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Old Town Alexandria VA

Situated on North Royal Street near the corner of Cameron Street stands the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, two red brick buildings dating to the late 18th century that housed a tavern (1785) and the City Hotel (1792) that sheltered and fed pivotal people such as George Washington, John Adams, Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Madison, and many local politicians and businessmen from the area.

Walking around outside, one views a nearby farmer’s market that operates on Saturday mornings, City Hall, and a row of yellow apartment homes that are similarly old as the surroundings. Approaching the museum, it is almost easy to walk by and mis a small plaque and steps reaching below the building, but luckily I saw others walking down and figured out there was something there. Underneath the museum, one can walk down steps and view where ice was stored, harvested from the nearby Potomac River.

Entering the museum, a docent ushers one into the little gift shop to the right of the door. Currently, with coronavirus, masks are mandatory and plexiglass separates one from the workers, but I found that the separation mattered little as we were welcomed inside and given a rundown before allowed to explore the inn.

John Gadsby owned the tavern and hotel for twelve years, and the museum is named for him. An immigrant from England, Gadsby leased the building and prospered as the owned of the elegant tavern that had good food and amenities such as laundry, work done by enslaved women. Using the word “hotel,” Gadsby further elevated his reputation. His tavern and hotel housed very important social and political events, with important celebrities and politicians as patrons. He sold in 1808 to John Wise, and the tavern struggled to maintain its reputation and prosperity as Alexandria changed and grew, with other hotels available for those needing a place to stay. The Ballroom and Assembly Room did attract events until the 1850s, but the decline and the Civil War ended the business, and the tavern was used as a Union headquarters.

The first thing I noticed, and one of the curiosities I held as I walked in, was the immediate discussion of the intersection of class, race, and gender, and how these boundaries were at play in the dining room, the hotel, and the workspaces present. The first text panel discussed the public dining room, a photo of the recreation below, discussed the importance of the tavern as a public venue for white men to discuss politics and business, both locally, nationally, and even internationally. On the same panel, enslaved men and women are mentioned as the workers that allowed the tavern to run and be used by these elite white men. Broader even, the panel mentions indigenous people, enslaved men and women, free people of African descent, and European workers who worked and lived all over town, creating a multicultural city.

The tavern workers, primarily enslaved men and women, are given equal representation in the text panels throughout the exhibit, with discussions of the importance of their unfree labor in allowing the tavern to flourish, as well as expressing the inhumane and violent treatments perpetuated to these enslaved people.

A discussion of urban slavery is centered in the text panels, once again centering the experiences of the enslaved people in the tavern. Urban slavery had differences to plantation and rural slavery, and one such difference was the close quarters that these enslaved people worked under, not only near the tavern-keepers but the white people who stayed in the hotel.

Furthermore, the names of known enslaved people are included in the exhibit, featured in large text at the bottom of a panel.

The sleeping rooms at the City Hotel had regulated costs at 20 cents per night, cheaper than a meal in the tavern, which costs 50 cents. Though men of all classes could rent a room at the hotel, women usually did not stay in such a public space, opting for boarding houses or private homes of companions. Beds did not cost extra but were instead for those who came first. Only white people were allowed to stay in the tavern unless it was an enslaved person traveling with a white person, but some enslaved people may have stayed in the outbuildings where the enslaved people who lived at the tavern stayed, but it is not known for sure.

Though my interests meant I focused on the race and labor history focused throughout the exhibit, the museum did not shirk the political importance of the tavern by any means. Similar to the public dining room, where political discussions occurred and business relationships were cultivated by patrons.

Other important features of the tavern included the Assembly Room, allowing the space to function as an entertainment venue, and cementing its use for the public, expanding beyond the political and economic use for wealthy men in the area. Lots of people, young and old, attended dances, saw traveling performers, attended lectures, and concerts here. Wealthy patrons could rent the Private Dining Room for functions, further differentiated class differences, and utilizing the work of enslaved people, who paid extra attention to the silver, the dishes, and overall service for those paying for the rooms. George Washington dined here more than once and even attended the Birthnight Ball held for him twice in the Ballroom.

The importance of the tavern and hotel as a public venue for political discussion, business interactions, and entertainment for those in Alexandria highlights the importance of the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially as the early republic took form and faced massive changes. I also appreciated the centering of the experience and the labor of the enslaved people who worked there, and whose unfree labor allowed white men to congregate and enjoy the public and private venue, and the unfree labor of others.

Click here for more information about Gadsby’s Tavern Museum from the City of Alexandria. Click here to tour Gadsby’s Tavern Museum online.

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