If you think Philadelphia has too many bars these days, consider yourself lucky you didn’t live here during the American Revolution.
The city’s 40,000 or so inhabitants in the late 1770s populated what amounted to Party Central — an 18th-century version of Spring Break and Animal House all rolled into one, only without the bikinis or the togas. In an era with little or no public regulation of drinking establishments, you literally couldn’t stumble a block without running into a public house. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of heavy drinkers in those days, too. Today, we might call them sots or lushes. Back then, the popular term was “tippler.”
One of the city’s nonprofit tourism agencies, Historic Philadelphia, is bringing the tippler lifestyle back into vogue, if only for a couple of hours each week, with its Tippler’s Tours series. The party starts at 5:30 each Thursday evening with a Revolutionary-era personality leading guests on a bar-hopping extravaganza in Old City, featuring snacks, libations and lively conversation at every turn.
“A tippler goes from one location to the next, and not necessarily to licensed establishments or licensed houses. He will go to houses that simply roll out a cask or a tun into the street and [he] is willing to pay for a drink. That pretty much describes a tippler — going for the least expensive and the most available,” explained William McIlhenny, who portrays Trooper Robert Hare on one series of tours and Samuel Nicholas, the first commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, on another.
Tours cost $40 per person in 21st-century currency. Seniors, military and students get a $5 discount. Starting Sept. 26 and continuing through Nov. 7, the tours will feature a Halloween theme, Ghosts & Toasts. And in November and December, the theme will be the British occupation of the city from 1777 to ’78, McIlhenny said.
The tours all take place within the city’s historic district. Guests walk from one station to the next.
“The tour moves quick. There are four stops, so we spend a good 20 minutes per stop. There are 43 historical sites in the city within a mile, five or six blocks,” McIlhenny said.
Sadly, there are few, if any, vintage pubs in the district.
“Unfortunately, the city does not have the extensive amount of taverns it did in the 18th century,” McIlhenny said.
The historic City Tavern at 138 S. Second St. is a reconstructed version of the original. It was erected by the National Park Service in 1975 using the 1773 blueprints. Other venues, like National Mechanics at 22 S. Third St., are very old buildings with a variety of previous uses. That’s where McIlhenny, a professional actor, brings the hidden history alive.
“Some of the other places we go are much more modern. At those points in the tour, I like to talk to guests about other types of buildings. There were a lot of hotels in Philadelphia [in the 1770s] and there were 17 different languages spoken. It sort of brings out the differences that Philadelphia has,” McIlhenny said.
Hare’s character has plenty of substance. Born in England in 1752, the son of well-to-do English and Scottish parents, Hare arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 and resided here until his 1811 death. He soon joined the Philadelphia Light Horse, one of the first militias formed during the Revolution, earning his “trooper” designation. Also known as the First City Troop, it’s still a unit in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and is the nation’s oldest active military unit.
Hare ultimately married into an affluent family, became a member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention and was elected to both houses of the state legislature. He served as president of the Pennsylvania Senate and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.
He was largely admired for his brewing, too. Like his father did in London, Hare specialized in the relatively new “porter” style of beer.
“He owned what was considered to be a malt house and used all goods and services from local farmers,” McIlhenny said. “He introduced the American porter to the city of Philadelphia.”
In later years, even George Washington noted Hare’s porter as the “unacclaimed drink of the White House.”
It’s those kinds of details that make the two-hour Tippler’s Tour special to history buffs and to curious beer lovers, alike.
“It’s a solid two hours of history and what we like to call libations along the way,” McIlhenny said. “The tour is scripted to a certain point, but the persona of my character comes out when the [guest] questions arise. The older [people] are, they seem to be more interested in learning history and the younger ones seem to be more interested in making history.”
For information about Tippler’s Tours and other Historic Philadelphia Inc. events, visit historicphiladelphia.org ••