Genealogy by the Glass: An Introduction

HomeBlogsRoots Branches Genealogy HspGenealogy by the Glass: An Introduction

Genealogy by the Glass: An Introduction

2016-09-23 15:56

Inspired by the 2016 launch of HSP’s Tavern and Liquor License Records database, Roots & Branches latest blog series, Genealogy by the Glass, explores stories of alcohol production and consumption from Philadelphia’s 300-plus-year history, highlighting lesser-known collections for genealogists researching tipplers, tavern owners, brewers, distillers, and winemakers in their family histories. 

Pennsylvania’s liquor laws buzzed the national media – and left many locals hung over – when several state-wide alcohol restrictions were relaxed during Philadelphia’s hosting of the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

House Bill 1196, classified as a “national event permit,” allowed many Philadelphia-based establishments to serve booze beyond 2:00 a.m. and sell “donated” products (i.e. beer, wine, and liquor not purchased through Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board). The 60,000 delegates, journalists, and visitors descending upon the city from July 25 – 28 were able to enjoy their libations in ways Philadelphians – now that the Democratic Party shindig has skipped town – otherwise cannot.

The month before the convention – perhaps with an eye on the upcoming national attention – the state legislature in Harrisburg served up the most comprehensive alcohol reform in eight decades.

In many ways, the official enactment in August of Act 39, as the new statutes are collectively known, represented the most significant step in a nearly century-long slog to loosen up the state’s Prohibition-era booze laws. The Act’s touting as the most comprehensive reform since 1933 is legislatively literal: Many laws modified had been on the books since Herbert Hoover sat in the Oval Office.

These reforms read like a list of commercial practices many consumers have come to expect from business in other industries over the past 80 years, which underlines the lack of change to Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws. 

Pennsylvania’s state liquor stores, breweries, wineries, and distilleries can now operate like their dry commercial counterparts: offer coupons and loyalty programs, create “mug clubs,” hawk their liquor wares at farmers markets and food fairs, and sell one another’s products.

For customers, perhaps the biggest change was the ability to order wine online – which might explain state stores’ increased incentivizing powers.

These alcohol restrictions may seem to clash with what is otherwise a proud and storied tradition of brewing, distilling, and tavern-going in Philadelphia, a practice stretching from the Commonwealth’s colonial origin, through the American and Industrial Revolutions, to today’s micro-brew mania.

William Penn – like many of his contemporaries, an avid beer drinker – had a brewhouse constructed at his Pennsbury estate in Bucks County. “Our Beer was mostly made of Molasses, which well boyld, with Sassafras or Pine infused into it, makes very tolerable drink,” he wrote in 1685.

This 300-plus-year tradition of alcohol consumption and production, however, is matched chronologically by legislative attempts to restrict it. The Frame of Government – a constitution for the original province of Pennsylvania adopted one year after Penn arrived aboard the Welcome – prescribed the official licensing of taverns, taxation of beer, and other alcohol-related regulations.

While Pennsylvania’s booze restrictions may be peculiar, they are not unique. As Erik Shilling contends, elsewhere “America's liquor laws don't get much more rational.”

Utah imbibers aren’t allowed to be privy to their cocktail’s mixing, while much of Kentucky’s bourbon is distilled in dry counties where alcohol sales are illegal. In a censorious slight to sommeliers, Alabama’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board prohibits wine labels with "a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner.”

This diversity of legislation and sentiment across the U.S. reflects, in part, the country’s tenuous relationship with the stuff – legally and socially.

Consider this: During the 2016 election, voters in Colorado, Arkansas, and Mississippi – and perhaps New Jersey, if a current push is successful – will be able to cast their ballot for Jim Hedges, the Prohibition Party’s candidate. The Prohibition Party has been on every presidential ballot since Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley went head-to-head in 1872 (along with James Black, as the teetotalers would have reminded you). Founded in 1869, it is the oldest third party in the U.S.

More than three centuries of booze laws in Philadelphia have had, however, some (unintended) positive effects. The current restrictions limiting beer-to-go sales to a case, or 24-pack, for all but a select few bottle shops, have been a boon to drinkers of eclectic brews.

“The paradoxical benefit of this law is that with lawmakers forcing beer to be purchased in such mass quantities, most breweries see great benefit in distributing to Pennsylvania, allowing its citizens to incidentally have access to an insane variety of brews,” observed essayist Aaron Goldfarb.

Perhaps the most surprising beneficiaries of this strict regulation of alcohol are genealogists and family historians. The 2016 launch of the HSP Encounters database Tavern and Liquor License Records (1746-1863) demonstrates the genealogical value contained in an unexpected record source: the petitions to own and operate a tavern, or public house.

The database contains more than 5,000 records of individuals who sought or had permission to retail spirits, spanning more than a century from before the Revolution to the middle of the Civil War. Almost all of these records concern individuals from Philadelphia, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Montgomery, Northampton and Cumberland counties. A handful of petitions are by persons seeking permission to operate a tavern in New Hampshire or New Jersey.

Laws throughout the colonial, Revolutionary, and Antebellum periods required a person seeking to operate a tavern in Philadelphia to petition each year for an annual license. Due to the nature of these petitions and the information asked of applicants, the documents are for genealogists a treasure trove of data not commonly reflected in other record sources.

To be approved, the petitioner had to convince officials that they met the legal criterion for a licensed tavern or inn, requirements which changed throughout time. Justices of the Peace, county justices, the Supreme Executive Council and even the Pa. Governor have alternately been involved in either recommending or rejecting prospective proprietors’ applications.

In the colonial period, officials construed a tavern’s primary official function as serving the needs of travelers. As they were expected to provide temporary lodgings, petitioners had to own, or rent, a large property. Many petitions proclaim the planned tavern’s ideal location for those travelling through the city, paired with assertions that the space was “commodious” and accommodated temporary tenants and their horses. It was common for petitioners to request permission for their dwelling house to be used (or continued) as the tavern.

Petitioner Ulrick Allen claimed that his house “is conveniently Scituated in this City for keeping a publick house of Entertainment” as “Germans who live in the Country often come” to his house for “refreshments after their Journey.”

Perhaps the single most important criterion required the petitioner to be an individual of “good character” that would restrict “public drunkenness,” “riotous sports and games,” and other booze-fueled tomfoolery. The signatures of several other individuals often attested to the petitioner’s character.

Some petitioners beseeched officials to award them a license because he or she was an honorable person who had fallen on hard times due to a physical disability or other misfortune. In 1800, Samuel Walton appealed to the Philadelphia Mayor’s court that he had lost his sight eight years ago and is “incapable of making his usual exertions to maintain a large family.” Sixteen persons signed his petition in support.

Petitioner Ann Walton of Philadelphia appealed to the justice that she was a widow “lately Afflicted with Sickness & thereby disabled to get her Livelyhood.” Walton “humbly Craves” that the justices “take her Circumstances into Consideration.” Tavern keeping –along with shop keeping – was one of the few public occupations open to widows in early Pennsylvania (Married women often assisted their husbands in running a tavern, but they were not the ones who received the license).

Many petitions were rejected, despite the revenue windfall represented by the fees collected on approved applications. Then, as now, officials were responsible for determining an appropriate number of taverns in each neighborhood (which begs the question: how does one arrive at an “appropriate” number?).

The Tavern and Liquor License Records (1746-1863) database is fully searchable by name, a boon to genealogists beginning their research armed only with an ancestor’s name. This database – and seven others currently contained in HSP Encounters – is available for research in HSP’s Reading Room. Remote access to HSP Encounters is a benefit of both membership and digital subscription.

Stay tuned as we explore more boozy stories and their connections to family history in the next installment of Genealogy by the Glass. Upcoming posts will highlight the importance of taverns during the years running up to the Declaration of Independence, early technological innovations in beer production via the Morris and Perot family papers, the experiences of German American brewers during the backlash against German immigrants and culture during the First World War through the Bergdoll family papers, and more. Cheers! 


Submitted by pat valeski (not verified) on

In trying to find my Great Grandfathers family, I found in 1880 census that my Great Grandmother was a tavern keeper at 3940 Trenton ave   how can I find the name of the tavern   In 1890 census, she is a widow   cant find death record on him anywhere( did he really die?)  

Submitted by Vincent Fraley on

Hi Pat, thank you for your message. There are few options to explore in the effort to identify the name of your great grandmother's tavern. Please write to me at so that I can detail these further. Thanks again, Vincent

Add comment

Current state: Published

Rich-Text Editor

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
1 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.