The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Sarah Checkley’s Spirituous Liquor License, 18 July 1764

It is the season of graduations, celebrations, and toasts. My personal social network bubbled this past weekend with images of familial celebrations, beach weekends, and - of course - spirituous liquors. Many a photo popped up of friends in drinking establishments, and I became curious about the history of taverns as a result. I browsed our online catalog ABIGAIL and discovered a liquor license issued to Sarah Checkley of Boston on 18 July 1764. Naturally it piqued my interest for several reasons. The license states:

We the Subscribers Selectmen of the Town of Boston do approve of Mrs. Sarah Checkley’s being a Retailer of Spirituous Liquor, at the House where into she has lately removed and now dwells, in Hanover Street near the Mill Bridge Boston, and recommend her a Person of sober Life and Conversation, and suitably qualified and provided for the Exercise of such an Employment she having for many years past been a Retailer in this Town and behaved to good acceptance.

This document is peculiar for what it is not. The license is not the oldest item pertaining to liquor petitions in the Society’s collections. The honor of oldest liquor petition goes to Samuel Walton of Woburn, Mass. who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court on 30 March 1665 to sell "strong waters.” How strong, the document does not specify. Checkley’s 1764 petition is not even the only liquor license in the MHS collections granted to a woman! A quick glance among retailer’s licenses, tavern licenses, and innkeeper’s licenses shows the custom to issue such documents to women not unusual for the late 18th century.

The Suffolk County Court and Boston Selectmen approved retailer and liquor petitions from widow Elizabeth Pittson on 7 June 1767, widow Rachel Masters on 21 July 1767, and widow Mary Rose on 8 July 1773. The court also approved a petition from Mary Vinal to sell liquor on 30 July 1771. The petition did not designate Mary Vinal a widow unlike the aforementioned ladies. Her father suffered from palsy and could not provide for his family. Thus, Mary Vinal required a means to make an income as did the widows. In their petitions to the selectmen, the women granted these licenses all clearly stated a similar problem in their personal situations: a lack of income from male earners. Sarah Checkley’s petition lacks detailed information about her familial or marital status. This lack of information does not imply that she was not a widow or did not care for aging or sick male members of her family, but the petition is more interesting to me without these details. This absence lets me rosily imagine Sarah Checkley as a robust purveyor of spirituous liquors of her own accord.

For those of us celebrating graduations, petitioning for prospective employment, or just enjoying summer fun, we all know the important role income plays in our lives. May your summer be fruitful in your endeavors, but spirituous in fun! And remember to tip your bartenders.



permalink | Published: Friday, 13 June, 2014, 8:00 AM