Thursday, October 3, 2013

To Drink Like a Colonial

By Rod Cofield
Director, Historic London Town and Gardens

“There’s but One Reason I can think,
Why People ever cease to drink:
Sobriety the Cause is not,
Nor Fear of being deem’d a Sot,
But if good Liquor can’t be got.”
(W. Stokes, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 6; London, July 1736; 417)

Residents of the colonial Chesapeake most definitely drank.  A lot.  They loved ale, cider, beer, and wines from around the world.  When they got tired of drinking those on their own, they mixed and matched to create a variety of drinks such as Sampson (cider and rum), Flip (strong beer and rum), or Rattle-Skull (rum, brandy, beer, and a touch of lime).  And when they had imbibed too much, Benjamin Franklin’s list of 200 words to describe drunkenness could be utilized (to name a few: bowz’d, crack’d, fetter’d, knapt, and nimptopsical).

This tradition of drinking permeated all aspects of colonial life.  Ale, beer, cider, punch and other alcoholicdrinks are found in records relating to christenings, daily life, weddings, funerals, birthdays, and even elections.  As a matter of fact, a key part of George Washington’s first election strategy was to giving voters in Frederick County, Virginia plenty of alcohol to drink.  His campaign expenditures included 66 gallons of rum punch, 58 gallons of beer, 35 gallons of wine, 1 hogshead of rum, as well as smaller amounts of cider and brandy.  He won that election with 309 out of 397 votes cast.

Even children drank beer, albeit usually a variety called small beer.  This small beer had a lower alcohol content than its stronger cousins and was considered suitable for children, breakfast, or the infirm.  A colonial recipe for small beer attributed to George Washington can be found at the New York Public Library’s website.

By growing up with alcohol as part of their daily diet, it should come as no surprise that many colonials had prodigious tolerances for alcohol.  On February 20, 1704 Daniel Emory drank three quarts of beer (the equivalent of 6 pints) in an Annapolis tavern.  He repeated that pattern on the 25th and 26th.  And on March 6 he drank two gallons of beer.  As the following news item indicates, women also drank a lot in the colonial era:
Yesterday a woman, who goes by the name of Thirsty Martha, being at a public house, a man offered to pay for as much ale as she could drink while he smoak’d out a pipe of tobacco; she accordingly drank eight pints in the time, (which was not less than a quarter of an hour) and went off not at all disordered, excepting that she complain’d she was still very dry.
(Maryland Gazette, 28 November 1750;2)

The English people’s love of drinking, and the consequent creation of places to drink, is best hinted at in the following 1710 quote:
Upon all the new settlements the Spaniards make, the first thing they do is build a church, the first thing the Dutch do upon a new colony is to build them a fort, but the first thing ye English do, be it in the most remote part of ye world, or amongst the most barbarous Indians, is to set up a tavern or drinking house.
(Captain Walduck, letter to John Searle; as quoted in David Watt’s The West Indies, page 128).

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