Booze in Colonial America

“Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.” – Benjamin Franklin

“Wine is necessary for life.” – Thomas Jefferson

“My manner of living is plain…a glass of wine and a bit of mutton.” – George Washington

Colonial_Drinking

According to many historians, the American Revolution was built on a foundation of booze. Our ancestors imbibed frequently, often every day. It is estimated that there were more taverns per capita than any other business in colonial America. In fact, the Colonial Williamsburg web site says:

Colonial Americans, at least many of them, believed alcohol could cure the sick, strengthen the weak, enliven the aged, and generally make the world a better place. They tippled, toasted, sipped, slurped, quaffed, and guzzled from dawn to dark.

Many started the day with a pick-me-up and ended it with a put-me-down. Between those liquid milestones, they also might enjoy a midmorning whistle wetter, a luncheon libation, an afternoon accompaniment, and a supper snort. If circumstances allowed, they could ease the day with several rounds at a tavern.

Alcohol lubricated such social events as christenings, weddings, funerals, trials, and election-day gatherings, where aspiring candidates tempted voters with free drinks. Craftsmen drank at work, as did hired hands in the fields, shoppers in stores, sailors at sea, and soldiers in camp. Then, as now, college students enjoyed malted beverages, which explains why Harvard had its own brewery. In 1639, when the school did not supply sufficient beer, President Nathaniel Eaton lost his job.

You can read the rest of the Colonial Williamsburg article at http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/holiday07/drink.cfm.

In colonial times, Americans probably drank more alcohol that in any other era, certainly more than the national average today. In colonial America it is estimated that the average American drank eight ounces of alcohol a day. Americans drank beer and cider with breakfast; rum and wine with dinner; claret, ratafias (a fortified wine or a fruit-based beverage), creams, punches, and other concoctions in the evening.

The first settlers brought with them the English tradition of beer drinking. Even during the famous 1620 voyage of Pilgrims on board the Mayflower, beer saved the voyage. The water aboard ship reportedly become brackish and potentially deadly while the beer on board remained drinkable. The latter part of the voyage kept sailors and passengers alike happy with a good supply of beer. We tend to think of the Pilgrims as sober-faced, upright people who avoided fun at all times, but they obviously packed a lot of beer on board before embarking on a lengthy trip aboard the very crowded 110-foot Mayflower.

The Pilgrims were planning to go to Virginia but ended up in Massachusetts, landing on a cold, snowy, wind-blown coast on December 19, 1620. The change in plans apparently was caused by the lack of water and the dwindling supply of beer on board the ship. Captain Christopher Jones recognized the need to preserve the dwindling stocks for his sailors on the return journey (which would be far too dangerous to undertake until the following spring), and so the passengers were encouraged to land near the top of Cape Cod. Jones knew that the fresh water found in Massachusetts would be insufficient for the return voyage. First, the water might go bad on the return voyage; secondly, he and his sailors were not accustomed to drinking water.

These instructions to keep beer on board the Mayflower for the return trip did not go down well with the Pilgrims. William Bradford complained that he and his companions “were hastened ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer.” Pilgrim William Wood complained that he did not dare drink the water in the wilderness, preferring beer. He wrote his opinion of fresh water: “I dare not prefere it before good beere.” (See Wellsprings: A Natural History of Bottled Spring Waters by Frank Chapelle available at https://goo.gl/D7q8mq for details).

The Pilgrims in Massachusetts were not the first Europeans in North America to enjoy alcohol. The Dutch also had a functioning brewery in what is now Lower Manhattan by 1613, beating the Mayflower immigrants, who would not have anything resembling a formal brewhouse until at least 1621. Even before that, the Roanoke colony tried brewing with corn as early as 1584 (obviously before going missing).

A quick Google search finds that our founding fathers were heavily involved with alcohol, sometimes as brewers and distillers, sometimes as importers and smugglers, and almost always as consumers:

George Washington owned a whiskey distillery: http://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/distillery/

Thomas Jefferson imported thousands of bottles of wine: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/wine

John Hancock smuggled hundreds of barrels of strong Portuguese Madeira into the colonies—an act that would cause his ship to be seized and lead to a riot and the burning of a British customs boat on Boston Common: http://www.john-hancock-heritage.com/the-liberty-affair/

While I cannot verify the authenticity of this quote, one claimed common saying from the 1700s says, “If I take a settler after my coffee, a cooler at nine, a bracer at ten, a whetter at eleven, and two or three stiffeners during the forenoon, who has right to complain?”

Please pass that bottle, will you?

7 Comments

One of my early (1600s) ancestors was fined for smuggling a barrel of beer into his home, bu he pleaded that he couldn’t leave to go to a tavern as his wife was having a baby. He was only made to pay the tax on the beer.

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My ancestor, Samuel Walker of “Woubourne”, MA (its first tavern keeper) was fined by another ancestor, Edward Johnson,(one of Woubourne’s” founders,) for serving “spiritous liquor on the sabbath…”

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‘Public houses’ or ‘ordinarys’, initially conducted in the houses of their keepers, were important public gathering places in Colonial times. One of my ancestors, Thomas Skinner, was licensed to “to sell strong waters and wine to supplie the necessitys of the Towne and Travellers” in 1651 Malden, Massachusetts. Another ancestor, Micah Mudge, performed the same service in 1704 Lebanon, Connecticut.

Nevertheless, this was Puritan New England and vigilance was the order of the day, as the same Micah Mudge discovered while residing in Northampton, Mass. in 1673. “Micah Mudge of Northampton being complayned of for entertayning & permitting diverse psons to abide Severall hours together in his house in a way of tipling about December last & it being prooved agt him he is fyned . . .”

So if I nightly toast these early settlers and ancestors and trendsetters, it is with cause – it’s in my DNA.

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My earliest ancestor to American colonies landed in Elizabeth City County under a contract (along with four other families). They were French vineyard keepers, hired to teach the British colonists how to make (drinkable) wine. With them began winemaking in America.

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Among my earliest ancestors are Dutch tavern keepers in New Netherland, some of them women. Many were fined for selling “spirits” of various kinds on the Sabbath. The laws were much stricter, however, against selling spirits to the Natives, Sabbath or no. The concern was, of course, that they could hold their liquor even less well than whites, whatever their faith.

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Attributed to Martin Luther, ““Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”

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