Every Home a Distillery

What do you use to wash the baby, clean the house, color your hair or serve for breakfast? If it’s the 18th century, the answer is alcohol. Professor Sarah Meacham describes her research for the book “Every Home a Distillery.”


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. We’re here today with our guest, Professor Sarah Meacham, who has come by to talk to us about one of our favorite topics on this podcast, which is alcohol. But you’d be surprised to learn the different ways that alcohol is interwoven into life and society in the 18th century, really surprising angles about the economy of it and the practicality of it.

So Sarah has done a great deal of research on some of these angles, the deeper story of alcohol in the 18th century. Sarah, thank you for being here today.

Sarah Meacham: Thanks so much for having me.

Harmony: Well, much of research comes from your book, "Every Home a Distillery," where you talk about some of the specific aspects of alcohol production in Virginia. Talk to us about what some of those special circumstances are in Virginia culture.

Sarah: Part of what surprised me was how critical alcohol was to survival in the 17th and 18th centuries. The process of making alcohol required that colonists boil the water involved, and that killed off a lot of the pathogenic bacteria. People were able to survive, in part, because they weren’t drinking the water. They were drinking alcohol.

In this region, most of that is fruit-based cider. So they’re going to make alcohol out of cherries and quinces, raspberries, apples, pears if they can get them, really any sort of fruit brews they can make. But they don’t just drink this alcohol, they use it to clean their houses. They use alcohol to clean their windows. They mix alcohol with blacking to clean their fireplace grates. They bathe in alcohol. They thought that it was very dangerous to bathe in water, so you always bathed your babies in cider or wine.

If you wanted to get rid of freckles, you patted your face with mead. If you wanted to give your hair a nice red wash, you would soak it in wine that had been soaked with rhubarb. If ladies thought that their husbands were too lethargic, they would give them wine or cider that had hops in it, that had been sitting with hops for a while. People brushed their teeth with alcohol. They mix honey and ash and cider to rub on their teeth. They use alcohol for pain control. It’s really the only sort of medicine or anything they have to dull the pain.

Even enslaved women got a pint or two of distilled apple cider called apple brandy to get through childbirth. It was something that white women certainly had access to and even enslaved women did. And in fact the enslaved community is also making their own brews, sometimes creatively out of persimmons or ciders, and sometimes using African traditions, so using corn sometimes to make an African-style brew.

In addition to just all the different uses they had for alcohol, part of what’s interesting here is how unique the alcohol they made in 17th and 18th century Virginia is. And much of the rest of Western world, including Europe, New England, and South America, people are turning more and more to hopped wheat beers. So in the 17th century and the 18th century, ale did not have hops, and then beer did have hops.

Hops mattered because they let ale last. Without hops, ale would sour in about three days. Growing wheat and growing hops didn’t make a lot of since in a tobacco culture. So in Virginia and Maryland, where it is so, so much work to grow tobacco, you really want to reduce work other places if you can. So what they do, colonists would really focus on corn and on fruit-based ciders because they work very well with the tobacco schedule, with the tobacco processing agricultural calendar. They don’t need nearly as much labor as wheat in the area did.

Now, there are some exceptions. There is all this exciting discovery right now about that there may have been a brewery at the College of William & Mary, and that makes a lot of sense because that’s an area where there are a lot of people, so it would be worth the cost and worth the trouble. Someone is available to specialize, but for most households, you want to do whatever you can to save labor, reduce labor. They are going to work with what’s easy or easier, which in this case, is making cider out of apples.

Then another part that I find very surprising about making alcohol in this early Chesapeake area is that so much of it was women’s work. No one knew that. So we knew that making ale in the medieval period in England was women’s work, but that had become men’s work generally by 1600-1700, because once people could brew with hops, they could make larger quantities of beer and it would last using these hops. And then people could really specialize, people could become big brewers, but that required more capital. And that became men’s work because of who you could trust to give capital to, and who you could trust to give big amounts of money to, and contracts to.

So part of what's interesting is that when colonists come over to the Chesapeake, they actually sort of go backwards. They revert to having women make alcohol, but these women are making mostly brews of fruits, ciders, and persimmons, quinces, and cherries. That makes sense, partly because it’s labor saving, but it also makes sense to have women make these alcohols because they can watch over them while they are doing their cooking and the cleaning.

Part of how I discovered that it was women who made alcohol was that the cookbooks that were popular in this region and the cookbooks women left us themselves, the first third of the cookbook is all for alcoholic recipes. In fact, a lot of the cookbook titles begin with alcohol. Alcohol is the selling point of the cookbook.

In the late 18th century, making alcohol becomes men’s work in this Virginia region. We see these recipes leave women’s cookbooks and go into men’s husbandry books where they need them because it has become men’s science and agriculture. We also see the tools of making alcohol move. So in the early 17th century and 18th century, when alcohol making was women’s work, things like mashing tubs were in women’s kitchen or in women’s dairies. Then in the late 18th century, when it becomes men who make alcohol, these items move into men’s barns.

Harmony: This just explodes the entire notion of alcohol, because you think about alcohol in today’s culture, it’s seems more recreational. It’s something that you do for fun. It’s something that you do to celebrate or relax, but to think of it as part of something that sustains life and health, and cleans the house and washes your babies, it’s a completely different, holds a completely different place in the 18th century world than it does today.

Bringing the story into the modern world, we’re seeing a resurgence of the popularity of these types of ciders and brews. We’ve actually asked you here today to talk a little bit about a project that you’re collaborating with The Virginia Historical Society on, where they are attempting to recreate a cider using a historic recipe. Tell us a little about that endeavor.

Sarah: The Virginia Historical Society has come up with a wonderful series of experiments and discussions and lectures where they are partnering with different breweries and cideries in Richmond, Virginia to create historic recipes. So they began working with a brewery called Ardent to make a persimmon brew from a 1730’s recipe that they found in their collections. It was the first time in 300 years that someone that we know of has tried to make a historic persimmon beer. I was so excited, because it’s really challenging to work with these old recipes.

The second sort of public component of this ongoing series is The Virginia Historical Society and Blue Bee Cidery in Manchester, VA are partnering to make Eliza Smith’s “The Complete Cider” from her cookbook, which began publishing in 1728 and quickly went through at least 30 editions. So The Virginia Historical Society has been finding historic recipes to make persimmon beer, to make cider, and then partnering with local breweries and cideries to create these recipes and people can go. You have to register ahead of time, but you hear a lecture about these historic brews and you get to taste a variety of historic brews with the people who made them.

Harmony: What has surprised you as you’ve watched this process being recreated? Are there aspects that have surprised you when you see people actually try to carry it out?

Sarah: There are some challenges. For example, some of the apples in the original recipes no longer exist or are no longer known to exist. There are a number of people who are trying to track a number of historic orchards and see if they can find these trees. The other challenge is that recipes of the past were very inexact. Today, we assume that the chef has created the proper recipe and our goal is to follow it.

In the past, people assumed that the people who were cooking, women who were cooking, were sort of maestros themselves. Cookbooks always complimented women on being masters of the art and mystery of cooking. These older recipes are pretty vague. Many of them will start “Take your apples before they’re ripe and put them with water.” Well, how many apples? How much water? What does that mean before they’re ripe? How much before they’re ripe? How long to you put them with water? So it can be pretty tricky.

One of the exciting parts for me has been to taste these recipes after studying them for several years. I had never had a persimmon beer. I was surprised at both how effervescent it was. It’s a really sparkly drink. I can see why it was so popular. To me, at least, it tasted a little bit like grapefruit. I did not expect it to have this, to me it tasted a little bit like a grapefruit essence.

The Complete Cider, I got a sneak sample of before it is being opened up, and it was nice for me to taste what a sort of table cider would have been. I’ve wondered how people drank so much. So today, as you alluded to, we tend to save up our drinking, right, especially younger people sometimes, sort of save it all up for Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night. But in the past, people drank throughout the day.

Breakfast, every day, began with cider, alcoholic cider, including for children. Usually you started with a quart or pint of cider for every in the house and your drinking just continued from there. You’re drinking at mid morning breaks. You’re drinking at lunch. Benjamin Franklin talks about this in his autobiography about how much his companions in England are drinking beer; in that case, throughout the whole day. So it was nice for me to try some of these historic brews and understand that they are a little lighter. I could understand more clearly how they could have had them for breakfast.

Harmony: It’s funny to think about how maybe alcohol was unwholesome for breakfast but you think about what people are drinking now, sodas and sugary punches, you know, maybe cider was the better way to go.

Sarah: It is a given that their other options are so limited or unhealthy. So for instance, they don’t dig their wells deeply enough, so there’s all sorts of animal droppings in these wells, and bacteria. So a cider or a beer that has been boiled is much healthier. And they don’t really have access to tea or coffee until at least the mid 18th century. Tea and coffee take more time to prepare. They’re much more expensive.

Most people don’t even have milk. We have bred cows to give us a lot more milk these days. Cows in the past gave less milk. Some of them grazed on jimson weed, which made people ill if they drank the milk. So usually if people had milk they would save it to turn it into a sort of whey or cottage cheese or butter or cheese. So, cider: it’s what’s for breakfast.

Harmony: That’s so fascinating to think about the history of cider. When you sit down to have a drink, has this changed the beverage you choose, the way you enjoy it, or how you think about it?

Sarah: Absolutely! I actually was not a fan of cider when I did the research for this book which was in 2005-2006. I was mostly getting what I could get in the supermarket. Now with this wonderful resurgence of so many small breweries and cideries and distilleries, even meaderies, honey and water craft drinks, that now there’s so much to chose from that, we have so many drinks now that aren’t quite as sweet as some of those ciders in the stores. I really enjoy the less sweet ciders that you can get at your local cidery and breweries now.

Harmony: ¬†Well if you’re listening to this podcast, you will want to pick up Sarah Meacham’s book, "Every Home a Distillery," and learn more about all of these angles of alcohol that I know I certainly never stopped to consider before. So Sarah, thank you so much for being here today.

Sarah: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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