders had a relatively high literacy rate, as Puritans placed a high value on being able to read the Bible.

    1. I think the key word in what you say is “relatively”. Puritans were among the first settlers, but those who followed were from many backgrounds, many of them recruited as labor. Many were not educated, or had only rudimentary skills. Interestingly, some people could read to a degree, but not write, and vice versa. Boston itself was essentially a market and trading town with a livelier non-church social life than many settlements. The diversity of the population increased with the passage of time, and Puritans were likely in the minority not long after the Great Migration began, which also brought in people of different religions, or of no religion (far more commmon in early New England than many realize).

      In addition, the Puritans, wherever they were located, were picky about who they allowed to join their church, and to participate in decision-making. While women were baptized into the church, only “freemen”, usually restricted to land-owners, could participate in decision-making. Church and community were conjoined, and so the decisions were made by a board of “selectmen”, elected by the freemen of the church. Disagreements about this process were one reason new communities quickly spawned from the original settlements.

      Women in general were not educated beyond the needs of “women’s work”, though some became quite skilled, especially if they were business women, or assisted in their family business. Wealthy women with indulgent fathers may have enjoyed a more thorough education. One exception to this general rule were Quakers, who believed that men and women were equal and should be educated accordingly. One of the clues I had that several branches of my early ancestors were Quaker was the fact that the women were literate and handled their own legal affairs, something that was not normally seen.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.