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The Points Interview: Sarah Meacham

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

We’re delighted to present the sixth installment of the Points Interview, in which we make our first foray into the colonial period in North America.  Points talks with Prof. Sarah Hand Meacham, author of Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).  Prof. Meacham is currently an assistant professor in the Department of History at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Every Home a Distillery employs some skillful historical detective work to examine women’s role in the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages, and the manner in which men ultimately asserted their own primacy in that field of endeavor.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

In Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), I analyze the interesting question of how

Cover of Every Home a Distillery

But probate records, cookbooks, and letters make clear that it was women’s work to make cider in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake. Cider was the chief drink in that region. Beer and ale spoiled too quickly in the heat, the water was unsafe, milk was generally unavailable, and tea and coffee were too expensive for all but the wealthy until after 1745. In addition, initially very few people had stills to make spirits because the equipment was so large, risky, and expensive.

By 1725, English authors had figured out how to build simpler, faster stills and had published a variety of books on the topic. This literature reveals how men transformed alcohol production from cookery into science. For example, authors claimed that only men could correctly use the new scientific instruments like the thermometer and saccharometer, or understand new words like alkali. They also said that women would not understand how to keep notes on different batches of brew.

Part of what is so remarkable is that Chesapeake men knew that making alcohol had become men’s work in Europe by 1600, and yet they chose to leave it with women. It was really only in the 1770s that white Chesapeake men became heavily involved in making alcohol, and they focused on distilling. The delay was rational: until distilling technology became cheaper and easier to transport, it just was not useful for men who could put themselves and their male laborers to work growing tobacco. Tobacco was and is a demanding crop; it left little time for leisure or experimentation.

The American Revolution finished the transition to scientific alcohol production in two ways. First of all, men in the army’s camps had time to talk and share their techniques. Secondly, George Washington changed the army’s alcohol rations midway through the war. Initially, soldiers’ rations had included molasses, allowing the largely female camp followers to make a sort of molasses “beer.” Women slowed the army down, however, and George Washington banned them from camps in 1783. At the same time, Washington changed the ration system by substituting rum for molasses and requiring the rum suppliers to agree to contracts of one year or longer. As a result of the new rules, American soldiers learned that American men drank rum and that it was men’s work to make rum and other distilled liquors.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

William Rorabaugh asked in The Alcoholic Republic why the temperance movement began when it did, in the 1780s. He demonstrated that it was a reaction to an increase in alcohol consumption by American men. By the late eighteenth century, white American men were drinking, on average, about seven shots of rum per day.

In the final chapter of Every Home a Distillery, I try to add to Rorabaugh’s research by looking at the effects of declining prices for tea and coffee. Early on, only the wealthy could afford to drink tea and coffee. Tea in particular became much cheaper to drink after 1745 when England lowered the tea taxes and became affordable enough for a middling-class family to drink every day. In those households, drinking an alcoholic beverage now became a choice. The availability of caffeinated alternatives made it much easier to take the temperance pledge.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I’m still amazed that some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cookbooks survive from the region. Literacy rates in the early Chesapeake were so low that very few documents were written at all. Even official documents that were typically safeguarded, such as probates, wills, and depositions, have fallen victim to rats, floods, and fires. Early American women must have spilled food on the recipes, and they cooked over open hearths. We are very fortunate that any of their recipes survive.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from Every Home a Distillery are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I hope someone will research women’s roles in the 1790s Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. While distilling had become men’s work in Eastern Virginia and Maryland by the 1790s, in the rural western areas, such as Western Pennsylvania, families may have returned to the practice of having women make their alcohol. I found while researching Every Home a Distillery that women frequently signed the whiskey tax records. What I don’t know is whether they signed the forms because they owned the stills or because the men were away from home or out in the fields. In any case, I suspect that women played a larger role in the Whiskey Rebellion than we realize.

BONUS QUESTION: When Ken Burns makes a documentary of your book, who will do the voiceover? Cate Blanchett would be perfect!

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