Distillation became an important household activity for many women in early modern Europe in the seventeenth century; we have ample evidence that they wrote, purchased, collected, annotated, and shared recipes for medicinal, hygienic, and sweet-smelling waters and spirits. I’m sure it was the same on this side of the Atlantic as well: indeed, the “secrets” of distillation might have been even more valued as opportunities to purchase ready-make substances were more limited. This is a big topic in women’s history, at the intersection of women’s work and domestic life. There are three ways to get into it: the prescriptive way, through popular printed books on distillation, the archival way, through extant written collections of recipes, and the ephemeral way, through advertisements by women who were producing distilled spirits for sale—this latter entry is more of an eighteenth-century window. Recipe-rich resources for the distilling activities (or goals) of English women in the early modern era are pretty ample: but do we have any evidence of distilling activities among women here in Salem?
Distillation is one of the “Accomplished Lady’s” (or her servant’s) responsibilities on the title page of Hannah Woolley’s Accomplished Lady’s Delight, 1684, Folger Shakespeare Library; inset of the frontispiece to The Accomplished Ladies Rich Cabinet of Rarities, 1691, Wellcome Library; Recipe for a classic cordial, Orange Water, in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s MS V.a.669, c. 1680.
I went through the Phillips Library’s Finding Aids and couldn’t find the kind of domestic journals I’ve seen kept by English women, which include general household account books and more specialized recipe books or some combination of both, but there is a presentation on Elizabeth Corwin’s household book next week so that might be an opportunity to learn more about a Salem woman’s domestic economic life in the seventeenth century. That left me with advertisements, and I did find two in which Salem women were selling distilled spirits, both of the medicinal kind and the alcoholic kind. Before I get to Anna Jones and Eunice Richardson, however, a word (or several) about the evolution of these spirits. Distilled waters start to appear in the later fifteenth century in England, and are generally referred to as “cordials” as their primary purpose was to invigorate the heart and thus one’s spirits: depending on the recipe, other waters were designated “surfeit” and prescribed for indigestion. By about 1700 or so, it’s clear that these waters are being consumed for pleasure as well as their perceived medicinal virtues. The line between medicine and merriment was fuzzy: aqua-vitae, for example, is a term used for a strong and pleasant drink, generally brandy, but was also an ingredient in several medicinal “spirits”. That said, the two Salem women who entered into this business—or carried on their husbands’ businesses—represent two sides of the distilling spectrum in the later eighteenth century.
Salem Gazette, 1770,1772,1796.
Anna Jones was clearly a small-time distiller, carrying on her husband’s business on Charter Street in the 1770s: the recipes for all of those cordial waters, with the exception of snake-root (an American plant), go all the way back to Tudor times. These were medicinals, but I’m sure they were pleasant to drink too! Mrs. Richardson, by contrast, was a purveyor rather than a distiller herself: rum was a much bigger business and was not made in the backroom stillroom (45 hogsheads!). The two big spirits of the eighteenth century, gin and rum, had no recognized medicinal virtues and thus the line between domestic medicinal distilling and commercial distillation became more sharply drawn in the later eighteenth century: Anna Jones and Eunice Richardson represent either side in Salem.
A seventeenth-century stillhouse, and two recent books on distilling women: domestic and commercial.
October 17th, 2020 at 7:57 am
Very interesting – “The line between medicine and merriment was fuzzy: aqua-vitae, for example, is a term used for a strong and pleasant drink, generally brandy, but was also an ingredient in several medicinal “spirits”.”
That was definitely true two centuries later with the products developed by Lydia Pinkham (1819-1883) of Lynn. She was “the inventor and marketer of an herbal-alcoholic “women’s tonic” for menstrual and menopausal problems, which medical experts dismissed as a quack remedy, but which is still on sale today in a modified form.”
My mother used to dole it out sparingly during “those days” as needed. I can still recall the bitter taste, but I still liked it.
Continued success with your book.
October 17th, 2020 at 8:03 am
Ah yes, Lydia! You’re right–maybe the line continued to be rather blurry….
October 18th, 2020 at 8:52 pm
To follow up the point, during Prohibition, doctors could prescribe alcohol “for medicinal purposes,” a thin excuse for providing drink. Indeed, the Old Overholt distillery (which made their namesake rye whiskey, still available today) stayed in business during Prohibition because Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who was a part-owner, secured a medicinal production permit for it. Easy for him to do, since it was the Treasury Dept. that both enforced Prohibition and granted licenses!
October 17th, 2020 at 8:22 am
Loved reading this article – great research! As I have been doing my Ancestry, I have been able to go back to my English roots to 1409! The English women in my family are all very strong willed women – so it is no wonder that they would start their own distilling business! Printing this up to keep with my Ancestry notes!!!
October 17th, 2020 at 8:01 am
Thanks, Pamela good luck with your ongoing research–1409 is great!
October 17th, 2020 at 4:31 pm
So the Great and Little Aquavitae off Winter Island are named for brandy?
October 18th, 2020 at 10:42 am
I did not know of these names! Well, it’s really any distilled spirit.
October 17th, 2020 at 6:10 pm
Fascinating topic. I’d not really thought about women making distilled waters and spirits.