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In Miss Austen Regrets, Olivia Williams as Jane Austen was shown sipping wine in a number of scenes. This scenario was not unrealistic. Jane wrote to Cassandra about making Spruce Beer, and the topic of wine appeared in a number of her letters:

I want to hear of your gathering strawberries; we have had them three times here. I suppose you have been obliged to have in some white wine, and must visit the store closet a little oftener than when you were quite by yourselves.”

“The orange wine will want our care soon. But in the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy.”

“I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day. You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing, by attributing it to this venial error.”

Alcoholic consumption was quite common in the days of yore. Water obtained from a public source was unsanitary if not lethal, and hundreds of millions of people died over the ages in cholera and typhoid epidemics, diseases caused by contaminated water. Unless one happened to live near an unpolluted water source, it was wise to refrain from drinking fresh water altogether. In towns and cities, garbage collection was unknown or not practiced. People would toss refuse from doorways and windows, and tradesmen, such as butchers and fishmongers, would throw their wastes and rotting offal into the street, assuming that roaming animals would eat the remnants. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Waste and fecal matter still found their way into public streams, rivers, and water supplies. Worse, many of the roaming animals died, their carcasses polluting the very streets they were supposed to sanitize.

Observant individuals noticed that people who drank untreated water – generally the poor – lived shorter lives than people who drank safer forms of liquids. Those who could afford it drank ale, beer, wine, or a fermented drink, since the fermentation process killed almost all bacteria. Until the 16th century, the most common choice of drink was ale. By the end of the century, beer had replaced ale in popularity. Housewives and cooks gathered their own recipes for making beer, wine, cordials, possets, punch, spirit waters, and other distilled spirits, although these drinks could also be bought commercially. Fermented beverages were stored in containers similar to those in the photo above. Hops were added to beer to make the beverage last longer in storage. Interestingly, hops acted as antibacterial agents, making the beverage safe. In addition, real ale, or un-pasteurized beer, rich in nutrients, vitamin Bs, and minerals, was as nutritious as food.

In Britain people drank ale at breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, these beers and wines were watered down substantially and were much weaker than their counterparts today. Small beer, a term used to describe a weaker second beer, averaged an alcoholic content of only 0.8%. This concoction was obtained after the first brewing had used up almost all the alcohol from the grain. The product from the second brewing was 99.2% water and tasted nothing like our beer today. Small beer was consumed by people of all ages and strata in society, even children. Recipes for stronger drinks existed but they were too expensive for ordinary people, taking twice as much grain to produce.

For medicinal purposes, weak beers were less effective in fighting off disease, (A Brief History of Drinks). People were quite aware of the benefits of a strong alcoholic drink, as the verse (below) from a tombstone in 1764 attests. The 26-year-old deceased had drunk cold small beer before he died. The verse’s implication is clear: had the poor fellow imbibed regular beer, its alcoholic content might have prevented his deadly and “violent fever. So, when you’re hot, or feverish, drink strong beer or none at all!

“In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia,

who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12th of May 1764.

Aged 26 Years…

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,

Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer,

Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall

And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.”

Click here to see the picture of the Hampshire Grenadier tombstone

All through the 19th century, alcoholic consumption among all ages and social strata was not only widespread, it was generally accepted and acknowledged. In Great Expectations, Estella gives ten-year-old Pip bread, meat, cheese, and beer on his first visit to Miss Havisham’s. Charlotte Bronte wrote about Belgian schoolgirls being given weissbier and sweet wine as a treat.

During the 17th century, enterprising traders brought back spices, foods and drinks from exotic locations, resulting in a wider choice of safe beverages for consumption. Coffee, tea, and chocolate began to compete with ale, wine, and beer as the drinks of choice. Boiled water poured over precious tea leaves provided a safe albeit expensive drink alternative. “The antiseptic properties of tannin, the active ingredient in tea and of hops in beer – plus the fact both are made with boiled water – allowed urban communities to flourish at close quarters without succumbing to waterborne diseases such as dysentery.” (Did Tea and Beer Make Britain Great?)

Tea became fashionable after 1662 when King Charles II’s Portugese bride, Catherine, brought a cask of it along with her dowry. In those days the beverage was thought to possess medicinal qualities, and Thomas Garraway introduced tea in his London coffee house in 1657 with this advertisement:: “This excellent beverage, recommended by all Chinese doctors, and which the Chinese call ‘Tcha’, other nations ‘Tay’ or ‘Tee’, is on sale at Sultaness Mead close to the Royal Exchange in London.” (Le Palais des The)

Only the rich could afford tea until larger amounts began to be imported, resulting in lowered prices. Several centuries later, Mrs. Beeton wrote in her Book of Household Management:

The beverage called tea has now become almost a necessary of life. Previous to the middle of the 17th century it was not used in England, and it was wholly unknown to the Greeks and Romans. Pepys says, in his Diary,—“September 25th, 1661.—I sent for a cup of tea (a China drink), of which I had never drunk before.” Two years later it was so rare a commodity in England, that the English East–India Company bought 2 lbs. 2 oz. of it, as a present for his majesty. In 1666 it was sold in London for sixty shillings a pound. From that date the consumption has gone on increasing from 5,000 lbs. to 50,000,000 lbs.

At the same time that tea gained popularity with the masses, coffee also became an increasingly common and popular drink. Men would congregate in coffee houses, drinking the hot bitter brew, discussing politics or trade, or reading newspapers. One reasons for coffee’s popularity was that caffeine improved concentration and enhanced wakefulness, and did not dull the senses as alcohol did. At this time, chocolate, another popular drink, was only drunk not eaten. Carbonated water, consisting of water impregnated with carbonic acid gas and invented by Joseph Priestley, made its first appearance in 1772.

A breakthrough in water hygiene occured in the summer of 1854 when Dr. John Snow made a connection between a deadly outbreak of cholera in his London neighborhood and public drinking water. Dr. Snow traced the epidemic to a contaminated pump on Broad Street. It did not surprise him that around 70 workers in a brewery nearby remained healthy due to their daily allotment of free beer. By the end of the 19th century, piped-in treated water made drinking from public pumps and fountains safe for the first time in England.

Small Beer Recipe

Take a large Sifter full of Bran

Hops to your Taste — Boil these

3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gall.

into a Cooler put in 3 Gallons

Molasses while the Beer is

scalding hot or rather drain the

molasses into the Cooler. Strain

the Beer on it while boiling hot

let this stand til it is little more

than Blood warm. Then put in

a quart of Yeast if the weather is

very cold cover it over with a Blanket.

Let it work in the Cooler 24 hours

then put it into the Cask. leave

the Bung open til it is almost done

working — Bottle it that day Week

it was Brewed.

George Washington. “To Make Small Beer.”

From his 1757 notebook.

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Image of stoneware bottles and vessels, including a beer bottle and gin bottle.

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It’s spring, and the Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre recommends some drinks with the author in his blog: gin with Fitzgerald, tea with Dr. Johnson, and madeira with Jane Austen. He chose madeira for Jane because it is “a little sweeter and lighter than sherry, which would also be suitable.” Other popular fortified wines of the time were sherry and port. Only gentleman drank the latter, as well as claret, an expensive French bordeaux.

The patronesses of Almack’s served orgeat and ratafia, two sugary sweet drinks. Refreshments at this tony establishment were supposed to be insipid, but both drinks have strong flavors.

Orgeat syrup, made with almond extract, sugar, and orange flower water, was (and still is) added as a flavoring to punch, hot chocolate, coffee, sparking water, or cocktails. This thick, sticky, and opaque milky liquid would have been considered too sweet by itself, and a small amount went a long way. A non-alcoholic orgeat lemonade would have consisted of orgeat syrup, lemonade, and soda water, and might well have been the sort of drink served at an Assembly.

Ratafia, which denotes almost any alcoholic or flavored water, could be made in several ways – distilled or with an infusion of fruits and spices. Ratafia’s alcoholic base would have consisted of marc brandy and the unfermented juice of the grape. The length of time for fermentation for this drink varies. A liquer made in mid-December, for example, could be ready to serve two months later on Valentine’s Day. One recipe for dark brown ratafia suggested that it be stored in an oak barrel for at least two years.

Capillaire, another drink of that era, seems similar to ratafia in that it is described as any simple syrup flavored with orange flowers. I was not able to find out more about this drink, other than as a vague reference.

As mentioned above, Mr. McIntyre chose madeira for Jane. This sweet, fortified wine was hugely popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, especially in Colonial America. Brandy was added to the wine to stop the conversion of alcohol from the sugars in the grapes.

British laws prohibited the exportation of wines to the colonies except for Madeira. This brandy-laced wine became so popular in colonial America that nearly 25% of all Madeira wine was shipped there. An interesting chemical reaction occurred inside the casks during the long, hot, and rocky sea voyage across the ocean – the wine improved vastly in flavor. “Why these wines, exposed to constant rocking, extreme heat, and the barrels often found soaking in bilge water, were not ruined, is a mystery.” (Into Wine) It was popularly thought at the time that for Madeira to age well, the wine had to cross the equator in order to heat up sufficiently. In those days, as now, the wine was offered as an aparatif, or with cheese or desserts after dinner.

Cordial waters or Liquers d’Italien had enjoyed a long reputation as wholesome, medicinal drinks, and personal recipes abounded. One 1820 recipe for Yellow Escubac included adding the following ingredients:

One ounce of saffron, one ounce of Damascus raisins, one ounce of cinnamon, three pounds of sugar, one ounce of liquorice, one ounce of corianders, three pints of brandy, two pints of water. Pound these ingredients, and dissolve the sugar in two pints of water; put the whole in ajar to infuse for a month, taking care to stir it up every second day, or third at farthest. – From: G.A. Jarrin, The Italian Confectioner (London: 1820)

Unlike Mr. McIntyre, I would have chosen a slightly different drink for Jane, a French wine perhaps, or, as Jane wrote to Cassandra, the orange wine, which would want “our care soon.” Whatever her choice of drink, a lady was not supposed to get drunk or tipsy, but as Dr. Jennifer Kloester allows, in an age that was generous in serving drink, sobriety would not have been easy state to maintain:

In general, upper-class women did not get drunk, although the prevalence of alcohol in society sometimes made this difficult. The arrack-punch served at Vauxhall Gardens was drunk by both men and women, despite a reputation for potency. It was said to have been made from the grains of the Benjamin flower mixed with rum and was freely imbibed on gala nights. Some men preferred to mix their own punch as Freddy did in Cotillion and rum punch (rum, lemon, arrack and sugar), Regent’s punch (various fruits, rum, brandy, hock, Curaçao, Madeira and champagne) and Negus (port, lemon, sugar and spices) were popular brews. Fortified wines such as Madeira and sherry were also popular with men and some women during the Regency but red wines such as claret, burgundy and port tended to be the more exclusive province of male drinkers. Brandy, gin and rum were drunk by upper-class men, although they often chose to drink the rougher forms of these spirits in the less salubrious surroundings of the inns and taverns of the poorer quarters of London. – Georgette Heyer’s Regency World

Learn more about Madeira and other alcoholic drinks that could be served to ladies of the Regency era in these links:

Dance image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Louis Simond, a Frenchman who lived in the United States, landed in Falmouth on Christmas Eve, 1809 to begin a twenty-one month journey of the British Isles. During his tour, Louis set down his observations, which resulted in a well-received book, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain during the Years 1810 and 1811 by a Native of France with Remarks on the Country, its Arts Literature, and Politics, and on the Manners and Customs of its Inhabitants. The following passage in the book describes the custom of drinking milk in London:

In the morning all is calm–not a mouse stirring before ten o’clock; the shops then begin to open. Milk-women, with their pails perfectly neat, suspended at the extremities of a yoke, carefully shaped to fit the shoulders, and surrounded with small tin measures of cream, ring at every door, with reiterated pulls, to hasten the maid-servants, who come half asleep to receive a measure as big as an egg, being the allowance of a family; for it is necessary to explain, that milk is not here either food or drink, but a tincture–an elixir exhibited in drops, five or six at most, in a cup to tea, morning and evening. It would be difficult to say what taste or what quality these drops may impart; but so it is; and nobody thinks of questioning the propriety of the custom.– Louis Simond, An American in Regency England, The History Book Club, London, 1968, p 29-30.

The doling out of tiny portions of milk in the early nineteenth century could be explained by the Corn Laws, which protected the cultivation of land. Because of this law, less land became available for grazing cattle, resulting in a reduction of milk. (Liquid Pleasures: A Review). Milk prices must have risen steeply as well. Regardless of the available supply, milkmaids would walk through London, aiming their cries at the servants of the house, who worked belowstairs:

Milk Below Maids! Will you buy any milk today Mistress? Any milk today Mistress? Will you have any milk maids? Milk Below!

Many of the estimated 8,000 milk cows were housed in dairy buildings scattered throughout this densely populated city. One can imagine that the conditions were anything but sanitary. (Cries of London – Milkmaids, Regency World). Cows also grazed in the meadows and grasslands of parks and pleasure gardens, such as Vauxhall. They were milked at noon, and the warm, fresh milk was sold for a penny a mug. (Parks and Pleasure Gardens of Regency London, JASA)

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The old adage that if one must ask for the price of an item, one most likely cannot afford it probably holds true for the lovely furniture for sale in Chappell & McCullar, a fine antique shop. I found several pieces of interest on their website, including a pair of Regency ebonized and parcel-gilt open arm chairs, a lush Regency giltwood and ebonized mirror c. 1820, and this charming rosewood tea caddy. But, ahem, there was no price affixed, and one must take the additional step of contacting the owner to inquire about its cost.Tea was such a precious commodity after its introduction in England during the mid 17th century, that servants were never entrusted with handling the loose leaves. Green and black tea leaves were imported in large chests, from which the loose leaves were measured. The tea was then stored in the customer’s caddy, or cannister, which came with a lock and key to prevent pilfering. According to Miller’s Antique Encyclopedia, caddy is a word derived from ‘kati’, a Malay standard weight of tea.By 1800, the custom of drinking tea in England was almost 150 years old. The first written record on English shores was in Samuel Pepys’ dairy, in an entry written on September 25, 1660, in which he wrote:

To the office, where Sir W Batten, Collonel Slingsby, and I sat a while; … And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before) and went away.

The brew’s popularity soared quickly. Overseas trade in the East Indies flourished, and missionaries in China wrote home about tea’s healing powers. It was widely thought that tea could treat gout, as well as restore one’s mental powers. The brew was relatively safe in an era of contaminated water, since the hot beverage required that water be boiled first.In 1717 Thomas Twining turned his coffee house into a tea shop, and in 1784, Richard Twining, chairman of the tea dealers’ guild, persuaded the government to reduce the import tax on tea, making it much more affordable. By the 1800’s tea was widely drunk by the middle classes. One can imagine that in an era when gin was cheap and led to the ruination of the lower classes, drinking tea was regarded a more wholesome activity.However, tea remained expensive. The British East India Company, which held the monopoly on importing tea until 1834, held prices artificially high for centuries. In addition, the government kept raising taxes on tea in order to finance England’s expensive wars. Smuggling tea became a lucrative business, and shopkeepers and individuals were not averse to purchasing tea leaves on the black market. Be that as it may, by Jane Austen’s day, the drinking of tea had become a regular occurrence, both at home and in public. In a letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen writes of drinking tea at the Public Assembly Rooms in Bath:

Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.Jane Austen, May 12, 1801

Although tea was served at home by the hostess, who held the key to the caddy, the elaborate ceremony of afternoon tea, or the custom of serving tea with cakes, scones, and crumpets to stave off hunger pangs before dinner, was not invented until 1840 by the 7th Duchess of Bedford.Interesting tea facts:

  • “Taking tea” is a vulgar expression. Drinking tea is considered the proper phrase.
  • High tea consisted of a full, dinner meal for the common people. Tea was still served, but there would also be meats, fish or eggs, cheese, bread and butter, and cake. It was more of a man’s meal, than a ladies social diversion.

Read more about the fascinating history of tea and tea caddies at these sites:

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