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Licensed Ordinaries: Liquor Licensure Throughout American History

Glance through old gazetteers and you're likely to encounter place names like Nine Mile Ordinary, Virginia or Spencer's Ordinary. These ordinary places were not really so ordinary and, in fact, they required a license to be ordinary!


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Prior to the 17th century, communities across the New World, especially the United States, had an ordinary. Sometimes the ordinary became a place name, making it easy for travelers to find it. The traditional English definition of an ordinary is a tavern, but they differed greatly from the corner sports bar of today and included food, lodging, and liquor. Its twofold purpose was to make travelers comfortable with food, drink and lodging, and to encourage the sale of intoxicating liquors which the state then taxed.

Over the years, the ordinary has gone by many names besides that of a tavern and always required a license to operate. Sometimes, an ordinary is referred to as a "victuallyng house." Of course, the local residents frequented the ordinary, as well. The ordinary became the local watering-hole where neighbors chatted about news and traded their opinions.

The individual establishments were often named for their owners. The Journals of the House of Burgesses mentions the role rum played in swaying votes by a trip to James Johnson's Ordinary and Smith's Ordinary.

One of the earliest records of ordinaries dates back to 1644 when Connecticut communities were required to maintain at least one ordinary for "strangers." By 1656, Massachusetts began enacting laws making towns liable to fines if they did not maintain an ordinary.

Dancing, games, and singing were banned, although the rules eventually lightened up a little and those rowdy shuffle-board games were permitted. As recently as 1798, billiards were not permitted in ordinaries. Prior to 1700, New Netherland (New York) ordinaries had to cater to families, including children, and abide by a 9:00 p.m. lights out. It is probably mere coincidence that the requirement for each town to establish an ordinary followed an act encouraging the killing of wolves by offering rewards for the head, skin, and tongue!

Although states required ordinaries, they were keen on controlling who sold liquor and food. From early on, ordinaries owners were no ordinary people. In those early years, ordinaries were government-appointed business owners with perks. They were the only businesses allowed to earn money in the hospitality industry, but government needed them to succeed in order to generate taxable revenue. As incentive, government offered land to potential ordinary-keepers, or grazing rights for their cattle. Some were even exempt from paying school taxes.

Life as an ordinary was pretty extraordinary when it came to everyday business practices. There were limits to just how strong that strong drink could be. Even more frustrating, an ordinary-keeper was not allowed to brew his own beer.

By the same token, there were plenty of laws to abide by in exchange for the right to earn a living as an ordinary. An ordinary in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1681, could no longer practice law if he chose to become an ordinary. There was no allowance for disability in the state of Maryland. An ordinary-keeper who became disabled and was unable to conduct business had to forfeit and pay ten pounds a month until the situation was rectified.

Lest we imagine the rough-and-tumble barkeep, widows were likely to be granted an ordinary license. By the time Boston's population soared to 10,000 in 1714, twelve of the city's 34 ordinaries were women, as were nearly half of Boston's liquor retailers.

By 1816, the North Carolina oath clearly indicates that women were commonly ordinaries by attesting to "provide in his or her said ordinary good and wholesome diet and lodging for travelers, and stable, fodder, corn and pasturage for their horses."

In an effort to maintain clean living, ordinary licenses sometimes required that the ordinary be located near a church. While the church board would be unlikely to meet at the ordinary, there are records of ordinary-keepers serving the parish committee in the church.

Becoming a North Carolina ordinary was not inexpensive. The bond to acquire a license was one hundred pounds. But, at least the ordinary was smoke-free. Tobacco was considered far more dangerous than alcohol and was forbidden except in private rooms. In Maryland, bonds to be sworn in as an ordinary and fines related to ordinaries in 1699 were paid in tobacco.

It was a challenge from the beginning to require towns to serve liquor at the local ordinary without encouraging drunkenness. By 1645, patrons in some states were limited to 30 minutes at the bar, or risk being fined. In 1646, the drinking could continue for an entire hour in New Haven, Connecticut - and the ordinary was fined if the patron outstayed their limit. By 1655, Rhode Island recognized the need to reign in the ordinaries. The legislature passed a law limiting each town to only two licensed ordinary-keepers. They also restricted the sale of strong drink to Native Americans, limiting them to a quarter of a pint per day.

Anyone who did manage to get drunk was likely to find themselves in the stocks, followed by a sound whipping. North Carolina enacted specific rules on who could be served, regardless of behavior. Even the soberest servants and slaves could only enter an ordinary with their owner's permission. Sailors needed their superior's permission. New Jersey enacted a law in 1679 absolutely forbidding the sale of any liquor to Native Americans. The punishment was twenty lashes for the first offense, thirty lashes for a second offense, and imprisonment for as long as the governor chose for a third offense. If a Native American declined to name the ordinary who served him, he was jailed indefinitely.

As recently as 1801, the Virginia government was required, by law, to determine tavern rates twice a year. The ordinary-keeper did not determine rates. When the changes became law, the ordinary-keeper had one month after the change to post the new rates in a public area in the ordinary - but not more than six feet from the floor.

Ordinaries were often located near ferries, and some enterprising and privileged individuals maintained both. As recently as 1819, the Old Ferry Tavern at Newbury, Massachusetts, provided both services. North Carolina kept that trend in mind when it implemented its annual rate increase. In 1799, the North Carolina law specified that ordinary-keeper rates applied to the price of "liquors, diet, lodging, fodder, corn, provender and pasturage" and that justices were to raise ferry rates simultaneously.

The term "ordinary license" comes to the forefront of history a second time in the mid-1800s when prohibition and temperance movements were most active. Often during this movement, there were references to ordinary licenses. In 1858, Iowa established an ordinary license-system, referring to liquor licenses. At that point in history, the ordinary was a well-understood concept, having been around for nearly two centuries.

The more common remnants of the ordinary remain on maps. In spite of the name and the practice of ordinaries evolving, the names survived. During the Civil War there were battles at Burnt Ordinary, Nine Mile Ordinary, Burret Ordinary, and Twelve Mile Ordinary in Virginia. A gazetteer published in 1855, identifies Jennings' Ordinary as a post-office in Nottaway County, Virginia.

The ordinary survived from the 1678 when Maryland ordinaries submitted their license fees were submitted to Lord Baltimore until the late 1800s when the Department of Labor continued to recognize the ordinary. By the time the term "ordinary" fell out of use, the government was more concerned with limiting the number of taverns rather than requiring communities to have an ordinary. Controlling the liquor trade was more of an issue than encouraging it, regardless of how much tax revenue it generated.


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Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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