Events

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The (elegant brass) Christmas Box--Anno 1914

Whenever possible, I like to use images and objects in teaching. They can provide insights into specific aspects of life in the past in the past or simply help to make tangible a world that can seem irredeemably distant and alien to students.

One of the favorite objects in my collection is this one. It's not terribly rare (you can still find them fairly easily, and they don't cost a fortune), but it is special.

hinged embossed brass box, 37 x 125 mm (click to enlarge)
The Imperial War Museum calls this brass box, created as a Christmas gift for British troops in1914, "one of the most enduring mementos of the First World War."

In the center, enclosed in a circle within a wreath, is a profile of Britain's Princess Mary facing left, flanked by the cursive initial "M." Above, center, in a cartouche in the decorative border, the words "Imperium Britannicum" (British Empire) set over a garlanded sword. Below, center, a cartouche with the words "Christmas 1914." flanked by the bows of warships.

The names of the major allies, France and Russia, are set within circles over tripods of banners at left and right, respectively. In the four corner cartouches, diagonally facing the center of the lid, are the names of the other allies. Clockwise: Belgium, Japan, Montenegro, and Servia (sic).

The story is as intriguing as the box is beautiful. The War Museum, which holds the documentary and material record of the undertaking, provides the fullest recounting on its website, but here are the essentials.


'every Sailor afloat and every Soldier at the front'

The story began in the early months of the war, when Britain's Princess Mary (Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary; 1897-1965), daughter of King George V, wanted to do something to honor and cheer the troops.

The undertaking proved far more complex than anyone had anticipated, and indeed, can serve as an illustration, on a microcosmic scale, of the challenges of morale-building efforts and industrial activity in the era of nascent total war. Virtually every aspect of the project, from concept, funding, and contents, to manufacturing and distribution, had to be modified.

Although the Princess's original plan had been to make a true personal gift from her own resources, it soon became apparent that a public effort and fundraising appeal were required, so in October, she wrote:
I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?
The gift was to consist of the hinged and embossed brass box, "one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and photograph [of the Princess]." The Executive Committee then decided to produce several variant versions for those for whom the smoking-oriented contents might be inappropriate. For the non-smokers, "a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes" took the place of the tobacco and related products. Nurses at the front received chocolate instead. As for the Colonial troops: "The Gurkhas were to receive the same gift as the British troops; Sikhs the box filled with sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the Christmas card; all other Indian troops, the box with a packet of cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card."

the smoker's version (Imperial War Museum)
the nonsmoker's version (Imperial War Museum)
The fundraising campaign was so successful--bringing in nearly £ 163,000, most of it from small donations--that it allowed for boxes to be given to all troops, but this proved to be a mixed blessing, given the sheer number of recipients, estimated at some 2.6 million. The Executive Committee thereupon decided to do a sort of triage, aiming to reach recipients in Class A--essentially, the Navy, frontline troops, nurses, prisoners and internees, and families of the deceased--by Christmas, and those in Classes B (British, Colonial, and Indian troops outside the UK), and C (troops within the UK borders) later on. Because these latter were distributed after Christmas, the card proffered New Year's greetings instead.

As it happened, just fabricating the box proved more than challenge enough. The manufacturers were not eager to take on the task in the first place, but the largest problem consisted in the shortage of appropriate brass metal, even after the Committee was forced to intervene and supply it directly. In the event, there proved to be enough for the Christmas issue, but the Committee struggled to find the remainder, even turning to American sources. Nice bit of historical trivia: most of the US shipment was aboard the Lusitania, famously torpedoed by the Germans in 1915.

426,724 boxes were distributed by Christmas 1914. This meant that 1,803,147 still had to reach the other two classes, a daunting number that prompted the Committee to streamline things yet again by settling upon a uniform gift consisting of only the box, New Year's card, and pencil. After the final accounting was done in 1919, the surplus went to Queen Mary's Maternity Home, which aided the wives and newborns of men in the service.

* * *

One of the things that is so fascinating about the rise of the web and social media in museum and historical work is the possibility for dialogue, among members of the public, and between the public and professionals. There is a nice representative collection of responses--from Massachusetts and the UK to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India--on the web page of the box from Museum Victoria in Australia. Some of the commenters knew what the box was, some were learning for the first time about this mysterious object that they had in their homes. One collector and writer used the opportunity to add to his knowledge base prior to issuing a new publication. One of the most intriguing and laconic posts seems to come from a British soldier who found one in an abandoned house in the course of the current war in Afghanistan.

This sort of engagement (though presumably lacking the direct personal connection) is what I hope to bring out when I show the box in class. One can begin the conversation via any one of multiple avenues:
The striking elegance of the design and quality of the product, for example. Do they reflect a soon-to-be antiquated aesthetic?
What of the relationship between monarchy, state, and public? How do the texts and images of the box feature in the construction of a patriotic ideal?

Are students surprised to see Japan featured on the box? Why?

What do the design of the box, along with the production and distribution problems, tell us about expectations of the course of the war? Were the initiators of the project naive?

What do the contents such as tobacco and writing products tell us about the culture of the era and the daily life, hopes, and fears of the soldier in the trenches?

And what about the substitution of spices and sweets in the boxes destined for Indian troops? How did the Empire understand cultural diversity and pluralism? Why has the significant presence of Colonial forces failed to become part of our popular image of the war? (1, 2)
And then there is the now-fabled "Christmas Truce" of 1914 in which the soldiers of the opposing sides climbed out of their trenches, and for a day, at least, met face to face as friends rather than foes. Among the gifts they exchanged were cigarettes. What if this box was there? What if this box could talk?


Merry Christmas, Amherst! From Rejection to Grudging Acceptance

On Christmas Day a century before Amherst became a town, Mass Moments tells us:
in 1659, a law was passed by the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony requiring a five-shilling fine from anyone caught "observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way." Christmas Day was deemed by the Puritans to be a time of seasonal excess with no Biblical authority. The law was repealed in 1681 along with several other laws, under pressure from the government in London. It was not until 1856 that Christmas Day became a state holiday in Massachusetts. For two centuries preceding that date, the observance of Christmas — or lack thereof — represented a cultural tug of war between Puritan ideals and British tradition. 
The celebration of Christmas was thus slow to establish itself in Congregationalist Amherst, as well. In fact, when Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law Susan decorated her house ("The Evergreens") ever so modestly with a few wreaths, it caused something of a scandal, and the townsfolk began to whisper about popery.

wreath on the door of the 1856 Evergreens
The Emily Dickinson Museum has for some time been decorating the 1856 Evergreens in this fashion, but this year, it launched a special new holiday tour, devoted to explaining the evolution of Christmas habits in Amherst and the Dickinson households in the nineteenth century. Christmas is past, and I am behind schedule, but I may yet post about it because the question of Christmas decorations and historical accuracy is one that vexes many a house museum at this time of year and poses an interesting theoretical and practical question for curators and program directors.

In the meantime, greetings of the season!


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Wishing You All a Very Merry Christmas!

To my friends and readers who celebrate Christmas: wishing you a joyous holiday! And of course, greetings of the season to all!






vignette: putti rejoicing, from Das neue Testament unsers HErrn und Heylands JEsu Christi, verdeutschet durch D. Martin Luther...
 (Tübingen, drukts und verlegts Wilhelm Heinrich Schramm, 1794)

More on this book and the embellishment of 18th-century Protestant German bibles.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Amherst Woman During Prohibition Era: George Washington was NOT a drunk!



What curious, serendipitous finds one makes when doing research. A week ago, we marked the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Not long before that, I came across a perfect illustration of how American attitudes about drinking have changed since the Colonial situation described in the last post.
 "Local D.A.R. Woman Defends U.S. Ideals.
 Writes Paper Denying That George Washington was 'a Drinking Man'"
Is that one subject or two? readers could be excused for wondering as they picked up the Springfield newspaper in 1930.

The news was that the Massachusetts Daughters of the American Revolution had asked the head of the Amherst chapter to send copies of her paper on cultural conflicts and American ideals to the state and national headquarters. Her point, it seems, was openness to change, provided it occurred within the framework of our founding system: to avoid "letting down the bars to strange and foreign ideas and ideals" and "see to it that the constitution is not wrecked by the addition of weakening amendments." "The American," she said, does not hesitate to change methods if by so doing he can better conditions, but he does hold fast to the fundamentals upon which his country is founded."

A liberal defense of traditional freedoms? Conservative "strict constructionism"? It can be hard to tell from such fragments. For example, many of us now associate the D.A.R. of that period with the notorious refusal to allow African-American singer Marianne Anderson to perform in its Constitution Hall in 1939, and indeed, Amherst itself was hardly free of nativism and racist behavior. However, the author's biography suggests greater complexity.

Estella Adaline Eastman Harris (1880-1974) was a resident of my own North Amherst who married carpenter Charles Dickinson Harris (1877-1955) in 1904. Neither went to college, but clearly, she had intellectual ambitions. She was also proud of her ancestors, who included not only the Pilgrim Roger Eastman and her Revolutionary forebears, but also the great abolitionist Zebina Eastman (1815-83), one of the founders the Republican Party in Illinois, appointed by Abraham Lincoln as Consul in Bristol (1861-69).

The Liquor is the Lede?

"Foreign ideas" and challenges to the Constitutional order must have been among the pressing concerns in the political and economic crisis of the 1930s, but, curiously, the article led with the liquor, explaining that the essay "describes the attempts to discredit the great men of American history, especially George Washington, saying he was 'a drinking man.'" We don't get to the Constitution and Monroe Doctrine until more than halfway through.

The article quotes Mrs. Harris as saying:
In the olden days it was the commonly accepted custom to use liquors. As we know, many of the churches were raised to the accompaniment of strong drink. So why endeavor to dim the luster of a great man's life by accusing him of doing something that everyone at that time accepted as correct. Even in those days, he was rated as temperate.
This could of course take us into the intellectual and moral morass of historicist relativism. After all, slavery was also something that (almost) "everyone at that time accepted as correct." And when she wrote, the DAR itself practiced racial discrimination. That said, her point is quite accurate, and the subject of the previous post.

As Corin Hirsch (@latesupper) explained in her Amherst Historical Society lecture last month, everyone in Colonial America, from churchmen to Founding Fathers, drank like a sailor on leave all year 'round (and often all day). Implicitly agreeing with Mrs. Harris, she said:
  • George Washington "was a man of all things alcoholic, but he was not an alcoholic,"  "a fanboy of small beer . . . and enthusiastic swiller of porter." He also became one of the nation's leading distillers of whiskey. 
  • As for Ben Franklin, he was "a sot, marinating in porter, Champagne, brandy, Madeira and the fine wines of France." 
W. J. Rorabaugh'sThe Alcoholic Republic, (Oxford, 1981), which she used in her research, confirms Mrs. Harris's view that, when it came to heavy drinking, at least, there was no wall of separation between church and state:
New York Governor Georg Clinton honored the French ambassador with a dinner at which 120 guests downed 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch. Even in staid New England the upper classes continued to imbibe; at one Congregational minister's ordination in 1793, the celebrants consumed dozens of bottles of hard cider, wine, sherry, cherry brandy, and Jamaica rum. (48)
Ms. Hirsch provides some specific numbers: "At the 1785 ordination of a Beverly, Massachusetts, minister, the eighty attendees drank seventy-four bowls of punch as well as twenty-eight bottles of wine and eight bottles of brandy."

Lots of Liquor at Raisings. High Church?

Speaking of the church: It is said that when the horse teams brought in the granite for the foundations of our own North Amherst Church, Oliver ("Landlord") Dickinson, who had financed much of the project, rode all the way into town from Pelham atop one such load of stone, moved by drink to boisterous song. And when the church was finally dedicated, Carpenter and Morehouse tell us in their classic history of the town, "The raising was made a gala occasion, liquor being generously provided and consumed, the expenses being met by contributions."

Dickinson was a tavernkeeper, for like every good New England town, Amherst had its share of taverns. The reason this institution was so popular, as both they and Hirsch explain, is because the "public house," as the name implies, was not just a source of food, drink, and lodging, but also a social center: for meetings, discussion, reading of periodicals, even convening of court. Take the Baggs Tavern (1818 ff.), for example.

source: Wikimedia Commons


In the words of Carpenter and Morehouse:
In 1828, it was the headquarters of the democratic party in town, where caucuses were held and the politicians gathered in the bar-room of an evening to discuss the state of the country. It was famous for the excellence of the liquors served over its bar and the royal good times that were enjoyed by those who loved the liquors, not wisely but too well. It was a favorite gathering place for the old stage-drivers, who found its toddy and its flip a powerful antidote against winter's cold and summer's heat.
The Amherst branch of the D.A.R., to which Mrs. Harris belonged, is the Mary Mattoon chapter, named after the wife of a local patriot. (With characteristic inflation, we generally refer to him as "General Mattoon," but that title came late in life when he led the Massachusetts Militia; during the Revolution, he was a mere lieutenant.)



As it happens, this chapter, founded in 1894, met and now once again meets at the eighteenth-century Simeon Strong House, which was also since 1916 the home of the Amherst Historical Society, where Corin Hirsch demonstrated her Colonial bartending skills last month.


The Cider House. It Rules!

When Simeon Strong--theologian, Tory, and then respected jurist in the new republic--died in 1805 with an estate worth approximately $ 10,000, he was among the ten richest men in Amherst. A glance at his probate inventory provides some hints at the culture of drink among the upper class. It lists, for example,
  • 1 pair fluted decanters (valued at 2.50)
  • 2 pair plain decanters (2.00)
  • 2 pair round-bottomed decanters (.75), and 
  • 1 pair decanter stands (1.25). 
This, in addition to:
  • 16 wine glasses (best sort) (worth 4--)
  • 9 wine glasses (worth .90)
  • 14 tumblers (worth 1.75)
  • 5 pint tumblers (worth .62)
  • 10 tumblers and 2 small glass canns ["cans" were small, straight-sided drinking vessels] (@10, worth 1.00), and 
  • 2 one-quart tumblers (@ .33)
Among the items that his second wife brought to the marriage was a china punch bowl, once again, a luxury item (1.00: equivalent to four chamber pots--or a volume of Foster's Crown Law Reports--in case you were wondering).

At the same time, we are able to discern tastes that crossed class lines. Hirsch tells us that the hard cider "was an almost uniquely New England drink," and Timothy Dwight's account of his travels (1796-1815) described it as "the common drink of all its inhabitants, the rich and poor alike." John Adams found it "mortifying beyond all expression that we Americans should exceed all other eight millions of people on the globe . . . in this degrading, beastly vice of intemperance"--and nonetheless downed a tankard of hard cider at his daily breakfast (yes, breakfast), which speaks volumes about the cultural gap between that era and ours.

In Strong's probate inventory, we thus find 13 barrels of cider, 28 empty cider barrels, 5 old cider barrels, and 1 barrel of old cider. The typical New England farmer, we are told, produced about 10 (50-gallon) barrels per year. According to Hirsch, "By the mid-1700s, the average New England family might consume a barrel of cider a week," which explains her verdict, "Early Americans imbibed hard cider with gusto."

You see how everything comes full circle?

Today, although our drinking habits and mores have changed, cider has been undergoing a revival. Our Pioneer Valley cider business, too, is growing: its products are sold at the Amherst farmers market, the All Things Local Cooperative, and an annual festival dedicated to the juice of the apple.

One is strongly tempted to conclude that Mrs. Harris took much of her argument from Carpenter and Morehouse. They write, somewhat apologetically, before launching into a discussion of the rise of temperance movements:
the drinking habits of the earlier residents of Amherst . . . . were not peculiar, merely following the fashion of their times. It is almost impossible, in later times and under changed conditions, to write of the liquor problem as it existed in the closing years of the 18th and the opening years of the 19th centuries, without doing something of an injustice to those who upheld a system which has since come to be looked upon as pernicious and degrading. The part that liquor then bore in social, business and community life was honored if not honorable. Total abstinence from liquor, while not unknown, was looked upon as an eccentricity rather than a virtue. The minister drank liquor with his deacons, the lawyer with his clients, the doctor with his patients. A 'raising' without the presence of liquor was unknown; ministers drank flip at ecclesiastical councils and ordinations; hardly a trade was made at the village without 'something to wash it down.' . . . Drunkenness, while not encouraged, was tolerated, carrying with it no special disgrace.
Like it or not, heavy drinking was among "the fundamentals upon which [t]his country is founded." As the late historian Eugen Weber wrote, the decent folk in the Anglo-American world of that era were drunk all the time, dead drunk most of the time, and apparently none the worse for it except in the long run, and perhaps not even then. Mrs. Harris--whose drinking habits we do not know (though she lived to the ripe old age of 93)--might not have put it quite that way to the prim dames of the DAR, but her point was the same.


Cheers.


updates:

updated images

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Before It Was Safe to Drink the Water: Amherst Historical Society Teaches You How to Drink Like a Colonist

The annual meeting of the Amherst Historical Society typically includes a guest lecture. This year, at the suggestion of visiting curator Marianne Curling, we combined the talk (at the Jones Library) with a subsequent event (at the History Museum next door) that was at once demonstration, experience, and fundraiser. As the description put it, "Before it was safe to drink the water, tipples at breakfast, lunch, tea time and dinner were the norm in Colonial New England, and low-alcohol hard cider was sometimes a part of even children’s lives." Who would not be intrigued?

Our guest speaker was Corin Hirsch (@latesupper), author of Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips and Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer, who has been presenting her first book to considerable acclaim elsewhere in the region and beyond. (Here's a podcast from my tweep @marianpl over at Fieldstone Common.)

Ms. Hirsch, humbly describing herself as a foodie rather than a historian and characterizing her book as "a romp" rather than a "scholarly" work, was an engaging speaker who took the audience on a sort of guided tour of the region's early drinking habits. The book is divided into four parts: Why They Drank, Where They Drank, What They Drank, and How They Drank, though the latter two overlap as part 4 consists of recipes with descriptions. The lecture began with the "Why" and "Where" but focused on the "What," conducting us from drink to drink in a manner that also roughly followed chronology.



It began with Hogarth's famed etchings of "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street," to illustrate the contemporary views on dangerous (foreign, newfangled) vs. healthful (traditional, national) drinking habits. Although the social and medical consequences of gin-drinking among the poor became a cause for concern, steady consumption of other forms of alcohol was simply a normal way of life. As Ms. Hirsch reminded us (and many of us know), the Pilgrims and Puritans were plenty fond of their drink. In fact, one of the reasons the Pilgrims finally picked a settlement site in 1620 was because their beer supply was running low. The Mayflower had also carried hard spirits and probably wine. By the time the newcomers celebrated that first Thanksgiving in 1621, they had already brewed their own beer.

Beer

Although beer-brewing was an almost universal practice in English farms and villages, it was not without its challenges in America. Hops grew well: the first plant was imported in 1628, Ms. Hirsch explained. But growing good barley for the malt was more difficult in the North American climate, so the colonists used any substance that was handy to produce the necessary sugars: potato, pumpkin (yes, pumpkin ale is nothing new)--even berries, birch bark, maple syrup, or spruce tips; the latter imparted a favored hop-like bitterness to the brew.

Cider

Hard cider was also ubiquitous: the value of traditional apple varieties lay in their suitability for long winter storage--and production of alcohol. And even the wild varieties, which made for poor eating, served perfectly well as a source of fermentable juice. (It was not for nothing that Leominster native Johnny Appleseed was later so popular.) As historians of early America and material culture can tell you, John Adams knocked back a pint (the equivalent of two pints of typical modern beer, Ms. Hirsch explains) at breakfast every day. Children drank a weak version--and sometimes even the strong stuff. And we were none the worse for it. Sometimes it even led to victory (or at least did not prevent it).

The "Stone-Fence"--a blend of hard cider and rum--seems to have inspir(it)ed Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys prior to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. As Ms. Hirsch puts it in her book, "Drunk, hung over or just a combination of the two, they found a slumbering guard to Ticonderoga, and the American militiamen claimed their first victory of the war."

Wine

By contrast, the wine trade was slow to develop. Despite high hopes occasioned by the prevalence of wild grapes (the east coast was the fabled Viking Vinland, after all), European varieties suitable for making fine wines did poorly in the climate of both New England and Virginia. This did not stop the colonists from making wine from wild grapes (and, well, almost anything and everything that would ferment) for personal consumption, but wines of quality remained an imported good for the elite, which gave it an undemocratic taint in the Revolutionary era and beyond. That, too, did not stop the greatest of the Revolutionary leaders from indulging their taste for it. In the book, Ms. Hirsch aptly characterizes Thomas Jefferson as "perhaps the most famous colonial oenophile," and Ben Franklin as "a sot, marinating in porter, Champagne, brandy, Madeira and the fine wines of France." And as for Washington, "He was a man of all things alcoholic, but he was not an alcoholic." In the book, she calls him "a fanboy of small beer . . . and enthusiastic swiller of porter" as well as a failed vintner and very successful distiller.

Rum etc.

For then there was the hard stuff. Every schoolchild is (or was, or should be) familiar with the notorious "triangle" or "triangular" "trade" involving the circulation of captive Africans, Caribbean sugar or molasses, and New England rum. Although distillation of whiskey began in the early seventeenth century, it became the quintessential American and frontier drink only when the Revolution interrupted the rum trade.

It was ironic, Ms. Hirsch noted, that, in 1794, George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion that arose in opposition to the new federal tax on spirits, and then went on to become a distiller himself (of course he paid his tax). Between 1797 and 1799, his production rose from 600 to 11,000 gallons, making him one of the leading producers in the country.
Excursus
During the question-and-answer session, former Jones Library Trustee and (before that) Washington litigator Sarah McKee recalled having seen George Washington's original still--confiscated during the charade of Prohibition--in the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) museum near her place of work in the nation's capital. This got me curious, of course. I had been to most major Washington museums (though not that one) as well as Mount Vernon in the past few years. The old still now appears in the collections of the Smithsonian. As for Mount Vernon and the ATF, they have made their peace, for the latter granted the former a permit to conduct distilling in 2001. The site, several miles away from the mansion, near a good source of water, was excavated between 1999 and 2006, and reconstructed from 2007-9. And, nota bene: if your timing is right, you can still buy its new product.

Ancestors of the Cocktail

Many popular Colonial drinks were also mixtures involving some elements of the above. Each often had several variants, depending on one's taste and the availability of the ingredients.

Among the most famous (and most misunderstood; we all read pirate tales as kids, right?) is grog: essentially, a dilution of rum including water, citrus, and a sweetener.

Syllabub might consist of "cider blended with cream, rum and sugar, although wine could be used in place of the cider."

Flip was "a blend of beer; rum; a sweetener such as molasses, sugar or dried pumpkin; and occasionally eggs and cream." (Ms. Hirsch recommends a light brown ale rather than a porter or other darker brew). It could be expensive: in at least one town, it cost more than a night's accommodation. I myself have always admired the large glasses in which it was traditionally prepared or served.

flip glass from the collections of Historic Deerfield
It also made history. As Ms. Hirsch tells it: the Minutemen of Lexington dutifully assembled when the first alarm was sounded in the wee hours back in 1775, but after they were dismissed at around 2 a.m., some eighty of them repaired to the Buckman Tavern (rather than their homes), where they continued to drink flip until they stumbled out to confront the British regulars toward daybreak. As more than one commentator has noted, the guns were not the only things that were loaded on that famed April Morning.

Punch--derived from the Hindi "panch," or five--referring to the number of ingredients (which varied considerably) was, in Ms. Hirsch's words, "quite a democratic drink in a way." It was meant to be shared communally, after all. It was thus a serious business and once again confounds simplistic stereotypes of religious Christians. As the book notes, "At the 1785 ordination of a Beverly, Massachusetts, minister, the eighty attendees drank seventy-four bowls of punch as well as twenty-eight bottles of wine and eight bottles of brandy." Not exactly your stereotypical evangelical buzzkills. I'd wager that the congregants of Amherst's First Church (separate story on that institution to follow) could come nowhere near that achievement nowadays, for more than one reason.

As Ms. Hirsch explained, "Drinking in America really exploded after the [Revolutionary] War."

Per capita consumption for every person over the age of 15 amounted to 5 gallons of spirits, 34 gallons of beer, and 1 gallon of wine. Today, by contrast, the US has the lowest per capita alcohol consumption in the developed world. Even at a respectable 14th place in beer consumption (20.4 gallons), for example, we lag well behind not only our forebears, but also the second- and third-place Germans and Austrians (28 and 28.5 gallons, respectively), and the world-leading Czechs at 39.3. But our founding fathers would have earned us a clear second place.

Oh, yes, the infamous, intriguing and appropriately named "Rattle-Skull" consisted of a pint of porter or other dark beer, along with rum, brandy, sherry, and (optional) lime juice and nutmeg. As Ms. Hirsch noted, you probably wouldn't want to drive home after one of these, which go down with surprising ease.

Boozing peaked around 1825, and the high point of the drinking culture also marked the birth of the temperance movement. Perhaps we have always oscillated between unhealthy extremes. As Ms. Hirsch writes in her book, "That American society could reach a nadir of drunkenness only a few decades before outlawing drinking altogether speaks to an all-or-naught national psychology."


After the lecture, many members of the audience adjourned to the neighboring c. 1750 Simeon Strong House, site of the Amherst History Museum, for hors d'oeuvres and a sampling of representative historical beverages:  Flip, made with ale, rum, molasses, a beaten egg and nutmeg; Syllabub, made with white wine, lemon juice, heavy cream, sugar, and nutmeg; a mulled wine, and hard cider from All Things Local.

Ms. Hirsch prepared and served some of the more complex beverages. Among the highlights: making flip the traditional way by plunging a red-hot poker into the pitcher of liquid. Admittedly, not all traditions can be observed due to the modern preservation policy and safety regulations in historic structures: we used a propane-fired barbecue a safe distance away from the house.

video



the final product: Corin Hirsch serves the flip
As guests sampled a half-dozen drinks, Hampshire College students Emma John and Deidre Kelly performed traditional songs. I happened to walk in as they were singing "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." First published in 1841, it seems to refer to the events of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It's a personal favorite of mine because I grew up with it: my father learned it while in the military in Scotland during World War II.




Appropriately enough, the portrait beneath which they are seated at the historic piano, on loan from the Heath Historical Society, reflects the shared musical interest of the Emerson family of Amherst (which owned this house) and their relatives to the east. Records describe the painting as "a family group which Dr. Emerson allowed a deaf and dumb travelling man to paint, out of pity for him." Scholars surmise that the painter was Augustus Fuller (b. 1812, Deerfield, d. 1872) and that the portrait was painted circa 1837.



The proverbial (to cite that awkward and oft-parodied phrase) "good time was had by all." So much so, in fact, that we hope to repeat the event in the future.

In the meantime, if you're tempted, you will enjoy Corin's essay on "5 Colonial-Era Drinks You Should Know" (from Seriouseats). But this is one of the few occasions on which it is wiser to give in to temptation. So, just buy the book: you know you want to. It will make a great holiday present.



Update: article link