sugar and rum

There is no rum without sugar (this is true for any alcoholic drink). Prior to the Revolutionary War most people drank rum or hard cider. Sailors were paid partly in rum. The early settlers, however, drank it in a punch or toddy. Early on, rum was distilled in the Caribbean where sugar was grown. Then it made sense for the rum to be distilled where the prime market was – New England. By the mid-1700s, though, most rum was made, and made more cheaply too, in New England. Many fortunes were made by this rum and I’ve read that one of those fortunes was made by. the Kennedy family.

But I digress.

What were some of the consequences of this cheap and easily obtainable rum?

Well, sugar is very labor intensive so the cultivation of sugar resulted in a tremendous need for slaves and was one of the big drivers of the slave trade.

Second, sugar exhausts the soil quickly so planters had to keep finding new land. This was certainly a big reason for the push for plantations and slavery westward.

Third, Americans drank more than ever. ‘Demon Rum’ became one of the many names for rum, leading to the temperance movement and to Prohibition with all of its associated crime and other problems.

And yes, although many New Englanders were abolitionists, New England profited hugely from the trade. New England ships brought slaves to the New World. New England ships brought sugar north. And New England ships brought codfish south for the slaves to eat.

Rum drinking declined after the Revolutionary War since rye was grown in the frontier – then around Pittsburgh – and distilled into whiskey. Of course, that came with its own set of problems.

Sugar is still grown in Louisiana and Domino has a big presence there. (Their factory looks abandoned – broken windows and shabby exterior.) In Louisiana there are two plantings a year.

How much sugar do we consume now? Well, in the early 1700s, a few pounds or less might be ingested by the average person per year. In 1999, the peak of sugar consumption, it was 111 grams a day, just about half a pound a day.  In 2016, that dropped to 94 grams a day. Soda is one culprit but actually sugar and high fructose corn syrup is in just about everything.

And what about rum? Well, by Prohibition, although rum was castigated as the ‘demon’, most people were drinking whiskey. Rum’s big day had already passed. And in a weird twist, New Englanders again made fortunes by becoming ‘rum runners’, making available alcohol during Prohibition.

And it all started with sugar.


Hired Help: the Shaker challenge

Farming is hard work even now with all the modern equipment we use. (Both good and bad don’t you think, but clearly a topic for another time.)   In the 1790s farming was even harder. It remains and was certainly even more so then a very people intensive profession. Lots of help was required, and that is true even now. So hired help was a common feature of early America. Sons and daughters hired themselves out to the neighbors until they had homes and farms of their own. Younger sons, who often never obtained a farm of their own – the older sons inherited – frequently hired on to other farms.  Unattached males traveled from farm to farm exactly as migrant labor does now. This is a long standing practice, continuing right up to modern times. Think of Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and the current use of migrant labor. Farms really couldn’t function without this kind of a labor pool.

As usual, I digress.

So Rees and Lydia would have employed help, both inside the farmhouse and outside in the fields. think of Abigail and the boys David took on to help him brng in the harvest.

Even the Shakers employed hired help, primarily men. During the nineteenth century the number of hired men increased as the flow of male converts decreased. (The Shakers always attracted more women than men for a variety of reasons.) The use of hired men within the Shaker community created a number of consequences. Since the men were ‘too much of the World’, they slept in a separate building and were required to eat alone. I would guess that there were still unexpected and forbidden attractions between Sisters and the men. Human biology is very hard to resist and one of the primary sources I read discussed the problems of keeping the boys and girls adopted into the community separate. The attraction the adolescents felt to one another and their efforts to attract attention was a great trial to the Shaker caretakers.

But some of the problems were cultural, if you will. After the Believers had become teetotalers, the Families in Canterbury (New Hampshire), were much exercised over whether to brew beer for the hired men. The community worried that by brewing beer they were risking not only their ideals but also the consequence of drunken men living in the heart of the village. (Described in “The Shakers, Neither Plain nor Simple”. Even though Sisters took on ‘male’ tasks, men were still required.

Shakers and alcohol

With a group, particularly a religious group, that has had such a long history, I think there is a tendency to see them as they are and extrapolate backwards. Attitudes toward drinking alcohol have changed so dramatically in the intervening few centuries that that approach is impossible.

Rees’s period, the Federalist period in American History, was a hard drinking age. Ale was used almost like water and was consumed by women and children as well as by men. Cider, which was usually hard cider (it could hardly be anything else without refrigeration) was a common breakfast drink. Many of our founding fathers took a glass of cider first thing in the morning in the same manner we drink our orange juice. Rum was used as part of sailors’ wages. (Rum is made from molasses, a byproduct in the refining of sugar. The more molasses in the sugar, the browner. Sugar has a dark history. Planting and harvesting the cane required more slaves. Cane exhausts the soil so more land was needed. And of course we are all familiar with the health risks of sugar. But I digress.) In any event, rum was the drink of the Colonies. After the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793, whiskey became more popular, more American if you will, just like coffee did in comparison to tea.

The Shakers brewed cider and like the society around them drank ‘spirits’. It was the custom for every Brother and Sister who wished to take a glass in the morning before breakfast and then through out the day. For dinner the Brothers were permitted two gills and the Sisters two thirds of a gill. (Does anyone but me wonder about the livers of all those drinkers?)

But with the Millennial Laws, especially from 1845 (and the rise of the temperance movement) the drinking of spirits (along with coffee and tea – that would have killed me) was forbidden. No cider was made and no liquor was brewed. One of the primary sources I read discussed the struggle among the Family about brewing beer for the hired men.  (More about hired men in another post.)

Eventually spirits had to be offered medicinally from the Doctor and then were banned all together. Like other cultural changes, however, this prohibition changed again and later on the Shakers both made and consumed wine with meals.

So the Shakers, like the World around them, changed as prevailing attitudes changed.