Historic Sites

A Man Full of Trouble: Philadelphia’s Last Surviving Colonial Tavern

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Philadelphia was unquestionably a city of taverns. They were a one stop source of food, entertainment, and cheap drinks. Furthermore, they were the largest and most abundant (about one for every 25 men) public buildings available for community interaction. As a result, taverns, or “public houses,” became the center of social, business, and political activity in the city.

The colonial elite were inclined to patronize more fashionable “upscale” establishments. Perhaps most recognized of such venues in pre-revolutionary times was the City Tavern, whose patrons included Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and George Washington, amongst others. In fact, it is well known that this famous pub is where members of the First Continental Congress met unofficially in 1774 and where the country’s early leaders met to celebrate the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Although the original structure was damaged in a fire and subsequently demolished in 1856, a replica was built at 2nd and Walnut Streets in 1976, and is open for business today.

There were, however, other less exclusive public houses that appealed to the humbler and perhaps less refined factions of society, including laborers, sailors, and other waterfront workers. One such establishment – A Man Full of Trouble Tavern is today the only surviving pre-revolutionary tavern in Philadelphia. Man Full still stands at its original building site at 127-129 Spruce Street in Philadelphia”s historic Old City.

Built in 1760 along the banks of Dock Creek, by Michael Sisk, the structure was first put into commercial service sometime in the decade following its manufacture, by its first unlicensed tavern keeper Joseph Beeks. Throughout its history, ownership of the tavern changed hands many times. Beeks’ successor, James Alexander obtained a license in 1773 and ran the pub through 1789 when Thomas Wilkins took it over for a short time. Perhaps the most noteworthy owner, widow Martha Smallwood acquired the property in 1796 and ran it for the next thirty years. Historical and archaeological data hint that Smallwood may have succeeded in bringing a small amount of gentility to a previously oafish establishment. Subsequent to widow Smallwood’s death in 1826, the establishment morphed into Stafford’s Tavern, Cove Cornice House, Naylor’s Hotel – a mid-nineteenth century hotel famous for its oysters – and, in the mid-twentieth century, a wholesale chicken market.

The building was finally, in the 1960s, restored and opened for historic tours by Councilwoman Virginia Knauer. In 1966, Knauer also invited a group of graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania to conduct an archaeological investigation of the site. Significantly, A Man Full of Trouble Tavern is the only public house site in Philadelphia to yield considerable archaeological findings that reveal important nuances of early American public life. Unfortunately, to the dismay of historical enthusiasts, and more specifically, the patrons of Philadelphia’s Tippler’s Tour*, the interior of Man Full, along with its archaeological relics, was closed to public speculation in 1994.