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Alcohol Production and Consumption: The Drinking Culture of Colonial America

Updated on December 27, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Religion and Masculinity

In the twenty-first century, evidence of alcohol production, marketing, and consumption are inescapable. From urban industrialists to rural agrarian Americans, the American culture surrounds United States citizens with alcoholic beverages, the crops they are made of, the distilleries that produce them, the advertisements that market them, and the institutions which encourage their consumption. Upon a study of the American colonial period, one may ascertain through an analysis of colonial period alcohol vendor licenses, crop reports, diaries, institutional records, sales records, travel records, and other such primary sources in juxtaposition with secondary sources written throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, it is possible to ascertain an understanding of seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial American drinking culture.

Historians such as Janet Lindman have argued that in Colonial Virginia, fractious and violent responses to evangelical religion were a reflection of colonial interpretations of white manhood, often using alcohol consumption as an example of colonial expression of masculinity in both the public and private spheres. Using separate spheres ideology, historians such as Lindman recognize alcohol consumption in colonial America as a means of male leisure activity and everyday habit. Such activities as drinking at a tavern were a means through which male Virginians “dramatized their manliness” in places women were socially prohibited from attendance. In colonial Virginia, a man’s ability to “drink to excess” was considered proof of a man’s masculinity and understood as a sign of a man’s social power. Drinking alcohol in the American colonial period was viewed as an acceptable assertion of masculinity amidst “social structures, cultural practices, and secular hierarchies of power and dominance” during the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, even as staunch evangelicals such as preacher Dutton Lane condemned the “violence and danger” of drunken behavior. [1]

Throughout her study entitled “Acting the Manly Christian: White Evangelical masculinity in Revolutionary Virginia,” Lindman’s analysis of the life of colonial Virginian James Ireland throughout the eighteenth century contends that alcohol consumption was common, thus drunkenness was a behavior with which colonial Virginians were familiar through their experiences with “drunken merriment.” Lindman also uses the personal accounts and other such primary source documentation of the lives of such figures as John Taylor, Dutton Lane, and Lewis Craig, who participated in the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, to show that by the late eighteenth century, alcohol consumption in excess was increasingly viewed as unacceptable behavior resulting in social, political, and religious misconduct, such as violent outbursts and absence from church services; not a display of masculine strength as it had been earlier in the colonial period. Yet despite the condemnation of alcohol consumption by some, the majority of colonists continued to partake in the drinking culture of colonial America.[2]

According to historians such as David Conroy and Peter Mancall, religious seventeenth century and political eighteenth century attempts to limit alcohol production, sale, and consumption were aimed towards the same end, of limiting the potential for alcohol to “nourish a collective mentality” and unite colonial Americans in a sense of solidarity; united against the religious or political authority as a threat to social order and class hierarchies. As shown through the David Conroy’s analysis of seventeenth century Puritan writings in opposition to alcohol consumption, ministers with religious power feared a loss of political power within the burgeoning culture of alcohol. Conroy’s study validates his thesis that by the 1720s,
those who wanted to gain office had to seek the favor of tavern dwellers,” and by the late eighteenth century, leaders of the American Revolution recognized the power of gaining the trust and support of tavern owners and their clientele. As the revolution drew nearer, sources such as the Boston Gazette show that taverns became increasingly important as places of the exchange of news and information; serving as places in which colonists could meet with other interested parties and discuss political ideas. Many tavern owners held political office throughout the eighteenth century, and by 1740, upwards of thirty percent of colonial representatives held liquor licenses within five years of election in what Conroy terms “a remarkable marriage of drink culture and politics.”[3]


[1] Janet Lindman, “Acting the Manly Christian: White Evangelical masculinity in Revolutionary Virginia” The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol.57, No.2, (August 2000) Pp. 393-416.

[2] Lindman, 405-415.

[3] Peter Mancall, “The Art of Getting Drunk,” Reviews in American History, Vol.24, No.3, (September 1996) 383-388.

A Lifestyle

As shown through the works of historians such as Ed Crews, alcohol consumption in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was commonplace throughout the American colonies. Believing that alcohol had the potential to cure ailments, strengthen the weak and ill and even “enliven” the elderly, the American colonists consumed alcohol throughout the day for various reasons. Although colonial Americans did consume alcohol to celebrate such occasions as christenings, weddings, and funerals, documentation of colonial records shows that alcohol was used every day in instances such as a “mid- morning whistle wetter,” a “luncheon libration,” an “afternoon accompaniment,” and a “supper snort” as regularly expected customs in Colonial Virginia allowed. With an average consumption of alcohol reaching in excess of seven shots per day of hard liquor in colonial America by 1770, Americans were perfecting “”the art of getting drunk,” a lifestyle in which even amidst alcohol consumption to a point of consistent “stupification” as intoxication was often referred, political transformations were afoot and society was prosperous.[1] While alcohol consumption in the private sphere was commonplace, it is more widely documented taking place in the public sphere. Election day gatherings in which candidates “tempted voters with free drinks” was common throughout the colonies, and craftsmen, sailors, laborers, soldiers, and college students, among other professions and apprentices, enjoyed cider and other malted beverages throughout the day. Evidence of Harvard University president Nathanael Eaten’s term in the 1630s shows that Harvard had its own brewery to supply such beverages to its students, and on the occasion that Harvard was unable to supply enough alcohol to appease its students, Eaten was terminated from his post as university president and replaced.[2]

Using evidence of colonial American documentation of America’s founding fathers, it is apparent that alcohol production and consumption was accepted as an ordinary part of everyday life during the colonial period. Benjamin Franklin compiled a list of 228 terms to mean “drunk” in his 1737 “Drinkers’ Dictionary” published in The Pennsylvania Gazette, as John Adams indulged in morning “pick me ups” of hard cider, Thomas Jefferson imported liquor from France and cultivated grapes to make his own wine, Samuel Addams worked in his father’s brewery, John Hancock smuggled wine, Patrick Henry served as a bartender, and countless others in Colonial America enjoyed what Franklin called a “convivial drink.” Even in 1790, United States Government studies showed that the annual per-capita alcohol consumption of Americans aged fifteen and older was in excess of forty gallons of beer, wine, cider, and other distilled spirits.[3]

Ingredients for making alcoholic beverages such as beer and cider were readily available in the colonies, including but certainly not limited to apples, corn wheat, oats, rye, persimmons, grapes, plums, blackberries, cherries, peaches, and green cornstalks. Beer and cider were commonly made with such ingredients easily obtainable in the eighteenth century American colonies. Rum was also common throughout the colonies due to its affordability and availability. Using molasses imported from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, by 1770 the excess of 140 Rum distilleries of the American colonies were distilling approximately five million gallons of rum annually. Upon a study of the prices of alcohol in colonial America, it is easy to ascertain that rum was a powerful economic engine for the American colonies and was integral to the slave trade due to the expansive market for alcohol in England, Ireland, Southern Europe, and Africa, to which colonial American distillers imported their concentrated products to be out with water upon arrival. According to the research of historians such as Ed Crews using colonial Virginian rum prices, trade records, and other such primary source documentation to contextualize economic aspects of colonial life in America, it becomes apparent that the everyday consumption of alcohol in colonial America was fed by the economic success of the colonies, and simultaneously fed the colonial economic system on a global scale.[4]

Whiskey was a commonly produced drink among Colonial American farmers with surplus grain stores, and gained increasing popularity during the American Revolution as what historian Ed Crews identifies as a “new sense of American identity” that flourished as patriots sought an American-produced beverage without ties to England. Areas of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina were conducive to whiskey production in Colonial America due to their easily available resources for whiskey production such as these areas propensities for a combination of corn, rye, limestone-filtered water, and hardwood for barrels in which to ship the finished product. George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation had its own distillery, and produced upwards of ten thousand gallons of whiskey annually.[5]


[1] Mancall, 383-385.

[2] Ed Crews, “Rattle Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, and Flip: Drinking in Colonial America” The Colonial Williamsburg Journal, (Holiday Issue: 2007) Pp.1-4.

[3] Crews. 2-4.

[4] Crews, 1-4.

[5] Crews, 3-4.

Taverns

Through an analysis of seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial American documentation of taverns such as liquor laws, criminal court records, administrative records, diaries of tavern keepers and tavern frequenters, newspapers, liquor licenses, alcohol sales, and other such indicators of the cultural and economic importance of taverns in Colonial America, one may validate the assertions of historians such as Sharon Salinger that colonial Americans went to taverns to get drunk, encouraged by a culture of gentility which encouraged the drunkenness upon which it thrived. In colonial America, taverns were the most common structure besides residential dwellings. Fulfilling their use as “transitory accommodations” for travelers and places to hold social gatherings, most tavern occupants were locals. As more than one of every one hundred inhabitants of any town was licensed vendors of alcohol in eighteenth century America, approximately one vendor was licensed to run a tavern operation per every two dozen adult males by 1750.[1] Taverns public opwn spaces served as union halls for workers to gather and organize, merchant exchanges where buyers and sellers met to make deals, auction galleries where estates were sold and purchased, while private rooms and quiet corners served as smaller meeting places and drinking rooms.[2] In 1768, South Carolinian Charles Woodsmason commented on the large number of colonists in attendance of tavern activities, stating “Magistrates have their Sittings, Militia Officers their Musters, Merchants their Vendues, Planters their Sales, all on Saturdays; Is there any shooting, dancing, reveling, drinking matches carrying on? It all begun on Saturday, as all the meetings and transactions are executed at taverns. At these Rendezvous, there is more company of a Saturday, than in the church on Sunday.”[3]

One English visitor to colonial Yorktown in 1736 commented on the lucrative nature of inn-keeping in the American colonies due to the propensity of colonists to drink regularly. Upon his travels in colonial Virginia, the visitor noted that “the taverns are many here, and much frequented.”[4] Taverns were often the center of social activities in the town of their establishment, where merchants met to make business deals, local inhabitants met travelers and “learned of the latest developments in the world of affairs,” and people (mostly males) of all social classes enjoyed alcoholic beverages under the same roof.[5]

Taverns and ordinaries in colonial America were often established as places of alcohol consumption, however to different degrees of social interaction. Whereas taverns of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provided food and lodging if desired to accompany its variety of alcoholic beverages, establishments called “ordinaries” often doubled as the proprietors’ home; with no food or lodging due to space constraints allowing no more than a few men “to sit and drink at the same time.” Often unnamed, the ordinaries were usually run by a proprietor and their close relatives. In the American colonies of the eighteenth century, taverns and ordinaries were common, serving alcohol brewed off the premises, but usually by a local “specialist brewer.” Some regions had variations among their taverns and ordinaries, for example the ordinaries of New England colonies of the eighteenth century often had long tables and benches, to accommodate a variety of activities, such as serving as a meeting hall, a gambling center, or even a court room. Likewise, the ordinaries of Massachusetts were unique in that they were usually named, with titles such as the “Old Lion.”[6]

In the American colonies, ordinaries were run by proprietors licensed to do so. By 1675, to obtain a license to operate an ordinary required a formal request for a license, accompanied by several letters of recommendation in Massachusetts. According to the Salem and Ipswich Quarterly Court records of Essex County Massachusetts, being licensed to sell “strong waters” and enjoy the “liberty to keep an ordinarie” required formally applying with letters of recommendation from neighbors and potential customers; as Mr. Duncan of Gloucester and Ezekial Woodward of Wenham did to obtain and renew their ordinary licenses. [7] In some cases such as that of Anne Lake of Massachusetts, women were granted licenses to run ordinaries.. However as historian James McWilliams contends, in the case of women as proprietors of ordinaries, courts granted licenses not as a matter of business, but of benevolence. As Anne Lake’s 1682 application for an ordinary reminds the court, Lake’s husband had died in service during King Phillip’s War, and that her family’s subsequent struggle through smallpox had left her family in a “destitute condition.” The court then granted Lake a license to operate an ordinary while denying the applications of other women with similar letters of recommendation but whose applications did not have a sad story to tell to accompany it.[8]

There were many instances during the seventeenth century that pastors were removed from their post by their congregation due to their drunken behavior and general “intemperance.” Pastors such as John Morrison of Petersburough New Hampshire, were dismissed from their clerical religious posts for their “love of liquor” and frequent drinking habits that interfered with their pastoral position’s fulfillment.[9] Likewise, Pastor Moses Hale was dismissed from his Chester New Hampshire parish due to his frequent indulgent drinking, which would result in what Hale’s congregation deemed to be a “great disorder of body and distraction of mind” in 1735 upon his dismissal.[10]


[1] Sharon Salinger, Taverns and Drinking in Early America. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002). 32, 234, 320.

[2] W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York and Oxford, 1979),25-35.

[3] Richard J. Hooker, ed., The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodsmason, Anglican Itinerant (Chapel Hill, 1953) 96-97.

[4] “Observations in Several Voyages and Travels in America in the Year 1736” The London Magazine, July 1746, Reprinted in William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Vol. XV (April 1907) P. 222.

[5] Edward M. Riley, “The Ordinaries of Colonial Yorktown” The William and Mary Quarterly, VOl.23, No.1, (January 1943) Pp. 8-26.

[6] Diana Rockman, “City Tavern, Country Tavern: An Analysis of Four Colonial Sites” Historical Archaeology, Vol.18, (1984) P.51.

[7] Ipswich and Salem Quarterly Court Records, May 1672, June 1674-June 1678, Quarterly Courts of Essex County, 5:31, &:70-74, (Reprinted in part in McWilliams, “Brewing…” Pp.558-561).

[8] McWilliams, 560.

[9]John H. Morrison, An Address delivered at the Centennial Celebration in Petersborough N.H. (Boston, 1838), reprinted in: George Kirsch, “Clerical Dismissals in Colonial and Revolutionary New Hampshire” Church History, Vol.49, No.92, (June 1980) Pp. 160-177.

[10] Leander Cogswell, History of the Town of Henniker N.H., 1735-1880. (Concord, Mass., 1880) Pp.104-115, Reprinted in: George Kirsch, “Clerical Dismissals in Colonial and Revolutionary New Hampshire” Church History, Vol.49, No.92, (June 1980).

Elite Alcohol Consumption

British records of the American colonies depict a world in which all classes of the social hierarchy were prone to a “frequent tipping of that pernicious drink called punch” among other such alcoholic beverages.[1] The American colonists of the gentleman planter class were often depicted in British literature of the colonial era as alcoholic, due in part to the drinking culture enabled by the economic activities of the sugar plantation islands including Barbados and Jamaica. Often indulging in intoxicating enchantments and what Thomas Tryon called obstructions to moral “fountains of reason,” the gentleman class of American colonists’ heavy drinking was considered an acceptable part of the local social ritual by the American colonists. The planter class imported brandy, Madeira, and Canary wine, among other imports due to their affordability following the economic boom of southern American plantation life during the colonial period of American history.[2]

Hans Sloane’s 1725 account of Colonial America details how the gentleman class indulged in alcoholic beverage consumption as an inseparable part of the American way of life, as gentlemen consumed “rum punch,” which Sloane contended was “the common fuddling liquor.” As the physician to the governor of Jamaica, the second Duke of Albemarle, Sloane was no stranger to the American drinking culture of the eighteenth century, and ascertained that the life and character of Britain’s American colonies were sustained by and helped to sustain the culture of alcohol consumption exhibited by all classes of American colonial society, even the upper classes.[3]

The novels of Aphra Behn, such as the 1709 novel The History of the Royal Slave, based upon Behn’s travels in colonial America, depicted American culture during the early seventeenth century as a place in which “all the whites were overtaken in drink” and the pleasure Americans took in drinking “measured their time by the number of punch bowls” emptied. Aphra Behn contended that the most common cause for calling a doctor in the early eighteenth century colonies was “a gentleman, his stomach always out of order, because of his excessive drinking, especially brandy and sugar by way of the dram.”[4] Many other accounts corroborated historians such as Michal Rozbicki in their assertion of colonial Americans’ reputation as drunkards throughout the eighteenth century. Henry Hulton’s autobiographical memoir of his life as comptroller of the customs in St. Johns Antigua from 1756 through 1784 details frequent drinking, such as his meticulously detailed account of consuming “punch of Arrack” in the residence of Chief Justice Col. Blizard, whim Hulton ascertained “seldom went to bed sober,” and the hangover that followed.[5]

The drinking culture of the elite is also portrayed through contemporary literature such as Colonel Robert Munford’s 1770 play entitled “The Candidate.” Colonel Munford, a gentleman planter of Mecklenburg County Virginia, wrote a play in which its protagonists begin the play by drinking to intoxication. Such scenes reflected the reality of American colonial drinking culture, and similar scenes throughout the play were allusions to the world around the play’s colonial Virginia audience. For example, the play’s depiction of Chief Justice Cornelius, “drunk as ever upon the bench,” was an allusion to the “proverbial alcoholism of an actual Lunenburg County magistrate, Cornelius Carghill, according to historian Rodney M. Baine.[6]


[1] Michal Rozbicki, “The Curse of Provincialism: Negative Perceptions of Colonial American Plantation Gentry” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 63, No.4 (November, 1997) Pp. 727-752

[2] Thomas Tryon, Friendly Advice to the Gentleman Planters of the East and West Indies, (London, 1684) Pp. 60, 96.

[3] Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher, and Jamaica. (London, 1725) Pp. xxvii-xxix.

[4] Aphra Behn, The History of the Royal Slave, (London, 1709) P.62, Reprinted in: Ernest A. Baker, The Novels of Miss Aphra Behn. (London, 1913).

[5] Henry Hulton, Autobiographical Memoir, (John Carter Brown Library, Providence R.I., 1784), reprinted in part in Michal Rozbicki, “The Curse of Provincialism: Negative Perceptions of Colonial American Plantation Gentry” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 63, No.4 (November, 1997) Pp. 727-752.

[6] Rodney M. Baine, Robert Munford: America’s First Comic Dramatist, (Athens G.A., 1967), Pp. 57-72.

Climate, Health, and Class

In the colonies, Americans of the south and Caribbean islands experienced temperatures warmer than any they had known in Europe. Believing that sweating too much in hot weather left the stomach cold and the body resultantly ill, a theory validated to the colonists by the lack of appetite that accompanied the extreme heat they were newly exposed to, the American colonists drank “strong spirits” to warm the stomach and retain health of all internal organs. According to historians such as Karen Kupperman, the scientific knowledge of the eighteenth century taught that alcoholic beverages were essential to digestion in the extreme heat of the American south, and was thus consumed by those of all classes, “allotted even to servants and sometimes slaves.” Initially, Africans in America used alcohol in religious and social rituals carried with them from Africa, such as alcohol sacrificed to the gods in Ashanti West African culture, and drinking alcohol to give thanks to the gods by the Basuto of central West Africa. However, as historians such as Kenneth Christman contend, as the number of Africans increased in American colonies due to the growth of slavery throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, white colonists in fear of slave revolts incited by the belligerency of intoxication began to limit African access to alcohol. In 1692, New Jersey passed a law making it illegal to sell Rum or other strong spirits to Africans, punishable by a 5 pound fine.[1]

Amidst an ever-changing culture of political unrest, alcohol production continued to evolve throughout the centuries to encompass a broad range of ingredients. Persimmon, growing plentifully throughout the middle colonies, was used in beer and ale throughout the eighteenth century, allowing more families to make their own home brew. Persimmon could be ground and mixed with bran, baked into cakes, and soaked with water to be brewed into beer. Likewise, potatoes, green corn stalks, and pumpkins were commonly used throughout the colonies in the eighteenth century, adding to the predominantly barley and hops repertoire of beer prevalent throughout the seventeenth century American colonies. Slaves and free blacks of the American colonies were not overlooked by the colonial drinking culture. African Americans with little means of purchasing ingredients they did not grow themselves, made such home brews of mixtures of ingredients such as persimmon, potatoes, and pumpkin, known as “Old Hen.”[2]

Many colonists drank not only to heal ailments caused by regional climates, but because alcohol served as a safer alternative to local water supplies. Upon arrival in the New World, colonists believed that water was meant for washing with, not drinking. For example, in Jamaica, colonists who drank water from ponds often contracted intestinal worms, cured only by a diet solely of bitter herbs until the worms had vacated their current residence within a person’s rectal organs, or by consuming mercury. In tropical climates such as that of Jamaica, such parasites were commonly contracted from drinking water during the colonial period due to the infestation of stagnant warm water with such organisms as mosquito eggs carrying the aforementioned intestinal worms. Rum, also known as “Kill Devil” to the American colonists, was a common beverage in pre-revolutionary American colonies, serving as a substitute for contaminated water throughout the day.[3]

Robert Beverly, a Virginia gentleman in the eighteenth century, observed that drinking was often more detrimental to the drinker than beneficial. Although most drank expecting to secure their health or for the pleasure of intoxication, many fell ill with what was known by colonists as the “dry bellyache,” caused by a variety of sources. Rum was often processed in lead pipes, causing a contamination of the rum. Oftentimes, colonists were impatient to wait for cider, perry, or beer to complete the distillation process before consumption. Another source of the “dry bellyache” was the covering up of the taste of “foul sugar in punch and flip” with extra lime juice.[4]

Despite the possibility of falling victim to the dry bellyache, or a hangover, or any number of maladies caused by contaminated or spoiled alcohol stores, colonists continued to partake in the drinking culture of America. The poor and the wealthy elite both drank throughout the day, believing it to be beneficial. While poor families sometimes gave up breakfast for an extra serving of alcohol later in the day, elite planter families drank plentifully throughout the day. According to Lieutenant Anburey of the English Army, a Virginia planter’s day in the 1770s included rising at 8:00am and drinking some mint julep, followed by a walk or ride around the plantation before lunch with cider; after which he drinks a toddy at noon, wine with dinner at 2:00pm, and toddy throughout the afternoon and evening until bed time. According to Anburey, “during all this he is neither drunk nor sober, but in a state of stupification.”[5]


[1] Kenneth Christian, “Historical Overview of Alcohol in the African American Community” Journal of Black Studies, Vol.25, No.3 (January 1995) 318-330.

[2] Marie Kimball, “Some Genial Old Drinking Customs,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.2, No.4, (October 1949), 349-358.

[3] Karen Kupperman, “Fear of Hot Climates in the Anglo American Colonial Experience” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vo. 41, No.2, (April 1984) Pp. 213-240.

[4] Robert Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, (London, 1705), Reprinted in part in Karen Kupperman, “Fear of Hot Climates in the Anglo American Colonial Experience” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vo. 41, No.2, (April 1984) Pp. 213-240.

[5] Kimball. 358

Emphasis on Local Economy

Throughout the seventeenth century, as migration of Europeans to the American colonies increased, the production of grain increased resulting in dropping grain prices. As increased competition made grain more affordable to the American colonies, ale and beer became the drinks of choice across socioeconomic lines. Due to the problems of shipping beer from Europe, such as beer spoiling in transit, barrels leaking during their transportation, and taking up expensive amounts of cargo room on ships, the increased demand for beer and ale in the American colonies following the great migration of the 1630s led to a decrease in importation and a subsequent increase in domestic beer brewing throughout the colonies. As shown through an analysis of probate records, such as historian James McWilliams’ study of the probate records of Essex County Massachusetts throughout the seventeenth century, by 1645, over fifty-six percent of home inventories showed clear evidence indicating the brewing beer at home; using malted hops and barley stores to brew beer in kitchens with copper kettles, after stone mortars and pestles were used to grind grain fine enough for brewing. Other utensils in household inventories that indicate that a household brewed its own beer include combinations of beer barrels, mash tubs, large vats, large numbers of quart pots, and dozens of other containers and utensils.[1] American colonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries imported increased amounts of copper for the manufacture of brewing kettles, in which beer was brewed at home for family consumption.[2] Historians such as James McWilliams assert that a family’s decision to operate an ordinary or a tavern was reflective of the growing American consciousness of the ability of individuals to focus their limited “productive capabilities in order to guarantee themselves a place within a shifting local economy,” as barley and hops became common crops within the grasp of the majority of American colonists by the early eighteenth century.[3]


[1] James McWilliams, “Brewing Beer in Massachusetts Bay, 1640-1690 ” The New England Quarterly” Vol.71, No.4, (December 1998) .695.

[2] Ibid., 543-659.

[3] McWilliams, 552-557.

Gender and Home Brewing

While drinking in taverns was considered a male activity due to its’ position within the public sphere, home brewing of beer in the American colonies was primarily performed by women due to its location within the kitchen as an inclusive aspect of the private sphere. Home brewing was undertaken by colonial American women as an understood part of women’s work in the kitchen, performed in conjunction with other kitchen duties such as cooking and laundry. Fathers often bequeathed their brewing equipment to their daughters, or wives of they had no female heirs. For example, in seventeenth and early eighteenth century Massachusetts, Thomas Wells left his wife his “malt and brewing utensils,” Edward Hall left his daughter a copper kettle for brewing, and Captain Lathrop left his daughter two bushels of malt “to furnish her with provision, for I desire she should not be constrained to go servis.”[1]

While beer was predominantly brewed in the American colonies by women for home consumption by their families, some families found it profitable to barter home brews for other goods within the local economy. In New England colonies, beer was bartered for fish, millstones, and pork, as shown through the Ipswich Massachusetts Quarterly Court Records of the 1640s-1670s. In 1651, Margarat Russe of Essex County Massachusetts exchanged pork pies for “malt payments,” and Arthur Sandin and Goodman Funnell exchanged home brewed beer for fish and millstones, respectively. Home brewing was an inexpensive means of production of beer from a family’s resources, not requiring much extra labor or equipment; and home brewed beer and ale were sometimes sold by families in financial need in times of economic hardship inflicted by a pregnancy, a birth, a construction project, or illness. According to historian James McWilliams, home brews were sold to other families as well as local companies, as shown through Lynn Ironwork’s purchase of local malted beer for its employees in 1665.[2]


[1] McWilliams, 547-549.

[2] McWilliams, 548-549

Available Resources and Resulting Alcoholic Preparations

Often brewed using inexpensive Indian corn, oats, or rye, beer was common among ordinaries’ menus, accompanied by wine and cider. However by the middle of the eighteenth century, while beer was still a common drink at home, beer faced increasing competition from hard liquor such as rum, whiskey, and brandy in taverns. Regardless of the alcohol being consumed, whether it was beer, wine, cider, or other liquors, by the 1740s public alcohol consumption led to an increase in arrests for drunkenness, and “nearly every town had experienced its noteworthy and often fatal case of drunken stupidity.”[1] Israel Acrelius’s 1759 History of New Sweden listed forty four drink combinations with a range of ingredients; the earliest evidence of cocktails. Although in the twenty-first century cocktails may be served with ice, ice was only used in drinks by the planter elite with ice houses with ice to spare for such novelties.[2]

Mead, a fermented honey and water mixture, was common throughout the colonies, so heavily and widely consumed that eighteenth century American cookbooks often contained recipes for mead; as well as spiced mead known as “methaglin.” A rum punch drink mixed with roasted apples for flavoring, known as “toddy,” was popular throughout the colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; especially in Virginia. Colonial Virginians often made the toddy using peach or apple brandy. Peach and apple brandy were so commonly consumed in Virginia that they became known throughout the colonies by the early eighteenth century as “Virginia drams.” In the southern colonies, “mint julep” was a popular drink similar to that of toddy in northern colonies. According to historian Marie Kimball’s analysis of southern alcohol consumption during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “from the moment the first sprig of mint was anchored in a sea of spirits and sugar,” the mint julep took the southern colonies by storm and became a common facet of colonial drinking culture. An eighteenth century poet spoke of mint julep, explaining,

The draught was delicious, each god did exclaim,

Though something yet wanting they all did bewail,

But juleps, the drink of immortals became,

When Jove himself added a handful of hail.

Like mint julep’s popularity among the colonies of the south, “shrub” was a common southern drink, comprised of a mixture of lemon, orange, sugar and rum. Throughout the day, such drinks as mead, toddy, shrub, mint julep, methaglin, and Virginia drams were consumed, as colonists of the north and south believed their drinking culture to be beneficial to their health. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, drinking throughout the day was commonplace, as colonists firmly believed in what a contemporary poet called “the cordial drop, the morning dram, I sing; the mid-day toddy, and the evening sling.”[3]

While drinks such as mead, beer, ale, and rum were common among the colonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century New World, grape wine was popular among the wealthy elite, with the means of importing wines from places such as France, Germany, and Spain. According to historian Marie Kimball’s study of the writings of Thomas Jefferson throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, it was only among the upper classes of society that wine was popular on a daily basis. As stated by Kimball, “Madeira came to be almost universally used at meals, with claret and port close seconds” to the elite, who could afford to buy wines imported from Europe since attempts to cultivate grapes for wine failed throughout the colonies. Although many tried and failed to produce a wine in the colonies from wild or cultivated grapes for American wine production throughout the seventeenth century, the wealthy continued to import wine to retain wine’s place within their alcohol consumption habits. According to the writings of William Penn, during the late seventeenth century, over sixty-thousand gallons of wine were imported annually from Europe to the Pennsylvania colony. In an attempt to create an economy aided by domestic wine production in Pennsylvania, Penn established his own vineyard; however his endeavor produced only less-than-desirable wine and was abandoned by 1699. In the late eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson also established his own vineyard as an example in an attempt to decrease colonial American reliance on Europe for its alcohol needs, however the vineyard was largely unsuccessful and Jefferson thus imported much of his wine. As the elite enjoyed grape wine imported from Europe, ordinary colonists enjoyed wine brewed at home or by local distillers made from nearly anything fermented, including oranges, raspberries, elderberries, cowslip, gooseberries, crab apples, apples, turnips, pumpkins, horseradish, and an endless menu of ingredients.[4]


[1] McWilliams, 552-557.

[2] Kimball, 352.

[3] Kimball, 352-354.

[4] Kimball, 354-355.

Race and Alcohol Consumption

While white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant male colonists and many African slaves were consuming alcoholic beverages as a part of everyday life, Native Americans were far from devoid of the American drinking culture. As William Penn noted in 1683 upon his arrival to the New World, “the Dutch, Swedes, and English have by brandy and especially rum almost debauched the Indians all,” a sentiment immortalized in the popular college song of the eighteenth century stating

Eleazer Wheelock was a very pious man

He went into the wilderness to teach the In-di-an

And all he carried with him was a trumpet and a drum

And five hundred gallons of New England Rum.[1]

Although white male colonists received the most public attention for their alcohol use, females were also documented participating in the drinking culture of which they were apart. In 1773, The Pennsylvania Gazette brought female drinking to its audience’s attention, stating that “it has now become the habit of some otherwise discreet women, instead of a draught of beer and toast, or a chunk of bread and cheese, or a wooden noggin of good porridge and bread, as our good old English custom is… they must have two or three drams in the morning… as if drinking rum were part of their religious worship, they never fail their constant daily habit.”[2]


[1] Kimball, 349-350.

[2] Kimball, 354.

Military Alcohol Use

Throughout the eighteenth century, English soldiers took part in colonial American drinking culture; buying local alcoholic beverages, producing their own, being given daily rations of alcohol, or buying it from the wife of a soldier who brewed her own.[1] In some towns, soldiers were hired as workers by civilians; being paid in liquor instead of in coin. According to Paul Kopperman’s analysis of English army colonial American records of the eighteenth century, before battles liquor was often given to soldiers to “heighten their belligerency and steady their nerves, or after to celebrate a victory.” Rations were often given to soldiers of alcoholic beverages, including beer, ale, brandy, whiskey, and occasionally local wine. During the French and Indian War, rations of rum were given during times of extreme distress. Acknowledged as the “regular allowance of rum to the soldiers” by commissary general Daniel Wier in 1781, by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War rum rations had become commonplace within the English military and American-based troops were often supplied with rum, which according to Viscount George Townshend’s accounting papers from the 1760s-70s, was “given to the men gratis.”[2] Kopperman’s analysis of the prices of various alcoholic beverages throughout the eighteenth century validates Kopperman’s assertions that rum was the drink of choice to be rationed by the British military due to its cheap cost and high rate of availability throughout North America.[3] The ready accessibility to rum by British soldiers led to common scenes of drunkenness throughout the eighteenth century. In 1791, army surgeon Robert Jackson reminisced about the past two decades of English military activity in colonial America, stating

Our soldiers have been so long accustomed to this gratuitous allowance of rum as their right that no man could answer for the consequences of withholding it… The allowance of rum granted to soldiers, has done much harm by ruining discipline, and good behavior. If it is with-held for one day, discontent immediately begins to shew itself among the men. If with-held for any length of time, complaints sometimes arise to a state of mutiny, and desertions become notorious.

As military surgeon John Hawkins stated in observance of British troop activities in the American colonies in 1744, “the [British] recruits reeling about continually drunk with gin brandy &c that they got at Bruges.”[4] According to historian David Hackett Fischer, alcohol was not only used as a means of making soldiers brave before battle, it was also a means of making townspeople brave amidst an atmosphere of violence and destruction throughout the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. As stated by Fischer,

“Drinking men, of whom there were many in the rural towns of Massachusetts, dealt with their fears [of the American Revolution’s violence] in a different way. In menotomy two brothers-in-law named Jason Winship and Jabez Wyman took refuge in the Cooper Tavern. While confusion reigned around them, they ordered large mugs of flip, a potent drink much favored by tavern topers in the eighteenth century. Others warned them to flee for their lives, but as the alcohol warmed their spirits, they began to forget their fear. Jabez said to Jason, “let us finish the mug, they won’t come yet.”[5]


[1] Paul Kopperman, “The British High Command and Soldiers’ Wives in America, 1755-1783,” The Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol.60, (1983) 23.

[2] Paul Kopperman, “The Cheapest Pay, Alcohol Abuse in the British Army” The Journal of Military History, Vol.60, No.3, (July 1996) 445-470.

[3] Ibid., 448-449.

[4] Sylvia R. Frey, The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) 64.

[5] David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 169.

Conclusion

Drinking culture throughout the American colonies of the seventeenth and eighteenth century entailed a variety of drinks, drinking establishments, social and economic opportunities, health concerns, household duties, gender roles, ethnic divisions, detailed inventories, religious connotations, and cultural phenomena. Using the records of individuals, families, taverns, ordinaries, religious movement participants, doctors, courts, men and women, colonists, and European visitors to the colonies, one may ascertain an understanding of the drinking culture of the American colonies, in which people drank for their health, through social occasions, and in locations in which other business could be conducted. The multi-purpose nature of drinking in the colonial period and everyday complacency of drinkers regarding their consumption habits reflects the commonality and inconspicuousness of alcohol consumption in colonial America.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to my husband, for his encouragement of my continuing research!
Special Thanks to my husband, for his encouragement of my continuing research!

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