On Independence Day, you won’t see Americans toast the United States with mugs of tea. Hot weather aside, tea is the villain of Fourth of July celebrations.While the holiday honors the Declaration of Independence, the Boston Tea Party is one of many revolutionary acts Americans will patriotically reflect on this summer. But what do we really know about colonial American drinking habits and the political ideologies behind them?
Colonists turned against tea when their relationship with the British Empire soured in the 1760s, but colonists drank a lot more than tea. Alcohol, coffee and chocolate would also play critical roles in the American Revolution. There is a reason Americans are infatuated with alcohol, coffee and chocolate (and not tea) today. This obsession can be traced all the way back to our country’s struggle for independence. When colonists transformed their drinking habits in the name of liberty, they also changed American palates forever. The history of these three drinks captures how colonists transformed American culture when they created an American nation.
If you are looking for a patriotic reason to enjoy an alcoholic beverage on Independence Day, look no further: eighteenth-century Americans would not have dreamed of celebrating the triumph of independence any other way. Though alcohol plays a major part in modern American culture, its present role pales in comparison to the status it had in colonial society. While Americans drink about 2.3 gallons of alcohol per capita annually today, Americans drank an average of thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine per year in 1790. In the decades immediately following the American Revolution, Americans drank more alcohol per capita than ever before (or since).
Alcohol was first and foremost a practical choice. In the days before an understanding of bacteria and purification, colonists believed water was unhealthy since it often made them sick. Alcohol was a safer choice and, by the eighteenth century, distilled spirits were cheap and widely available. Alcohol was such a normal part of society that it was served at almost every meal and social occasion, even at work. Colonists believed drinking different alcoholic beverages was part of a proper diet. Taverns were hubs of social activity, where colonists could also read newspapers, hold business meetings, or lodge for the night (You could even pick up your mail at taverns. Taverns were, essentially, the first American post offices.).
This prominent drinking culture created a society where heavy drinking was expected, but drunkenness was loathed. The “Drinker’s Dictionary” published in The Pennsylvania Gazette, believed to have been written by Ben Franklin, recorded dozens of terms used to refer to drunkenness, such as fuddled, moon-ey’d, like a rat in trouble, and in the sudds. Visitors to America often took notice of how much colonists drank, and were impressed that they “could imbibe heavily without the appearance of intoxication.” Even though substantial alcohol consumption was socially acceptable, alcohol abuse was viewed as a moral failing and “offenders” faced punishment and public humiliation. One Massachusetts tavern went as far as posting a list of men who had been accused of public drunkenness on their front door. Benjamin Rush, a pioneer of psychiatry and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the first and earliest Americans to recognize alcoholism as a disease. In his 1784 essay, An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors, Rushasserted that “spirituous liquors destroy more lives than the sword.” Alcohol would not be widely judged as a social evil until the Second Great Awakening spurred temperance movements in the nineteenth century (see our article on the role of women in temperance movements).
Some interesting facts about alcohol:
- The most popular liquor in colonial America was… rum? Today, rum makes us think of exotic getaways and warm beaches, not our daily nightcap. In the eighteenth century, Caribbean islands like Barbados were fellow members of the British Empire and close trading partners with the American colonies. Rum was a critical part of the “triangle trade’ between the Americas, Europe and Africa (this included the slave trade, in which over 12 million Africans were forcibly displaced across the Atlantic Ocean). Millions of enslaved Africans were sent to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where molasses was produced as a byproduct of processing sugar cane. Some of this molasses was then sent to New England to be used in distilling rum. This link to the British Caribbean meant rum could be made and sold cheaply in the American colonies, or purchased directly from the Caribbean (for a higher price). According to Colonial Williamsburg, some historians estimate that American men drank an average of three pints of rum every week before the Revolution. In 1770, there were over 140 rum distilleries in the colonies cranking out 4.8 million gallons of rum every year.
- Feeling trendy drinking that local brew? That is so 1760. Today, many business and finance experts have noticed a huge surge in craft beers and microbreweries across the country (See a recent article by Forbesor watch an interview with The Craft Beer Revolution author Steve Hindy) Local and home brewing were routine to many American colonists. Hard cider was one of the most common. Small farmers who could not afford to purchase alcohol made their own unhopped ale and ciders from apples, peaches and other local produce. While home brewing was common, practices and preferences varied widely across regions and classes. While alcohol production was seen as a male activity in New England and the Middle colonies, for example, women were the main producers of alcohol at home in the Chesapeake.
- Our Founding Fathers were also founding distillers. And brewers. And vintners.The great American minds of the eighteenth century weren’t just concocting declarations of independence; they were also devising ways to produce alcohol. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among these enterprising Americans. Following his presidency, Washington’s Scottish farm manager John Anderson convinced him to start a whiskey business. Anderson rightly assured Washington that it would be an extremely profitable investment. By his death in 1799, Washington would have the largest distillery in Virginia. Operating with five stills instead of the typical two or three, Washington’s distillery produced 10,500 gallons of whiskey and brandy in a single year, valued at more than $7,500. About one hundredmiles southwest of Mount Vernon, Washington’s fellow Virginian Jefferson also plotted his own venture in alcohol, with much less success. A dedicated francophile, Jefferson dreamed of recreating the European wine he loved on Virginia soil. In 1773, Jefferson converted 2,000 acres of land into a vineyard but time after time the grapes failed. Jefferson wasn’t alone. Other prominent planters tried to grow wine grapes with similar results. Washington’s failed vineyard was ridiculed by his French friend:
“[I wish I could] walk and go towards the grove to observe the growth of your trees, even of your vineyard, that a french man can, I dare say, examinewithout jealousy; for, my dear general, you can sow and reap laurels, but grapes and wine are not within the compass of your powers.”
Oh, coffee. Coffee has become a staple in modern American society (Be honest, you’re probably drinking some as you read this). Today, the coffee market in the United States is worth $19 billion a year. In colonial America, however, coffee was available but less widely enjoyed than its caffeine counterpart, tea. Coffee was native to Ethiopia but eventually reached Europe in the sixteenth century. In 1616, the Dutch smuggled coffee seeds to the East Indies and coffee became a part of New World plantation systems. Dutch and French colonies led coffee production in the Americas, but the British eventually introduced it to Jamaica in 1728. Coffee was available and affordable through the Atlantic trade but, unlike tea, coffee had to be ground. Many colonists did not have time for or the interest in the extra labor coffee required to have a cup at home, but many enjoyed having a drink at a coffeehouse.
Some interesting facts about coffee:
- Coffee was a luxury. Today, specialty coffee shops and coffeemakers (we are thinking of a certain green logo here) have refashioned good old coffee drinking into a luxurious experience. As Bryant Simon argues in Everything but Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, this company turned pricier, handcrafted coffee into a status symbol and “customers identified themselves as belonging to…a group of successful people with hip, urbane tastes.” You could say that this new image for coffee isn’t really that new at all. Adams and Jefferson weren’t drinking lattes while enjoying the latest Paul McCartney single, but colonists did use coffee to display their status. While tea was more expensive per pound than coffee, coffee required more labor to prepare. This extra time commitment meant that wealthy colonists could show off their privileged status by serving coffee. On many southern plantations, enslaved people were in charge of grinding coffee but had little access to it themselves.
- Before there was instant coffee, there were coffee substitutes. Colonists who could not afford coffee and enslaved people who were denied access to it created their own forms of coffee. Slaves used items from their own gardens—such as cowpeas and sweet potatoes—to make substitutes for coffee. Artificial coffee could also be made from corn. An enslaved man from Georgia recalled that “real coffee was an unheard-of luxury among slaves; so scorched or corn meal served the purpose just as well.” ( In his narrative Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup describes how “Jenny’s business was to prepare the coffee, which consisted of corn meal scorched in a kettle, boiled and sweetened with molasses.” (See our article about the recent film based on Northup’s narrative)
- Before social media, there were coffeehouses. Since colonists lacked access to a newsfeed, colonists went to coffeehouses for their daily digest. Coffeehouses had been fashionable in England since the 1650s, and they were imitated in the colonies. You can imagine the dangers of making business deals and talking politics in a colonial tavern, so coffeehouses became a popular social alternative for men. Like taverns, coffeehouses weren’t restricted to particular classes. Men of all backgrounds gathered in coffeehouses to enjoy a drink and discuss the news of the day, exchange ideas, or read aloud papers and pamphlets. John Adams noted that “the Debates, and Deliberations in Congress are impenetrable Secrets: but the Conversations in the City, and the Chatt of the Coffee house, are free, and open.” Coffeehouses were applauded for great conversation but they could also be dens of gossip and false rumors. In 1765, Ben Franklin wrote a satirical article about the rampant false, imaginative and contradictory articles printed in newspapers, noting their audience of “Coffee-house Students in History and Politics.” Though open to all classes, coffeehouses were only open to men. Women were forbidden to access this critical political space and participate in its political discourse. Coffeehouses propagated separate public and private spheres for men and women in colonial America.
Imagine, for a moment, a life without chocolate. It is a dark world to visualize, but one that was very real for colonial Americans. Don’t feel too sorry for colonists, though. Chocolate wasn’t a food; it was a drink. Drinking chocolate was often enjoyed for breakfast, a tradition many Americans probably wouldn’t mind resuming. Martha Washington, George Washington’s wife, even steeped cocoa bean shells in hot water to make a chocolate-flavored “tea” to have with her morning meal.
Chocolate was slightly more expensive than tea and coffee, so it was mostly enjoyed by wealthier colonists. Chocolate cost roughly 12-14 shillings per pound, which was an entire week’s wages for a typical laborer. Like coffee, chocolate also required extra labor to prepare. Chocolate was often purchased as a solid bar that had to be turned into a drink. To fix chocolate, colonists grated chocolate into hot water. Colonists could then mix in a variety of additives like sugar, red pepper or cinnamon, to their taste (and their wallets. Spices were extremely expensive). This multi-step preparation meant colonists could acquire specialized equipment, such as chocolate pots and stirring rods, to show off their status. Thomas Jefferson, inspired by his trip to a Roman temple in France, ordered a silver chocolate pot in the form of an askos, an ancient vessel used to serve wine. The majority of chocolate drinkers, however, would have enjoyed their chocolate drink in cheaper metal or ceramic chocolate pots or without any specialized equipment.
Some interesting facts about chocolate:
- Chocolate is an American invention. While Hershey, Mars, and Ghirardelli may have national adoration, they were far from the first chocolatiers on American soil. While these companies changed the game of the American chocolate industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, chocolate had been produced in America for millennia. Three thousand years before the first cacao seed appeared in Europe, Mesoamerican civilizations were developing chocolate. The cacao tree originates from the Amazon Basin in South America where the Aztecs and Mayans, with practices passed down from the Olmecs, honed the laborious process of producing chocolate from cacao beans. The scientific name for cacao, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods” which honors the spiritual importance of chocolate in these early American civilizations. When cacao—or cocoa—entered the Atlantic market, the American colonies benefited from chocolate’s American origins. Since they were closer to where cacao was produced, colonists were often spared the high import duties on cocoa that the English had to pay. In 1776, there was only one recorded chocolate maker in Britain but about 70 in the American colonies.
- Warning: Do not eat that chocolate bar. Believe us when we tell you that you wouldn’t want to bite into an eighteenth-century chocolate bar. While enslaved people made chocolate from cocoa beans on some southern plantations, the majority of Americans bought their chocolate bars from New England mills. Millers, who often produced other products besides chocolate, such as flour and mustard, had imperfect roasting and grinding technology. Chocolate bars were rough, grainy, and, most importantly, often contained little or no sugar. While a bar of pure chocolate may sound delicious, if you have ever mistakenly taken a bite out of baking chocolate then you have experienced the very bitter taste of ground cacao.
- Feeling ill? Chocolate cures everything. Chocolate was believed to have healthful properties in colonial America and could be seen on shelves in apothecaries and hospitals. Before his infamous military career, Benedict Arnold sold chocolate in his apothecary in New Haven, Connecticut (see our article on Arnold here). Chocolate was occasionally prescribed for specific maladies such as fainting fits, weak digestion, pain and even smallpox. When several smallpox epidemics swept the colonies, chocolate was often part of one’s pre-inoculation diet. Chocolate’s high calorie content prevented the weight loss that typically came with the disease and treatment. Franklin, under the name Richard Saunders, recommended chocolate for small pox in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1761.
In conjunction with historic sites, American Heritage Chocolate recreated a colonial chocolate mix and their website offers a variety of chocolate recipes.
The Consumer Revolution
So why were these drinks so important to the American Revolution? Before Americans were patriots, they were consumers.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the American colonies were firmly established members of the British Empire. Financial success came with thriving commerce and population growth. By 1774, colonists’ incomes were among some of the highest in the world, embedded within an economy heavily dependent on slavery and the slave trade. Now, this isn’t to say that all colonists were rolling in piles of gold and living in mansions. Roughly 95% of free Americans lived in rural areas and the wealthiest 10% of colonists owned 56% of the wealth (Though that is much greater distribution of wealth than today.Business Week estimates that the richest 1% of Americans control roughly 39.8% of wealth.) But still, most colonial Americans began to enjoy relative financial stability.
Colonists’ growing wallets inspired new spending habits. For decades, colonial culture valued frugality. Whether for religious reasons (think Puritans) or practicality, early American settlers admired and expected simplicity. For lower and middle class immigrants, wealth was supposed to be spent on useful essentials, such as cattle, land or labor, and not fine wines. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, a more secure, diverse and successful American economy created acceptance for more frivolous amenities. Luxuries, like elegant furniture, imported clothing, and exotic foods (including tea), became the new way Americans could demonstrate their social status to one another. This shift is now known as the “consumer revolution.”
Buying these goods became a critical part of how colonists defined their identities both as Americans and as members of the British Empire. Americans rested a large part of their British identity on their opportunity to participate in this global trade and their ability to imitate British aristocracy. While most Americans depended on the local market for a majority of their immediate needs, colonists looked abroad to purchased the more “extravagant” items that often were not made or not made as well in America. In the 1760s, 27.5% of colonial American purchases were for items made in England or other British colonies, like the Caribbean.
Boycotting Britain: The Nonimportation Movement
This “revolution” before the Revolution was one of the reasons Americans were so testy when Britain began to muddle colonial imports and trade. In the 1760s, Britain began to create and execute stricter laws on the colonial economy and imports. To protest British interference with their trade, many Americans chose to boycott the imported luxuries that they had come to treasure.
Colonists rallied around this non-importation movement, giving them a new, shared American identity and cause. Largely led by common people and local communities, this was a true “grassroots” crusade that crossed class and gender boundaries. In The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped the American Revolution, historian T.H. Breen argues that this collective non-importation movement allowed diverse groups of colonists to unite over their roles as consumers and to imagine themselves as a successful, independent nation. Americans pledged publicly and privately to abstain from British goods. In 1770, Washington told his merchant in London that his order for imported goods should only be fulfilled “upon [the] condition that the Act of Parliament Imposing a Duty upon Tea, Paper &ca for the purpose of raising a Revenue in America is totally repeald…as it will not be in my power to receive any Articles contrary to our Non-Importation Agreement, to which I have suscribd, & shall religiously adhere to.” Even women, who were normally shunned from politics, were able to actively participate in boycotts and sign petitions.
Americans had to adjust their drinking habits without the privilege of the Atlantic market.They turned to their backyards and local markets for new, domestic choices. This was the first “buy local, buy American” movement. Alcohol, coffee and chocolate took on new roles when colonists had to give up their former preferences.
Americans were not prepared to alter their heavy drinking habits when trade with the British Caribbean became uncertain. Rum was one of the first drinks ousted by the American Revolution and colonists turned to a homegrown alcohol instead: whiskey. Whiskey was not a commercial beverage before the Revolution. Often distilled from corn or rye in the colonies (rather than the traditional barley), farmers could make extra money by cheaply converting their surplus crop into whiskey. When the Revolution began, demand for whiskey skyrocketed. Rum was less available, so whiskey was a practical choice, but whiskey was also a patriotic choice. As Mary Miley Theobald states, whiskey “was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain.” While whiskey became popular due to British taxation, it ironically became a taxation issue for the new United States. Between 1791 and 1794, farmers protested a new excise tax on whiskey initiated by Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. These protests culminated in a small uprising in western Pennsylvania that had to be controlled by the militia. The so-called Whiskey Rebellion was one of the first major tests for the new federal government.
While colonists found an easy substitute for rum in their taverns, tea was a more difficult beverage to replace. Tea was one of the most prominent and debated boycott items because tea was more than just a drink; it was a symbol. There is a reason why Americans remember that December night in 1773 when members of the Sons of Liberty, a political group, disguised themselves in redface as Mohawks and dumped hundreds of British tea chests into the Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party was a protest against British taxes but, most importantly, was a symbolic rejection of British culture. Americans needed a new, politically correct national drink but they didn’t want to give up enjoying a hot beverage in the afternoon. Enter coffee and chocolate.
Demand for coffee and chocolate soared when many Americans gave up tea. The race was on for the new American drink. Between 1768 and 1773, New England alone imported nearly two million pounds of “foreign” cocoa from the non-British West Indies. Thomas Jefferson believed that “by getting it [chocolate] good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain.” While Jefferson was on Team Chocolate, John Adams fell under the spell of coffee. While travelling in 1774, he wrote to his wife, Abigail, about his experience with coffee:
“I believe I forgot to tell you one Anecdote: When I first came to this House it was late in the Afternoon, and I had ridden 35 miles at least. “Madam” said I to Mrs. Huston, “is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?”
“No sir, said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but I’le make you Coffee.” Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.”
While tea could still be smuggling into the colonies, many Americans stood firm in boycotting the drink that they had become so accustomed to. An English visitor to Virginia also noted the strong absence of tea at a ball he attended, observing there was “Coffee and Chocolate, but no Tea. This Herb is in disgrace amongst them at present.”
The American Revolution changed more than government. The Revolution challenged colonial identity and forced colonists to consider what it meant to be American. This challenge infiltrated daily life, all the way down to what colonists decided to drink with their breakfast. The transition from the consumer revolution to the nonimportation movement in the 1760s and 1770s demonstrates how important material goods were in shaping the road to American independence. The boycott of British goods gave Americans a new identity — and a new menu—that still influences us today.
About the author: Christina Regelski has Bachelor’s degrees in History and Archaeology from the University of Virginia and a Master’s degree in History from George Mason University. She will begin her Ph.D. in History at Rice University in August 2014, where her work will focus on race, gender and material culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century American South. Christina has a background in museum education and she is passionate about public history and digital history.
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