Setting Liquor Rates




The Court set the rate for liquors, diets, and lodging

When searching for some Virginia ancestors this week, I came across a tidbit that fits perfectly with my “Spirits and Spirits” theme. I found it on page 6 of the publication, “Franklin County Virginia Historical and Industrial Past – Present – Future,” compiled and edited by J.G. Claiborne of Lynchburg, Virginia and published in 1926.

1787 Liquor Rates

I made several observations. First, I thought it was interesting that the county, versus the business owner, set the prices that were allowed to be charged. Next, I thought it was interesting that liquor seemed to be sold by the gallon. A whole gallon. Common sizes for our liquor purchases are one-liter or 1.75-liter bottles. A liter is only equivalent to about .26 gallons. So, they were buying liquor in quantities two to four times larger than we do. It seems that those 1787 Virginia residents had a lot of variety in alcohol choices. They could get rum, peach brandy, whiskey or wine. All things that are still available today.

Since I like numbers, my mind went to doing some comparisons. Economists and historians find it nearly impossible to truly compare “old money” to today’s worth, but we can still study this a little. Bear with me, because we are going to have to do a little math. First, we need to know that 12 pence equaled a shilling (by the way, there were 20 shillings in a pound). So, if a gallon of good West India Rum cost ten shillings, we can figure out that it would be the equivalent of 120 pence.  A hot breakfast cost one shilling and three pence which would equal 15 pence. So, the breakfast at 15 pence was only 1/8th the cost of a 120 pence gallon of rum. Here in my modern world, a local chain restaurant has an regular breakfast special featuring two pancakes, two eggs and two pieces of meat for $4.  And looking at the liquor sale ad in my Minnesota newspaper (note that Minnesota has very high liquor tax), I would need to spend at least $20 for an off-brand bottle of rum (1.75 liter). So, doing more math, I would need to buy 2.16 bottles of that rum to equal a gallon. We’ll round down to two bottles. So doing the same comparison, of $4 (breakfast) / $40 rum, we find that breakfast now is about 1/10th the cost of the rum. I’m concluding that costs of rum versus breakfast are not that different now.

But, where things have really changed might be in lodging versus meal costs.  The allowed rate for a night of lodging was only 6 pence. Back then, if you got a bed versus a place on the floor accompanied by mice and rats, you may have had to share a tiny bed with a stranger and you would have likely had to pay extra for clean sheets. But in the published price list, the breakfast to lodging ratio was 15 pence versus 6 pence. The breakfast being two-and-a-half times more than the lodging. The cheapest hotel room I can find in my town for tomorrow night is $76. Compare that to the $4 breakfast and we can see that lodging is now nineteen times more expensive than the breakfast. Since our hotel rooms have privacy, cleanliness, and bathrooms, they are probably worth the extra price.

Back then, putting your horse in the stable and giving it fodder for the night cost more than your own meal and lodging back then. So, I guess I shouldn’t complain when I end up in a big city and have to pay $30 a night to park my car in addition to the room charge.

Sources: Franklin County, Virginia : historical and industrial — past, present and future [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Operations, Inc., 2005. Original data: Claiborne, John G.. Franklin County, Virginiahistorical and industrial — past, present and future. Rocky Mount, Va.: The County News Print. Co., 1926.

Daily Life of the American Colonies: The Role of the Tavern in Society, A Gothic Curiosity Cabinet, Web, 16 Aug 2017,

Ed Crews, “How Much Is That in Today’s Money? One of Colonial Williamsburg’s Most-Asked Questions Is among the Toughest,” Colonial Williamsburg, Summer 2002, Web, 16 Aug 2017,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !! Please contact us to discuss getting copies of the material.