The port and naval base of Stavern (until 1930 named Fredriksvern) was established as a municipality 1 January 1838 (see formannskapsdistrikt). Even though it was an important port it was first given its status as a town (kjøpstad) 1 July 1942. The small town and municipality of Stavern was merged with the larger town of Larvik 1 January 1988.
Stavern has probably been a harbor since ancient times. The name is found in written sources from the 11th century and the 12th century where it is referred to as a good fishing harbor. Besides being an important military harbour, Stavern in the 17th and 18th century was also an important port for civil ship traffic from Norway to Denmark and Sweden.
Its name might stem from the name of the farm previously located there, Staurheim. It might also originate from merchants sailing from the Frisian town Stavoren. A final possible explanation is that it originates from an Old Norse name for steep cliffs or mountains, Staferni or Stafr, which accurately describes the landscape around the town.
Its former and current name is Stavern, but from 1799 to 1930 even the civilian part of the town was titled Fredriksværn as its only function was as the site of that naval base.
From 1942 the town was Norway's smallest until it merged with Larvik in 1988 and lost its town status. In 1996 Stavern was again elevated to town status.
Currently there are around 3000 inhabitants in Stavern. It is a small town where tourism is one of the most important sources of income. During summer, the population increases to around 30,000-40,000 people, due to camping sites and cottages around the town center as well as boats visiting the harbour.
During the 20th century, Stavern became a beloved site for artists and craftsmen. The poet Herman Wildenvey, the writer Jonas Lie as well as the painters Hans Gude and Christian Krohg all lived in Stavern at some point in their lives. Today, the town is well known in southern Norway for its many exhibitions and art galleries.
The Norse form of the name was Staferni. The first element is stafr 'staff, stick', the last element is the suffix -erni (often used in names of islands). What the word stafr is referring to here is unknown (see for instance under Stavanger).