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Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake.

Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake. By Sarah Hand Meacham (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 187 pp.).

This book explores the history of women and the production of alcohol in the Chesapeake from the years 1690 through 1800. Meacham shows that women produced alcohol up until the mid to late eighteenth century when men took over the process.

She convincingly argues that alcohol consumption was central to the lives of men and women in the colonial period. Her argument here is that alcoholic beverages were the safest (water being contaminated) and most available during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In addition, the English colonists of the Chesapeake came from a society with a penchant for using alcohol. People used alcohol as medical remedies, as cleansers, and as beverages throughout the day. Since drinking was gendered, men drank at church, at polling places, and as soldiers, while women drank during occasions such as quilting bees. Servants and slaves also drank prodigious amounts of alcohol. For example, a household of six people, including one parent, two children and three servants or slaves drank seventy-five gallons of hard cider per year as well as seventeen and a half gallon of distilled liquor.

Meacham's study shows that in the seventeenth through the mid eighteenth century women in small-planter households were in charge of making cider, whereas in other areas in the Atlantic world alcohol production had moved into the purview of men by this time. She argues that women's control of alcohol production in the Chesapeake, however, did not bring them status or power within the community because they did not sell their cider, rather it was for household use alone. Women in small-planter households could not produce enough cider to last year round, however. Therefore, the households turned to large plantations to buy alcohol during parts of the year. The large planters had the capability to produce hard cider year round, and that production was in the hands of men.

In addition to purchasing alcohol from large plantations, people purchased alcohol from taverns. Meacham successfully argues that taverns were important social venues for business, politics, and socializing. She shows that in the Chesapeake, perhaps unlike in other colonies where poorer women were tavern keepers, women of the middling and upper classes ran taverns. They did not secure tavern licenses, however. Men secured the licenses in their own names through their connections with elite planters. She posits that perhaps magistrates wanted women to run taverns because by the late eighteenth century women were seen as "civilizing influence[s]." After 1760 colonists were not limited to buying liquor from elite plantations or taverns, however. There were many more places where colonists in the Chesapeake could purchase liquor. For example, new Scottish stores carried liquor, especially rum, and became important places for colonists to buy alcohol.

Meacham also argues that in the late eighteenth century the production of alcohol became a science rather than an art, which facilitated its movement from the purview of women to that of men. Treatises on how to make alcohol moved from cookbooks for women to "husbandry" books for men. In addition, men could hire unskilled workers to make alcohol because of the inventions of the alembic still, the thermometer, saccharometer, and hydrometer. By the time of the American Revolution women were shut out of the alcohol trade to an even greater degree. While whiskey and rum were officially part of the rations of the soldiers, women were not allowed to sell alcohol to soldiers. Therefore, the lucrative market of the military was left in the hands of male producers.

In her last chapter she writes about problem drinking. She suggests that because little was written about women's problem drinking it was likely that women were allowed to drink " possibly even to drunkenness." She also argues in this chapter that the availability of tea and coffee to elites, especially in the late eighteenth century, led to the later temperance movement. Taverns began serving tea, and many elite gatherings centered around tea drinking rather than alcohol. At the same time, however, there were elite men's clubs that gathered for the purpose of drinking alcohol. Moreover, elites began to desire servants and workers who were sober. She therefore argues that elites still drank, but expected their inferiors to abstain. Many other authors have argued that it was the over-indulgence in alcohol that led to the temperance movement, which seems more plausible than the availability of tea and coffee. Meacham's argument is a novel one, however, and should be investigated further.

Her book is divided into stand alone chapters, two of which do not focus on women's production at all, and therefore the book is difficult to critique as a whole. It seems that her most important argument within the book is that women were responsible for alcohol production up until the middle of the eighteenth century in the Chesapeake when men took over. She argues that women "supported the transition to an exclusively male concept of alcohol production when they purchased the alcohol that men had produced." And she argues that women were likely happy to give up the burden of making alcohol as a way to decrease their household responsibilities. She does not show how she came to this conclusion, however.

Still, this book provides an important look at the gendered production of alcohol. It is useful to anyone interested in colonial history, women's history, or the history of alcohol.

Gina Hames

Pacific Lutheran University
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Author:Hames, Gina
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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