The Puritans in America

Colonial Homes Classic American Decorating

Customs and Fashions in Old New England


The English settlers who peopled our colonies were a beer-drinking and ale-drinking race—as Shakespeare said, they were "potent in potting." None of the hardships they had to endure in the first bitter years of their new life caused them more annoyance than their deprivation of their beloved malt liquors. This deprivation began even at the very landing. They were forced to depend on the charity of the ship-masters for a draught of beer on board ship, drinking nothing but water ashore. Bradford, the Pilgrim Governor, complained loudly and frequently of his distress, while Higginson, the Salem minister, accommodated himself more readily and cheerfully to his changed circumstances, and boasted quaintly in 1629, "Whereas my stomach could only digest and did require such drink as was both strong and stale, I can and ofttimes do drink New England water very well." As Higginson died in a short time, his boast of his improved health and praise of the unwonted beverage does not carry the force intended. Another early chronicler, Roger Clap, writes that it was "not accounted a strange thing in those days to drink water" and it was stated that Winthrop drank it ordinarily. Wood, in his "New England Prospects," says of New England water, "I dare not preferre it before good Beere as some have done, but any man would choose it before Bad Beere, Wheay or Buttermilk." It was also praised as being "fair different from the water of England, being not so sharp, but of a fatter substance, and of a more jettie colour; it is thought there can be no better water in the world."

But their beerless state did not long continue, for the first luxury to be brought to the new country was beer, and the colonists soon imported malt and learned to make beer from the despised Indian corn, and established breweries and made laws governing and controlling the manufacture of ale and beer; for the pious Puritans quickly learned to cheat in their brewing, using molasses and coarse sugar. Molasses beer is frequently mentioned by Josselyn.

By 1634, when sixpence was the legal charge for a meal, an ale-quart of beer could be bought for a penny, and a landlord was liable to ten shillings fine if he made a greater charge, or his liquor fell below a certain standard of quality. Perhaps this low price was established by the crafty Puritan magistrates in order to prevent the possibility of profit by beer-selling, and thereby reduce the number of sellers. It was also ordered that not more than an ale-quart of beer should be drunk out of meal-times. This was to prevent "bye-drinking." Josselyn complained of the petty interference of the law in drinking, saying:

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This page was last updated on 12 Oct 2005