Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake. By Sarah Hand Meacham. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. 208. $48.00 cloth)

[End Page 384]

In her fascinating examination of the culture of alcohol in colonial Chesapeake, Sarah Meacham provides a colorful history of the gendered production of alcohol.

Chesapeake families consumed alcohol throughout the day. The colony's average per capita consumption was fifteen gallons of cider and three and a half gallons of spirits (today's average: two gallons of liquor and one and a half gallons of wine). Colonists considered water too polluted, so they safely quenched their thirst with spirits. Much contemporary literature extolled the healthful benefits of alcohol for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, as well. Most of this vital elixir was produced by goodwives, who pressed cider and made other beverages as part of their household responsibilities.

Meacham uses planters' journals, letters, court records, newspapers, almanacs, family papers, probates, advice books, and, most interesting of all—cookbooks. Colonial scholars have largely ignored cookbooks as historical documents. Yet through her careful study, the female dominance over alcohol production becomes clear, as does the need for historians to continue to explore nontraditional source material.

Female control over alcohol production lasted longer in the Chesapeake than New England and the Middle Colonies primarily because of the reliance on tobacco, which dictated migration patterns that stunted the development of towns and markets. Tobacco was such a labor-intensive crop that small planters did not have the time to devote to alcohol production. This also allowed women to become the primary managers of taverns to such a degree that in probate records taverns passed from mothers to daughters.

Meacham argues that the masculinization of alcoholic production in the mid-eighteenth century had three main causes: the rise of science and technology, the development of markets, and the demands of supplying an army during the American Revolution. Meacham explains how science "transformed the female art and mystery" into "men's certainty" (p. 97). Recipes in cookbooks became formulas in husbandry books, which explained the need for detailed observation, [End Page 385] daily logs, and a competency of scientific management that women could not master.

Meacham highlights this transition to male control during the same period that other historians note a declension in female power and authority. However, Meacham contends that women did not "lose out" when men took control of alcohol production and points out that women reinforced the trend by buying alcohol rather than producing it. She also argues that it was not a loss of power, because women did not make money from their production efforts but primarily supplied their families. Meacham adds an interesting element to the study of colonial life and challenges us to examine the issue of status and authority in greater depth. Maybe women were happy to give up one of the drudgeries of their household chores and free themselves up for other interests. Indeed, the ability to purchase goods in a market certainly made women's lives easier. However, it would be interesting for Meacham to explore the distinction between women's workload and gender ideas. Women may have benefitted from not having the brewing chore. Yet, they may have lost status, as a female specialty was masculinized and women were deemed unfit to participate. A similar change occurred in midwifery, as men used science to professionalize and masculinize the field. In the seven-teenth century, women were revered as midwives and goodwives were celebrated for their brew-making abilities. In the mid-eighteenth century, both fields were masculinized and women were thought to be incapable. Is this a loss of female status in that sense?

Meacham offers an engaging, thoughtful analysis of the gendered nature of alcohol production, using original sources and challenging historians to think in more complex ways about colonial men, women, and gendered labor. [End Page 386]

Monica D. Fitzgerald

Monica D. Fitzgerald is an assistant professor at Saint Mary's College of California in Morage, California, and is currently researching issues of gender and identity in colonial New England.