Our Spirited Ancestors: The Decorative Art of Drinking in the Early South

BY DANIEL KURT ACKERMANN

Fig. 1: Page from a manuscript cookbook, probably Eleanor Park Shelton (b. 1713), Hanover County, Virginia, ca.1744. Paper and ink. L. 12½, W. 7¾ in. Courtesy, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; MESDA Purchase Fund (2220).
Rich and poor, north and south, early Americans saw the world around them through a boozy haze. Where that alcohol came from—whether a fermented European grape or a distilled ear of Virginia corn; or out of a mahogany cellaret or a redware jug—spoke volumes about the person doing the drinking; and the decorative arts associated with making, storing, serving, and drinking were just as important as the alcohol itself.

A manuscript cookbook thought to have belonged to Eleanor Parks Shelton (b. 1713) of Rural Plains, in Hanover Country, Virginia, contains dozens of recipes for alcoholic beverages: from ale to seventeen different kinds of wine (Fig. 1). The daughter of William Parks (d. 1750), the founder of the Virginia Gazette and printer of the first cookbook in America, the 1742 edition of Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (London, 1727), Eleanor’s inclusion of alcoholic instruction is not unique; making fermented beverages at home—ciders, wines, and ales—was a standard part of Chesapeake housewifery during the eighteenth century.

Wealthy Southerners supplemented local alcohol with imported ales and wines. When transported in wooden casks, the casks were prone to leaks as their staves expanded and contracted from changes in heat and humidity during long sea voyages. Planter John Custis IV paid extra for iron hoops to protect his casks in 1736, but despite this added precaution he complained to his supplier that a shipment of wine was overpriced and that “it is not at all a pleasant wine; I cannot drink one drop of it.”  5 This situation was not new, for when William Byrd II (1674–1744) of Westover visited Custis in November of 1709, he recorded in his diary: “[E]very day at dinner we had a bottle of good wine first and then a bottle of bad.”  6

In addition to casks, ales and wines were also imported in stoneware and glass bottles. Two stoneware bottle fragments with the applied names “G: Burwell” (a typographical error for “C”) and “Edwd: Atthaws,” [sic] along with the date “1755” were excavated in the kitchen yard at Carter’s Grove Plantation in southeastern Virginia, home to Carter Burwell (1716–1756) and his descendants. A complete bottle with names intact was discovered during the MESDA Field Research program in the 1970s (Fig. 2). Edward Athawes was the London factor for most of the Carter and Burwell families in Virginia. Undoubtedly Athawes ordered a supply of ale in personalized stoneware bottles, made by a London-area potter, on Carter Burwell’s behalf in celebration of the completion of the house at Carter’s Grove in 1755.7 Burwell died six months later, and Athawes may have been left with at least part of the supply of personalized bottles, since in 1772 a William Nelson responded to a letter from Edward’s son Samuel, agreeing to accept delivery of porter in stone bottles, which when emptied would be sent on to Carter’s Grove. Samuel Athawes was probably trying to clear his cellar of unused bottles the most efficient way he knew: by filling them with ale for a paying customer. The fragments found in the kitchen yard of Carter’s Grove with material dating to the 1770s, suggest the bottles were successfully returned to the Carters, and refilled with domestic brews and reused until they broke.

Fig. 2: Ale Bottle, attributed to the Sanders Pottery, Mortlake, England, 1755. Stoneware. H. 8⅝ in. Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; gift in memory of Joseph Porter Moore by his wife, Adelia Peebles Moore (1976–128). Photograph by Craig McDougal, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Glass bottles, like those in stoneware, were susceptible to spillage, spoilage, and breakage. A major import to the early South, tens of thousands of wine bottle fragments were excavated at Jamestown, as well as more than one hundred seals impressed with names or initials.8 Personalized wine bottles not only ensured that the owner received the wine meant for him, but were also a way of demonstrating status. John Custis IV, noted previously, was one of several Virginians who owned personalized wine bottles; an intact example dated 1713 and bearing his name was discovered in a Williamsburg cellar in 1810. Like stoneware ale bottles, glass wine bottles were also refilled with homemade beverages until broken, especially ones with their owners names or initials. Special wine siphons or funnels (Fig. 3), which helped to remove accumulated sediment, were used to transfer wine between bottles or from bottles to a decanter.

Beverages with higher alcohol contents generally lasted longer and were less susceptible to spoiling. Maderia, for example, improved with rough treatment and was often stored in hot attics to age. Rum, brandies, and whiskies all converted sugar, fruit, or grain into commodities that could easily travel. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the wealth and knowledge required to build and operate a distillery limited home distilling to wealthy planters. With the end of the century, however, new technology and access to written instructions in popular cookbooks made home-distilling a practical option for a wider range of individuals. In Wythe County, Virginia, Dr. John Haller owned a small, locally made, copper still (Fig. 4). He also owned a copy of Colin Mackenzie’s 5000 Receipts… which contains a chapter on distillation, including instructions for making and operating a still, as well as dozens of recipes for rum, gin, brandies, and more.9

In Sullivan County, Tennessee, the Cain family of potters made lead-glazed earthenware jugs well suited to whisky and brandy (Fig. 5). One example, inscribed “John Wolfe,” “1826,” and “True Blue,” may refer to John Wolfe (1781–1864) who lived across the state line in Scott County, Virginia. On his death he left his son Isaac “my stills, tubs, barrels, cider mill and other implements connected with my distillery.” 10 A search of early nineteenth-century newspaper from the region suggests that the phrase “true blue” most often referred to either deeply felt political feelings or the name of a racehorse. Horse races were a popular place to drink, and a horse named True Blue ran in neighboring Washington County, Tennessee, in 1826. However, it is possible that Wolfe, a prominent local citizen and minor office holder, may have used this jug to promote himself as a “true blue” supporter of his chosen candidate.

Distilled spirits traveling longer distances, as with ale or wine, did so in wooden casks or ceramic or glass bottles. Glass bottles were stored in cool cellars or in specialized furniture. In eastern North Carolina and Virginia the freestanding bottle case, or cellaret, was a popular option.

Fig. 4: Still, Wythe County, Virginia, 1820-1830. Copper. H. 22, D. 57½ in. Courtesy, Old Salem Museums and Gardens, Old Salem Purchase Fund (2241.15).

Fig. 5: Jug, attributed to the Cain family of potters, Sullivan County, Tennessee, 1826. Lead-glazed earthenware, H. 15¾, D. 37½ in. Courtesy, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; MESDA Purchase Fund (5460).

Fig. 6: Cellaret, Petersburg, Virginia, 1760-1780. Walnut, yellow pine, birch. H. 34¼, W. 253⁄16, 15⅜ in. Courtesy, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; MESDA Purchase Fund (4277).

Fig. 7: Sugar Chest, Probably Adair County, Kentucky, 1820–1840. Cherry, walnut, poplar. H. 34¼, W. 28, D. 16⅝ in. Courtesy, private Collection.

Fig. 8: Mug, Westerwald, Germany, 1700–1730. Cobalt-decorated stoneware. H. 5½ in. Courtesy, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; gift of Frank L. Horton (2894).

Fig. 9: Covered Goblet, John Frederick Amelung (1741–1798), 1792. Colorless non-lead glass. H. 10¾ in. Courtesy, Wachovia Historical Society (C-105).

Fig. 10: Punchbowl, John Gaither (d.1819), ca. 1810. Silver. H. 4½, D. 10⅛ in. Courtesy, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; gift of Frank L. Horton (3465).

Fig. 11: Punch Strainer, Alexander Petrie (ca. 1707–1769), 1740–1750. Silver. L. 7½, D. 4 in. Courtesy, The Charleston Museum (HM 1150).

Fig. 12: Mr. Peter Manigault and His Friends, George Roupell (d.1794), St. James, Goose Creek, South Carolina, ca. 1760. Ink and wash drawing on paper. H. 103⁄16, W. 123⁄16 in. Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, museum purchase (1963.73).

Though no more than a box on a stand, bottle cases reflected local stylistic idiosyncrasies. An example made in Petersburg, Virginia, probably for Captain William Parsons (1729–1792), has turned tassel feet similar to the guttae feet found on Pembroke tables from the region (Fig.6). In most cases, a cellaret’s interior was fitted to accommodate a specific set of square bottles containing a range of liquors. In 1784, cabinetmaker John Shaw (1745–1829) of Annapolis, Maryland, asked a client to “Send to the glass man about the bottles as I Expect to finish the table very Soon.” 11

The cellaret was often the place where the storage and serving of alcohol intersected. Cellarets were at the center of an elaborate range of domestic objects that transformed drinking from an act of hydration to one of performance. In 1792 William Smith of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, left his son James four chairs, a table, and a silver cup and a “Toddy case and Bottles that Generally Stands in the Large room…” 12—everything James needed to drink like a gentleman.


Fig. 13: Toddy Ladle, Daniel You (d. 1749/50), Charleston, South Carolina, 1740–1750. Silver, horn. L. 13¾ in. Courtesy, The Charleston Museum (HM 0970).

In the Southern Backcountry the cellaret gave way to another, more flexible, form: the sugar chest.  Sugar chests traditionally have only one divider and are better suited for storing a wide range of goods—including sugar and alcohol.  The maker of a sugar chest in Adair County, Kentucky (Fig. 7), left little doubt about its intended contents: he inlaid its front with a decanter and pair of goblets.

What you drank out of could reflect cultural heritage as well as social standing. As a reminder of his ethnic ties John Michael Zeigler (1696–1756) brought a stoneware mug with him from Westerwald, Germany, when he emigrated to the Salzburger settlement at Ebenezer, Georgia, in the 1740s (Fig. 8). Every time Dr. John Hutchinson (d. 1729) of Charleston, South Carolina, raised his armorial silver mug to his lips he displayed his status and his lineage to his companions. In 1792, Frederick William Marshall’s (1721–1802) daughter and granddaughter moved to Salem, North Carolina, and brought him a covered goblet made and decorated at John Frederick Amelung’s (1741–1798) New Bremen Glassmanufactory in Frederick County, Maryland (Fig. 9). Though the form and its rococo decoration were out of fashion in England by 1792, the goblet was right at home at Marshall’s table in the culturally conservative Moravian settlement of Salem. German stoneware, silver cups, mugs, and monumental wheel-cut glass all stood in direct contrast to the more utilitarian vessels employed by the middling class.

Fig. 14: A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina, Attributed to Philip Dawe (d. 1832), London, England, 1775. Ink on paper. H. 18 in. Courtesy, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; gift of Thomas A. Gray in memory of Ralph Philip Hanes, Jr (5635).

Mixed drinks, particularly punch, brought with them a wide range of decorative arts possibilities. As a drink, punch blended the global economy in a bowl: European, Caribbean, or New England spirits, East Indian spices, tropical fruits, and Caribbean sugar might be mixed in a punch bowl made of English clay, Chinese export porcelain, or even silver (Fig. 10), on a table with an imported marble top that not only retained coolness, but also was relatively impervious to moisture. Fruit juices could be left unstrained, or squeezed through a silver punch strainer (Fig. 11). As the eighteenth century progressed the fashion for drinking out of a shared bowl of punch waned and ladles and individual cups or glasses began to appear at fashionable tables (Fig. 12). Some punch ladles had coins set into their bowls, an expensive gesture in the specie-starved colony (Fig. 13). In Norfolk, Virginia, in 1774, Andrew Stevenson advertised for the return of his stolen “Silver Punch Ladle, with…a Dollar in the bottom.” 13

In 1775 Sayer and Bennett published a print in London that depicted the women of Edenton, North Carolina, resolving to abstain from drinking tea because of taxation from England (Fig. 14). In the background, after signing a petition, one of their number tips back a bowl of punch; children and pets run wild; lecherous men leer. Tea or Punch? For the print seller, the choice was a moral as well as a political one. By the end of the eighteenth century tea was increasingly associated with sobriety, punch with drunkenness. But both beverages served the pedestrian need for hydration, had pleasant side effects, and made the drinker more or less refined based on the decorative arts objects associated with them. For our spirited ancestors, the substance of their cup was at least as important as the substance in their cup.

Our Spirited Ancestors: The Decorative Art of Drink is on view through September 2012 in the G. Wilson Douglas Jr. Gallery at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, N.C. An online version of this exhibit is available at MESDA.org/drink. For more information visit MESDA.org/eventsor call 336.721.7360.

Daniel Kurt Ackermann is associate curator of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

1. Raleigh Star, 8 November 1810. Found in the Subject Files (Social History, drinking customs, “cockroach,” 1810), MESDA Research Center, Winston-Salem, NC.

2. Helen Bullock, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg, 1938), 2.

3. Susan Kern, The Jeffersons at Shadwell (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010), 17.

4. Hunter Dickinson Farish, ed., Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian:
A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773–1774 (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 57.

5. Josephine Little Zuppan, , ed., The Letterbook of John Custis IV of Williamsburg, 1717–1742 (Lanham, Mass.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 169.

6. Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinling, eds., William Byrd, The Secret Diary
of William Byrd of Westover (Richmond, Virginia: The Dietz Press, 1941), 110.

7. Janine E. Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood, Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America (Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2009), 69.

8. Paul J. Hudon, “Seventeenth Century Glass Wine Bottles and Seals Excavated
at Jamestown,” in Journal of Glass Studies 3 (1961): 79.

9. Wythe County Wills Book 5 (??? 1839), 442–451; and Mackenzie, Colin Five Thousand Receipts in all the Useful and Domestic Arts (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1825), 211–248.

10. Scott County Will Book No. 5 (15 March 1864), 375.

11. Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown, Southern Furniture 1680–1830 (Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997), 529.

12. Spotsylvania County, Virginia Will Book E, 1772–1798 (4 January 1792), 1358.

13. Virginia Gazette or Norfolk Intelligencer (9 June 1774) 1:3.

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