Food in Colonial North America
Essay by 2016 Arcadia Fellow Theresa McCulla
Harvard’s libraries hold a plethora of manuscript and archival materials relevant to the study of food in colonial North America, especially in New England and at Harvard College. These records help the historian begin to recreate the fleeting sensory experiences of people who ate and drank during this era. At the same time, they also shed light on broader, intersecting histories of colonial American society, consumer culture, and the economy.
Scholars often consult cookbooks and menus for clues to what people of a previous era ate, but colonial North America’s culinary world surfaces in a wider range of archival holdings, too, such as diaries, memoirs, personal account books, business ledgers, receipts for financial transactions, institutional records, and even court cases. The sheer variety of these sources illuminates the many roles that food production and consumption played in colonial society. These archival holdings are relevant to the work of social, cultural, economic, environmental, and food historians of colonial New England; and to researchers interested in the history of women, work, African Americans, Native Americans, and Harvard College student life, among other subjects.
Food, Drink, and Seasonality
Diaries, ledgers, and merchants’ account books are particularly helpful in describing the raw ingredients in New Englanders’ larders and, occasionally, the meals that filled their tables.[i] Understanding what people ate can lead to explorations of how they prepared their food and why they ate what they did during a particular time of the year. In these ways, archival sources can enable researchers to interpret colonial-era foods as products of environmental and technological trends in addition to culinary preferences.
Harvard’s archival collections emphasize the paramount importance of seasonality to the availability of food in colonial North America. Seasonal rhythms dictated abundance during warm months and scarcity during the late winter and early spring. Fresh vegetables and fruits — most commonly cabbage, peas, carrots, turnips, squash, white beans, apples, watermelon, strawberries, and stone fruits — fill the pages of records chronicling summer and fall events. Among these are several expense lists logged by Harvard College stewards preparing for the school’s mid-summer Commencement banquet.[ii] In 1688, for example, graduates and guests feasted on “cherryes…salad herbs…[and] parsley”: fresh delicacies that would be unavailable a few months later.[iii]
Seasonality dictated the availability of fish and meat, too. John Page, a graduate of Harvard College and Congregationalist minister in Danville, New Hampshire, recorded in his diary the many kinds of food and drink that his parishioners gave him as gifts. His entries can be dated more precisely according to the seasonal nature of parishioners’ offerings. In 1765, for example, Page logged five consecutive gifts of fresh shad, a detail that locates this sub-set of entries to the springtime, when shad migrated through New England rivers to spawn.[iv] Colonists also often used their diaries to describe periods of drought, an especially frigid winter, or other remarkable weather: phenomena that affected food production then and can help contemporary scholars understand historic climate patterns.[v]
Still, European colonists, like Native Americans, learned to evade some of the effects of seasonality on their food supply. Many archival collections detail how residents of colonial North America and the early American Republic preserved food via drying (cherries and apples), salting (fish and pork), and pickling (vegetables, fruit, pork, and beef).[vi] On November 30, 1781, the Harvard College steward reported an inventory of 20,000 pickles in stock.[vii] Americans also converted apples into “cyder”; corn into whiskey; imported molasses into rum; and honey into metheglin, a spiced mead of Welsh origin.[viii] They ground wheat, rye, and corn into meal and combed flax. They used milk to make cheese and butter and rendered animal fat to make soap and candles. Cooking also functioned as a preservation method. Dishes such as boiled vegetables, apple and mince pies, and roasted meat paused, at least temporarily, the decomposition of fragile ingredients.[ix] Such preparations indicated the urgent importance of converting a seasonal harvest into stable forms that could be consumed throughout the year.
Food Access, and Geopolitics
Social, cultural, and even political forces mattered too, however, in characterizing the culinary world of colonial New Englanders. Most often, people consumed food and drink that had been cultivated or produced close to where they lived. They drew from the local environment in many ways, by grazing animals; gathering walnuts and chestnuts; foraging for strawberries; and fishing for shad, alewives, cod, and salmon.[x] Such activities relied to varying degrees on access to land, rivers, and the ocean. Harvard’s archival records are useful for understanding how rules of access changed throughout the colonial period, as private ownership of land expanded and rural and urbanizing worlds began to overlap.[xi]
For example, in a 1775 book of Massachusetts legal precedents, a judge noted a suit against the owner of a mill dam who had failed to create a passage for migrating fish through a stream on his property, keeping them from entering a pond where they spawned and thereby depriving the “poor of the said town” of food.[xii] The plaintiff understood migrating fish and the food they provided as a communal resource that trumped certain premises of private property. Similarly, 20 years later, a Harvard College student wrote in his diary about taking peaches and chestnuts from the fields of nearby landowners to supplement his meals in the school’s commons.[xiii] Such documents, among others, help define European-American attitudes toward the environment, proprietorship, and food access that were very different from those held by Native Americans.[xiv] The journal of a late-18th-century American missionary who lived with the Oneida tribe is one example of a source that documents extensive hunger across several Native American groups following generations of displacement by European Americans.[xv]
Boston’s prominence as an Atlantic port also heavily impacted the food culture of the city and surrounding region. Manuscript collections elicit the degree to which Boston eaters benefited from their city’s connections to other colonial American ports, British holdings in Canada and the Caribbean, and Europe. Access to tropical commodities — sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, chocolate, and citrus fruits — came at great human cost, however. As a hub in the “triangle trade,” Boston docks received ships that bore enslaved people from Africa on other legs of their journeys. Merchants’ correspondence and accounting records provide details about the transportation of food and goods through New England, the nature of shipping routes, changing consumer demand for various products like pork and rice, and the financial systems that made such transactions possible.[xvi] New England also played an important role in refining tropical sugar and distilling molasses into rum.[xvii] Thus, while much of colonial North America’s food culture reflected the local environment, its most valuable elements came from far away and were inextricable from the history of Atlantic World slavery.
Trade restrictions, inflation, and food shortages related to political and military upheavals also appear across manuscript collections of the colonial era and its conclusion. The American Revolution, in particular, threatened much of colonial North America’s heavily British food culture. In 1777, the Harvard College administration voted to eliminate coffee, tea, chocolate, and butter from the breakfast meal to avoid elevated wartime prices. Yet certain records also indicate the persistence of British tastes and fashions during and after the war. Dishes like hasty pudding, plum pudding, and British-style cheeses (such as Cheshire and Gloucester cheeses) show the extent to which European Americans in New England adhered to British tastes in food and drink.[xviii] These texts help researchers mark the slower pace of cultural shifts compared to the era’s political ruptures.
Neither did colonial American dining etiquette change overnight. Benjamin Guild, a tutor at Harvard College during the war, wrote in his diary about a meal he ate with French naval officers on board a French warship in Boston harbor in 1778. Guild described a feast of dozens of dishes, fine wines, and coffee. The French ate with “sharp pointed knives, and four tined forks,” Guild recalled. He admitted, “Their method of eating was rather inconvenient to me at first.”[xix] Guild’s diary entry provides a good example of the ways in which large-scale sociopolitical events could bring unfamiliar people into contact, even at the small scale of a dining table.
Food as Work, Pleasure, and Medicine
In colonial North America, food and drink nourished, but they also required an extraordinary amount of labor to produce. Thus, scholars could approach colonial North American food history as, to a great extent, also the history of work. Archival collections show explicitly and implicitly how making food and drink required both physical strength and artisanal expertise. Men, women, and children of farming families sold the food they produced and also bartered agricultural labor in return for services, currency, and goods.[xx] The work of creating food took place alongside carpentry, bricklaying, blacksmithing, and shoemaking — tasks of rural and urban worlds.[xxi] Men and women labored in similar or different jobs of food production, according to the setting. Even if New England was destined to become the center of American abolitionism, archival evidence shows that enslaved men and women, Native Americans, and servants cooked and cleaned in kitchens there.[xxii]
Yet if food was work, consuming it also provided pleasure, as multiple collections show. “Had some fun eating a watermellon,” wrote Elias Mann in his diary on August 30, 1796, during his freshman year at Harvard College.[xxiii] Mann belonged to the Coffee Club, which convened weekly. During his junior spring, Mann confided to his diary, “Coffee club met at my room. Slept very little all night by reason of drinking too much coffee.”[xxiv] Like many other residents of colonial North America and the young United States, especially European-American men, Mann enjoyed food and drink as a centerpiece of social activity. Social gatherings in private homes revolved around coffee, wine, and tea.[xxv] Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Harvard College undergraduates celebrated Commencement in their private rooms with their family and friends, drinking wine and eating “plumb cake.”
Colonial-era European-American men, in particular, also enjoyed a mounting proliferation of new kinds of public places that served food and drink, such as taverns and the continent’s first restaurants.[xxvi] Researchers can find an abundance of material in Harvard’s collections related to the dawn of American dining culture. Travelers used taverns as places of rest while on a journey.[xxvii] Men also congregated there purely for purposes of consumption and relaxation.[xxviii] In 1772, Ebenezer Stedman, proprietor of a Boston tavern, billed the Province of the Massachusetts Bay for a birthday celebration for King George III of England that he hosted for local political figures.[xxix] With these kinds of collections, Harvard’s holdings show the extent to which the colonial era was crucial to the development of a public dining and drinking culture that was socially and spatially distinct from previous habits.
In colonial North America, food and drink also medicated. In the face of devastating epidemics such as smallpox or more mundane complaints like stomach ailments and earaches, Americans treated themselves with butter, salt, rum, sugar, nutmeg, crab’s claws, and other foods that in another setting would have looked like elements of a typical meal.[xxx] Some desperate patients stretched the bounds of the edible. In 1724 a Harvard College tutor ate millipedes in an attempt to relieve his “weak state of body” and improve the state of his “Eys.”[xxxi] Such sources can serve the research of food historians as well as historians of medicine. They testify to a time when Americans sought healing as well as sustenance and gratification from the things they ate and drank.
Dining at Harvard College
Finally, Harvard’s archives maintain an especially large collection of materials related to the history of dining at Harvard College. Administrative records, such as the papers of the Steward, the Butler, the Commons, and recorded meeting minutes of the Board of Overseers, can help the scholar explore all facets of early food service at Harvard. In their diaries, undergraduates catalogued the cost of coffee, butter, and chocolate alongside haircuts and college bills.[xxxii] Tutors recorded meals and food purchases, such as the “figgs,” almonds, conserve of roses, and “sugar plumbs” that Henry Flynt bought in July 1725.[xxxiii] Alumni also authored memoirs, recalling late-18th-century undergraduates’ voracious thirst for punch, among other themes.[xxxiv] Researchers can use a combination of these collections to understand the evolving popularity and prices of various commodities over time; which foods were consumed daily and which were reserved for special occasions; how students and tutors experienced dining at Harvard; and who labored in the kitchens.[xxxv]
Even though this cross-section of Harvard’s collections gives many details of food production and consumption in colonial New England, they do not tell the whole story. Researchers must read between the lines to learn fuller histories of scarcity and want, enslaved or illiterate labor, and violent and exploitative interactions with Native Americans. Looking at colonial North America through the lens of food shows the many ways in which the world changed socially, culturally, and spatially during this era. Yet these manuscripts show too how everyday life — going fishing, searching for strawberries, and drinking tea with friends — continued in the midst of major political events and environmental and demographic change.
[i] ca. August-November 1753, Hartshorn, John Denison, 1736-1756. Journal of John Denison Hartshorn, 1752-1756 (inclusive). B MS b118.1, Countway Library of Medicine; Account book of Jonathan Waldo, 1788-1794 (inclusive). B MS b265.1. Boston Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, Mass.
[ii] 1747 An Account of my Expence at Commencement. Storer, Ebenezer. An account of my quarter bills, charges &c from July 11th 1743 to July 13th 1748 at Harvard College. HUD 1743.83, Harvard University Archives.
[iii] An account of the Steward’s Expences for the Commencement Anno 1688. Harvard University. Steward. Early records of the Steward, 1649-1812. Quarter bill book for the Classes of 1689-1723 and ledger, 1687-1720. UAI 71 Box 10, Harvard University Archives.
[iv] 1765. Page, John, 1738-1783. Diary of John Page, 1757-1781. HUD 757.68, Harvard University Archives.
[v] August 6, 1778. Guild, Benjamin, 1749-1792. Diaries of Benjamin Guild, 1776, 1778. HUG 1439.5, Harvard University Archives.
[vi] December 22, 1753. Journal of John Denison Hartshorn, 1752-1756.
[vii] “The Committee appointed by the Revd. & Honble. Corporation…” Harvard University. Harvard Commons Records, 1686-1829 (inclusive). College commons records, 1765-1829 (inclusive). UAI 15.250 Box 1, Harvard University Archives.
[viii] 1775. Diary of John Page, 1757-1781.
[ix] 1769. Diary of John Page, 1757-1781; December 13, 1753. Journal of John Denison Hartshorn, 1752-1756.
[x] June 22, 1776. Diaries of Benjamin Guild, 1776, 1778.
[xi] September 17, 1796. Mann, Elias, 1778-1807. Diary of Elias Mann, 1796-1800. HUD 800.5, Harvard University Archives.
[xii] No. 6. Debt for not making a passage for fish. Parsons, Theophilus, 1750-1813. Precedents book of Massachusetts law, 1775. HLS MS 1091, Harvard Law School Library.
[xiii] September 10, 1796, and October 9, 1798. Diary of Elias Mann, 1796-1800.
[xiv] August 13, 1737, and August 23, 1737. Flynt, Henry, 1675-1760. Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747. HUG 1399.18, Harvard University Archives.
[xv] Harvard University. Corporation. Records of Grants for Work among the Indians, 1720-1812. Journal of Samuel Kirkland, March 6, 1789-March 16, 1790. Folder 2 of 6. UAI 20.720 Box 1, Folder 69, Harvard University Archives.
[xvi] William Blair Townsend letter and receipt books, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School; Brandt Schuyler Collection. Baker Library, Harvard Business School; Holman, Gabriel. Bill of disbursments [for the] sch[oone]r Lydia: manuscript, 1790. MS Eng 659. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; September 26, 1789. Blanchard, Edward. Edward Blanchard letter book, 1786-1794. Mss:766 1786-1794 B639, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School; November 17, 1786. Blanchard, Edward. Edward Blanchard letter book, 1786-1794.
[xviii] December 8, 1796. Diary of Elias Mann, 1796-1800; 1747 An Account of my Expence at Commencement. Storer, Ebenezer. An account of my quarter bills, charges &c from July 11th 1743 to July 13th 1748 at Harvard College. HUD 1743.83, Harvard University Archives; 1781 Expences of Commencement Dinner. Harvard University. Steward. Early records of the Steward, 1649-1812. Mr. Gannett's Acct. for Commencement Dinner, 1781 July. UAI 71 Box 19, Folder 15, Harvard University Archives.
[xix] October 22, 1778. Diaries of Benjamin Guild, 1776, 1778.
[xxii] Oct. 1 1779 To a dinner for the Corporation. Harvard University. Harvard Commons Records, 1686-1829 (inclusive). College commons records, 1765-1829 (inclusive). UAI 15.250 Box 1, Harvard University Archives; An account of the Steward’s Expences for the Commencement Anno 1688. An acct. of the Steward’s Expences & for the Commencement. Anno 1689. Harvard University. Steward. Early records of the Steward, 1649-1812. Quarter bill book for the Classes of 1689-1723 and ledger, 1687-1720. UAI 71 Box 10, Harvard
[xxiii] August 30, 1796. Diary of Elias Mann, 1796-1800.University Archives.
[xxiv] May 17, 1799. Diary of Elias Mann, 1796-1800.
[xxv] September 13, 1778, and November 13, 1778. Diaries of Benjamin Guild, 1776, 1778.
[xxvi] Green, Timothy, 1679-1757. Receipt from Timothy Green for payment by Judah Monis, 1734 September 4. HUA 734.1, Harvard University Archives; White, Daniel Appleton, 1776-1861. Papers of Daniel Appleton White, 1793-1803, 1837. Reminiscences of life as an undergraduate at Harvard College from 1793 to 1797, 1837. HUM 11 Box 1 Folders 23-27, Harvard University Archives; May 20, 1799. Diary of Elias Mann, 1796-1800.
[xxvii] Junior year 2nd Term 1796. Croswell, Andrew, 1778-1858. Account book of Andrew Croswell, 1794-1802. HUD 1798.14, Harvard University Archives.
[xxviii] May 13, 1799. Diary of Elias Mann, 1796-1800.
[xxx] “For a bloody flux” and “To stop a vomitting,” Wadsworth, Benjamin, 1670-1737. Papers of Benjamin Wadsworth. Medical Account Book, 1702-1733. UAI 15.868 Box 4, Harvard University Archives; Manuscript on smallpox inoculation by Edward Augustus Holyoke, undated. B MS Misc. Boston Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University, Boston, Mass.
[xxxi] August 4, 1724. Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747.
[xxxii] 2d. Term Sophomore year. Account book of Andrew Croswell, 1794-1802.
[xxxiii] July 1, 1725, and July 3, 1725. Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747.
[xxxiv] Papers of Daniel Appleton White, 1793-1803, 1837. Reminiscences of life as an undergraduate at Harvard College from 1793 to 1797, 1837.
[xxxv] Ca. pre 1793, Breakfast on Tea for 10 Persons. Harvard University. Harvard Commons Records, 1686-1829 (inclusive). College commons records, 1765-1829 (inclusive). UAI 15.250 Box 1, Harvard University Archives; November 12, 1778. Diaries of Benjamin Guild, 1776, 1778.