Day By Day in a Colonial Town

PrintPrintEmailEmail

THE STANDARD DISH of early New England was made of cornmeal and water and called hasty pudding or mush. On Saturday a huge batch was cooked to be eaten for breakfast and often for supper throughout the week. Pumpkins, another early favorite, were adopted from the Indians. They were pared and cut into circular slices through which poles were passed and on which they were then suspended from the kitchen ceiling to dry.

Salt pork was the principal meat dish. To salt or corn meat was to powder it, and every family had its powdering tub. Some pork was kept in brine, but most was salted in large pieces and hung in the great kitchen chimney to smoke. These smoked sides were called flitches of bacon.

Contrary to popular belief, baked beans were not eaten till the eighteenth century. Potatoes were first raised in the valley about 1750; tomatoes and rhubarb were unknown until well into the nineteenth century.

Candlewood (pine knots or slivers of pine) was commonly used for light in the seventeenth century as it was much easier to come by than candles, which country people made by spinning wicks of tow and dipping them in melted tallow.

The favorite drinks of the early settlers were beer and cider. Beer was the most popular, and almost every household made its own. Brew day was once a week, and into the kettle went not only malt and hops but also dried pumpkins, dried apple parings, and sometimes rye bran and birch twigs. After brewing, the beer was strained through a sieve, and from the emptyings (the settlings in the barrel) yeast was made. Of cider, the average country family drank four or five barrels a year, and innumerable apple trees were planted to supply this demand. At first the apples were pounded by hand in a trough, but cider mills came in around 1700. In winter, when milk was scarce, children were given cider sweetened with molasses and warmed in a pan.

Because the word alehouse had fallen into bad repute, inns or drinking places were called ordinaries and were strictly regulated. Indeed, governmental regulations today would have seemed puny to the Puritans, who believed that well-being could be assured by legislative enactment. The first ordinaries, for example, were not allowed to serve strong drinks, nor even cakes and buns except at weddings and funerals, nor to force meals costing twelve pennies or above on poor people.

This first law was soon repealed, but the strength of liquor continued to be regulated; four bushels of malt, for example, had to be used in making a sixty-three-gallon hogshead of beer under penalty of a stiff fine. Moreover, liquor could be sold only to “governors of families of sober carriage,” as complaints were being made even then of drinking by wild youths.

 

As an instance of the extraordinary care taken to ensure the respectability of liquor sellers, Judd mentions that, in 1663, the citizens of Hadley voted to appoint a committee of ten to consider the matter of licensing an ordinary, they to report to a committee of seven who were then to report to the town. Owing perhaps to this triple precaution, no one was deemed worthy of a license until 1668. Meantime, two men were fined for selling without a license, so, as a stopgap, Deacon Smith was allowed to sell liquor “to persons in real need.”

The drinks sold in the ordinaries were beer and ale, sack, “strong-water,” which was aqua vitae distilled from wine or grain, and wine of several kinds. “Kill-devil,” as rum was called, was brought from the West Indies late in the seventeenth century and quickly became popular because it was so much cheaper than aqua vitae, selling at only six shillings a gallon. New England rum, distilled from molasses, came in early in the eighteenth century. Other liquors were mum, perry, metheglin, cherry bounce, and a flip made of beer, spirits, and sugar.

Time, titles, lights, paupers, and slaves

CLOCKS AND WATCHES were rare before the Revolution. A few country people had hourglasses or sundials, but for the most part, time was told by the sun or by a “noon mark,” which many houses had on the bottom casing of a south window. The month of March, when most town meetings are still held, once marked the beginning of the new year. Some towns figured it as beginning March 1, but most towns began it on March 25 and called the days from January 1 to March 24, inclusive, mongrel time, to be written down thus: March 3, 167¾, the upper figure in the fraction denoting the year commencing March 25, the lower the year commencing January 1. This confusion continued until the calendar was reformed in 1752.