No Refrigerator? No Problem!: Preserving and Storing Meat in the 1700s

It’s easy to take our refrigerators for granted.  There they sit in our kitchens quietly keeping our food safe to eat and making our lives quite easy.  It may be difficult to imagine but a large percentage of time on an 18th century homestead such as George Washington’s Ferry Farm was spent preserving food for long term storage.

Before grocery stores and refrigeration, most foods were only available at particular times of the year – this is called seasonality.  Eggs, for instance, were not plentiful in the fall and winter when hens traditionally stop laying.  Certain fish, such as shad and herring, can only be caught during the few weeks a year when they spawn. And, of course, most crops were harvested in the fall.  So when food was available it needed to be preserved and stored properly if there was any hope of enjoying it in the future.

Food preservation was especially important in the fall and early winter, which was butchering season for large animals.  Chickens and small game were enjoyed year round because they could be eaten in one or two meals. A larger pig or cow, however, would spoil in mere days when exposed to the humid and hot Virginia summers. Therefore butchering was left to the cold months.  Even the frosty temperatures were not enough to stave off decay and therefore long term preservation techniques were employed to guarantee a supply of meat throughout the year.

To begin, preservation involved many people.  In my own household today, we butcher two hogs once a year and it’s a family event with our neighbors and friends helping out.  In the Washingtons’ case, a number of their slaves were put to this task and likely butchered dozens of hogs at once to ensure the family and the enslaved population had enough meat for the upcoming year.

Pigs were the preferred livestock for meat in Virginia, as anyone who lives here knows well.  We love our pork.  This is not a coincidence as pork’s high fat content aids with preservation and helps the meat survive the nasty summers previously mentioned.

Butcher Diagram for Pig

A butcher’s diagram showing the main cuts of pork and from where the come on a pig. Credit: Wikipedia/Pearson Scott Foresman.

After butchering, the next step in preservation was to treat the meat in a manner that would facilitate storage.  This usually involved drying, salting, or a combination of the two.  The idea was to reduce the meat’s water content, which promotes spoilage, and kill or inhibit bacterial growth.  Salting pork drew out moisture so small meat cuts could be rubbed down with salt and then stored in even more salt, which was relatively cheap in the 1700s and keeps the nasty bacteria at bay.  Furthermore, adding the chemical compound saltpetre (potassium nitrate) to the rub kept meat edible even longer and had the added benefit of ‘fixing’ the nice red color of the meat.  Saltpetre is still in use today for food preservation (and also makes great gunpowder and fertilizer, strangely enough).

A technique that worked even better for long term storage was brining.  This process involved soaking the meat in a salt water mixture and was good for larger cuts, like hams.  Meat could be stored in the brine and packed tightly in covered jars or casks in a cool environment for months.  The Washingtons had cellars in their house ideal for this purpose and the archaeological record at Ferry Farm is full of fragments of stoneware and earthenware jars – the Tupperware of their day.

Of course all this salted meat would need to be soaked in water before it was edible.  Even the salt-loving Virginians couldn’t palate it otherwise.

Adding the extra step of smoking to the salting process preserved the meat even longer.  The smokehouse was ubiquitous on 18th century farms and, while we know the Washingtons had a smokehouse, we have yet to locate it archaeologically.  We have found evidence for a smokehouse that predates the Washingtons moving to Ferry Farm, however.

Washington House and Work Yards

Archaeologists have not located where the smokehouse stood when the Washingtons lived at Ferry Farm. Perhaps it stood among the fenced-in work yards behind the family home. More archaeological exploration will be necessary to place the structure on the landscape.

Your basic smokehouse was a small, square, one room structure with a pyramid-shaped roof and rafters in the roof to hang meat on.  In the middle of the room was a fire pit or box where a fire was kept going for days at a low temperature. It dried the meat without cooking it and exposed the meat to a lot of smoke, which inhibits decay and is a deterrent for bugs and vermin.  Have you ever wondered why mosquitos don’t seem to bite much when you’re around a camp fire?  It’s the smoke.

One final common preservation and storing technique was to pot meat.  This involved packing cooked meat tightly into a jar and capping it with a generous amount of butter, lard, or tallow (rendered beef fat).  An unappetizing as this may sound it kept meat safe to eat for weeks or months in the right environment.  Potted meat is still popular in certain areas, although you’ll find it in cans, nowadays.

Ceramic Storage Vessel (5)

A complete redware storage jar.

A variety of ceramic pots like the above redware jar were available for storage of preserved meat and other foodstuffs in the 1700s.  Below are photos showing four different types of storage vessel sherds excavated at Ferry Farm:

All of the above mentioned preservation and storage techniques lend their own unique taste to meat, many of these flavors are now considered very desirable and the main reason these techniques are still employed for various foods, even though we don’t require them any longer thanks to refrigerators and freezers.  Think salted bacon, Spam, smoked barbeque, and delicious salty ham.  What originated as necessary methods for making food last have evolved into our own unique modern cuisine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Oliver, Sandra L. Food in Colonial and Federal America.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London. 2005

Olmert, Michael.  Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies – Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.  2009.

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont.  Eating In America.  The Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey.  1995.

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