Alcoholic beverages played a prominent role in the daily lives of colonial Americans. They were consumed in the home for nourishment and refreshment; in taverns as a measure of conviviality; taken ceremonially in churches and synagogues; and imbibed in celebration at weddings, christenings, and funerals. The sheer quantity of drinking vessels that survive attests to the widespread popularity of these intoxicating brews. In an era when drinking water could be hazardous to one’s health, beer, wine, and spirits were considered safe and even nutritious. Not that overuse of alcohol was encouraged. As Benjamin Franklin advised his readers in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Nothing more like a Fool, than a drunken Man.” That same Founding Father compiled The Drinkers Dictionary, an alphabetical listing of some 225 words or phrases synonymous with drunkenness, which was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on January 6, 1737.
Without a ready supply of barley and hops, Americans had to import beer from England or transform other farm produce such as wheat, corn, and oats into their own local brews. In addition, the beverage was more difficult to keep in the New World’s warmer climate. Colonists also imported malt for brewing ale and apples for planting orchards. The abundant apple crops were then pressed for hard cider, a fermented beverage cheap enough to be enjoyed by all levels of society, young and old. Apples could also be made into applejack or brandy, a popular drink made from apples, peaches, or cherries.
Among the distilled liquors consumed by colonial Americans, rum enjoyed the greatest popularity. In his Trip to New-England of 1699, Edward Ward hailed rum as “the comforter of their souls, the preserver of their bodies, the remover of their cares, and the promoter of their mirth.” This intoxicating liquor, made from fermented sugar cane or molasses, was called “kill-devil” in New England and was recognized as potently strong drink. It figured in the celebratory beverage called punch (from the Hindustani panch, meaning five), a heady concoction of rum, water, citrus juice and rind, sugar, and spices. Punch was considered a healthful drink, nearly as genteel as imported tea. Lime punch was especially popular; other punch recipes included eggs and milk. Rum—the central ingredient in a good bowl of punch—was also a key player in the Atlantic trade, which brought slaves to the West Indies and the North American Colonies from the western coast of Africa. Imported rum was highly valued, as was the Island molasses from which colonists could make their own rum. By mixing rum with water, they created a cheaper drink called grog. Among other beverages imbibed by the colonists were flip, a combination of rum, strong beer, and sugar or molasses frothed with a red-hot iron; toddy, a concoction of rum, water, and sugar; and posset, a warm and reputedly therapeutic beverage made from beer or wine, curdled milk, and spices. Whiskey, another grain-based beverage, gained in popularity after the Revolution, fueled by the influx of Scotch-Irish immigrants to the new nation.
Drinking in eighteenth-century America was frequently a communal recreation, enjoyed in a public house or tavern rather than in the home. Licensed to provide “for the entertainment of travelers and strangers,” taverns were popular gathering places for business and political meetings as well as both public and private celebrations. Tavern-keepers also served meals and provided lodging to travelers, but their primary occupation was the provision of liquid refreshments. Punch was served by the bowlful, passed from drinker to drinker with no apparent concern for hygiene. To share a bowl of punch signified conviviality among friends and strangers alike. A variety of distilled spirits was offered at taverns, with prices posted as established by colonial courts and quantities regulated by the standardized measures required of all tavern owners. Attempts to establish vineyards in the New World were largely disastrous, necessitating the importation of wines from Spain and Germany or the highly popular fortified wine from the Portuguese island of Madeira. Although expensive, European wines were enjoyed by such famous Americans as Thomas Jefferson (a serious wine connoisseur and student of viticulture), George Washington, Ben Franklin, and John Adams.
The affluent could also afford fine silver vessels from which to serve and drink their alcoholic beverages at home. Tankards, used for drinking beer or ale, survive in large numbers. Always lidded, tankards are cylindrical in form, with a sturdy curved handle and molded base band. Regional differences are more evident in the design of tankards than in most other silver forms. Tankards made by New York silversmiths, for example, tend to have broader bodies and flatter covers (33.120.517) than those made in New England. They also display generous ornament such as meander wire or cut-card work around the base, decorative engraving on the body and lid, and applied castings—for instance, the mask and garland casting soldered to the handle of a handsome example by Simeon Soumaine (27.85.1). New England tankards, in contrast, are tapered and frequently have an applied midband; always relatively plain, they grow taller and more tapered over the course of the eighteenth century (33.120.503; 33.120.507). Tankards were occasionally presented as gifts to mark special occasions, perhaps bidding farewell to a departing clergyman (33.120.503) or in grateful thanks for a successful business venture (33.120.517). Smaller vessels used for drinking beer or ale included straight-sided, single-handled mugs, sometimes with an applied ribbed midband (27.85.9), and canns, tulip-shaped vessels on a circular foot (58.3.5). As with tankards, mugs and canns are often personalized by the addition of engraved monograms. The style of engraving on a silver vessel reflects changing fashions: pricked initials on seventeenth-century vessels (L.2008.22) become attractive interlaced ciphers in the early to mid-eighteenth (27.85.1; 27.85.9) and then delicate Neoclassical letters enclosed in ribbon-tied swags by the late 1700s (58.3.5). By the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, monograms might be chased or acid-etched into the silver (1990.49).
Silver vessels were often donated by prosperous congregants to their houses of worship, engraved with dedicatory inscriptions or simply with the donors’ initials. A graceful bell-shaped standing cup on baluster stem, donated in the late seventeenth century by Richard and Alice Brackett to their church in Braintree, Massachusetts, bears only the couple’s pricked initials (2012.513), whereas a pair of handsome cylindrical beakers, made around 1719 by silversmith Moody Russell, are inscribed with the name of the donor, Shearjashub Bourn[e], and the date of presentation to his church in Sandwich, Massachusetts (28.131.1). In both cases, these wine vessels follow English models, while worshippers in New York state commissioned tall tapered beakers decidedly Dutch in fashion, including engraved emblematic figures of Hope, Faith, and Charity (33.120.621). Although inscribed in “devotion and loyalty to the Church in Kingston,” the names of the donors are omitted here, as they are on a communion cup presented to Boston’s Lynde Street Church in about 1740 (33.120.230a). Engraved inscriptions also appear on drinking vessels given as personal gifts (48.15) or as awards for sporting events, such as the charming punch bowl won by “Old Tenor” in the New York Subscription Plate race in October of 1751 (50.161). What a celebratory bowl of punch must have been enjoyed by Lewis Morris Jr. and his guests on that occasion.
In addition to emulating styles from abroad, American drinking vessels often continued cultural traditions, for instance in the case of the brandywine bowl (38.63), which, as in the Netherlands, would have been filled with raisins and brandy to be shared on festive occasions. With its luxuriously chased tulip decoration, it also follows Dutch design motifs. A much later punch bowl in the Museum’s collection, made in 1901 by the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, is ornamented with another sort of iconography. It is embossed in deep relief on one side with poppies, stars, and a crescent moon to symbolize Night, and on the other with morning glories and butterflies representing Morning. A bowl of this size was not likely to have been passed around the table for communal drinking, but it would certainly have provided ample capacity for a mighty good bowl of punch.
Wees, Beth Carver. “American Silver Vessels for Wine, Beer, and Punch.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wine/hd_wine.htm (August 2010)
Burns, Eric. Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.
Fales, Martha Gandy. Early American Silver. Rev. ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973.
Rice, Kym S. Early American Taverns: For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers. New York: Fraunces Tavern, 1983.
Warren, David B., et al. Marks of Achievement: Four Centuries of American Presentation Silver. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987.