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"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." ~ Benjamin Franklin

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Coffee in the Colonies


“What if I brewed up some Bohea…in your coffeepot? Are you brave enough to try?”
Anna smirked. “I am desperate enough to try.”
                             Excerpt from Fields of the Fatherless (soon to be released)


Betsy and her sister-in-law, Anna, took a huge risk brewing up the Chinese black tea called Bohea (bu-ee). It was strictly forbidden in the colony of Massachusetts in 1775—so much so that neighborhood comitteemen were assignd to monitor private households to ensure that only coffee or herbal teas were served.

Anyone caught drinking the banned brew of tea taxed by England would be deemed a Tory. But drinking coffee was akin to declaring independence for America. Coffee was the preferred drink of the patriotic cause although many still desired the black or green tea that they had been accustomed to. Some, like Anna, used black tea like Bohea for headaches, so it was a real sacrifice to make the change. And some just liked the milder taste of tea.

But preferences aside, the popularity of coffee in America soared after the Boston Tea Party.

In fact, the party itself was planned and the details plotted out in a coffee house called The Green Dragon. It was in December of 1773 that over one hundred enraged patriots tossed cases of tea overboard from three ships into the murky Boston harbor. The tea boycott had begun.

But while coffee was suddenly in high demand, it had actually arrived in the colonies in the late 17th century, at the same time as tea.

 Coffee originated in the Arab countries but live plants were transported to greenhouses in Holland in 1616. From there, the Dutch began to grow this popular bean in India and Java (now called Indonesia). Within a few years, the Dutch were the main suppliers of coffee to Europe.

The Holland connection brings up another interesting tidbit from my research. A mortar and pestle for “braying” coffee beans into powder was brought over on the Mayflower in 1620 by passengers William and Susanna White. The emigrants onboard the Mayflower had resided in Holland for a time before leaving for the New World. Thus, the first coffee may have arrived with the first colonists arriving at Plymouth, although there was no record of the beans actually carried as cargo onboard.

English coffeepot, Staffordshire transferware


According to Dennis Picard, historian at Storrowton Village Museum in West Springfield, Massachusetts, “coffee was shipped and purchased green, and the homeowner had to roast each batch either in a spider (a frying pan with legs) or a metal drum shaped roaster.” It was then ground with a mortar and pestle.

Crank coffee grinders began to be used in homes in the early part of the 19th century.

The first literary reference to coffee consumption in North America is from 1668, when coffee houses were established in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities. Often these coffee houses also served other beverages, such as tea, ale and cider.

A mention of coffee and tea is found in Shirley Glubock’s Home and Child Life in Colonial Days:

“In 1670, a Boston woman was licensed to sell coffee and chocolate, and soon coffee houses were established there. Some did not know how to cook coffee any more than tea, but boiled the whole coffee beans in water, ate them, and drank the liquid; and naturally this was not very good either to eat or drink.
At the time of the Stamp Act, when patriotic Americans threw the tea into Boston Harbor, Americans were just as great tea drinkers as the English. Coffee-drinking, first acquired in the Revolution, has also descended from generation to generation, and we now drink more coffee than tea. This is one of the differences in our daily life caused by the Revolution.”

Brittania ware Coffeepot


Just one of the many differences, indeed.

My favorite excerpt about coffee and the American Revolution was an incident recorded by Abigail Adams in 1778, and quoted in Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin:

“An eminent, wealthy, stingy merchant (also a bachelor) had a hogshead of coffee in his store, which he refused to sell…under six shillings per pound. A number of females, some say a hundred, some say more, assembled with a cart and trunks, marched down to the Warehouse and demanded the keys which he refused to deliver. Upon which one of them seized him by his neck and tossed him into the cart. Upon his finding no quarter, he delivered the keys when they tipped up the cart and discharged him; then opened the Warehouse, hoisted out the coffee themselves, put it into the trunks and drove off…a large concourse of men stood amazed silent spectators.”

I suppose the moral of that tale is, never stand between a woman and her coffee—especially during a Revolution!


 (Coffeepot photos courtesy of Storrowton Village Museum, West Springfield, Massachusetts)




12 comments:

  1. Great post, Elaine, that last part made me laugh out loud. I could picture the whole incident...and the men standing around in amazement. Hahaha...too funny! This was very interesting indeed....God bless.

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    1. Debbie, I still giggle when I read that account as well! I think Abigail Adams must have had quite the sense of humor. ;-) Thanks for stopping by and have a blessed day!

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  2. Great post, which I read while drinking my morning coffee! Thank you!

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    1. You're welcome, Jessica! And enjoy another cup of coffee, with the knowledge that it is quite a long-standing tradition in America. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. That was a fun post. I laughed at the story of the women going to get their coffee. I love my coffee and probably would've joined in with those ladies. Now...were's my coffee cup? :)

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    1. Thanks, Angi—glad you started you day with a laugh! Between the coffee and the giggle, you're off to a good start. Have another cup. And have a blessed day!

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  4. As your story started, I was already snickering and envisioning that the merchant wasn't going to come to a good end. Some things do not change over time. A fun and informative post for sure!

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  5. LOL, Janet, I love how Abigail Adams pointed out that the eminent, stingy man was also a bachelor. He was apparently unfamiliar with determined females! Thanks for commenting!

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  6. It's amazing how growing up we were given the impression that women didn't have much to say or do with the outcome of the Revolution or the founding of our nation. It's stories like these that give us another impression altogether. Good for those feisty ladies. Great post, Elaine.

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    1. Thanks, Susan! I suppose if we stop and realize that we have so many feisty, strong women today, we'd realize that it would be almost an impossibility that every woman was meek during the Revolution. I can't imagine that I would sit back quietly and let the British take over. Of course, my ancestor did let one capture her heart... ;-)

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  7. Ahhh, yes. Especially when that woman had to get the rest of the household moving!

    I wonder how limited people were by quantity or price. I can't imagine they drank it in any near quantity that we do.
    Really... if you couldn't afford coffee and you gave up tea, you had few options. Chicory? New Jersey Tea (the plant Ceanothus) Even these plants would have been limited in quantity.

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    1. The colonials were a resourceful bunch, and I'm certain they tried a variety of herbs from trees, roots, and leaves. They learned much from the Indians as well. I've read about one from a tree root (I cannot recall the name at the moment) but it's hard to imagine that they tasted as tempting as regular coffee or tea. I imagine they used sparse quantities as well to make their supplies last longer. Many of the teas were grown in the garden. So much work to run a household! No wonder they wanted caffeine!!

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