Coffee: A Revolutionary Drink

The history of coffee is long and complex and can never be fully explored in a single blog post, however, because of my admiration for the caffeinated beverage I wanted to learn how the colonist utilized coffee.  Fortunately, in the collections at Kenmore, we not only have a selection of 18th century coffeepots and cups but also original records for coffee purchases made by the Lewis family.  These objects give us a tangible record of coffee in the colonial home but this post will also explore how the drink became popular in the colonies, how the colonials made their morning brew, and how a tax made coffee a revolutionary drink earning it the nickname “King of the American breakfast table”.[1]

ms 856 copy

Betty Washington Lewis made three purchases of coffee in January and March 1796.

The Basics

Coffee plants are flowering shrubs that produce berries which are harvested, peeled, dried, roasted, ground and, eventually, brewed to produce the cup of dark brown liquid that helps most of us get through the day.[2]

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were introduced into North America almost simultaneously in the later part of the 1600s.[3]  By the mid-1700s, coffee and tea were becoming staple drinks for early Americans. [4]

The easiest way to get a cup of coffee in Colonial America was the coffee-house, which usually was a mixture of café, tavern, and inn.  Coffee-houses tended to offer more than just a strong cup of java and had ale, wine, spirits, or even tea available. [5]  Even Fredericksburg had its own coffeehouse.  As local historian Paula Felder notes, “In 1751, Charles Julian of Norfolk, a baker, opened a coffee house and was granted an ordinary license.  When he joined the new Masonic lodge in 1756, the meetings were held ‘at brother Julian’s’ until the lodge meetings were moved to the new Town House in 1763.  The coffee house remained a prominent gathering place for many years. A ceremonial luncheon was given here in honor of George Washington in February 1784 on his first visit after the Revolutionary War.”  However, coffee-houses were not always a socially acceptable place for everyone. Nor were they always the most convenient way to get that much sought after cup of java.  As the desire for coffee heightened, it made its way into the homes showing up on the breakfast table, in-between meals, and after dinners.[6]

How to Make a Colonial Cup

In the 1700s, when you purchased coffee from your local merchant it most likely was in the form of bags of green beans.  The burden of turning those beans into the perfect cup of coffee was on the consumer.

Roasting

Domestick Coffee Man

Title page of Humphrey Broadbent’s The Domestick Coffee-man published in 1722.

The first step was roasting the green beans to a dark brown. Humphrey Broadbent, writer of The Domestick Coffee-man, explained how to properly roast the beans, “Particular Care ought to be taken in Roasting the Berries, for without doubt in that, Depends much of goodness of them Berries.  I hold it best to Roast them in an Iron Vessel full of little Holes, made to turn on a Spit over a Charcoal Fire, keeping them continually Turning, and sometimes Shaking them that they do not Burn, and when they are taken out of the Vessel, spread’em on some Tin or Iron Plate ‘till the Vehemency of the Heat is Vanished.”[7]

If you had a more primitive set up and didn’t have a roasting spit you could place them in a frying pan, known as a spider, or iron kettle in the hearth.  When the beans are heated, they slowly turn yellow, release steam, expand in size, and darken.  Once they begin to crackle, they are ready to be cooled.[8]

Grinding

By the early 18th century in Europe, coffee grinders were quite common and inexpensive.  These grinders were based on the original spice grinder. However, in the colonies, most people used a mortar and pestle to pound the beans into a coarse powder.[9]

Brewing

There were two different methods of brewing that were popular: boiling and infusion.  Broadbent helpfully explained the difference to the novice coffee drinker who wished to become a connoisseur.

“The common way of making this Liquor, is, to put an Ounce of Powder, to a Quart of Water and so let it Boil till the Head is Boyled down; but this is a very silly way…if Coffee be but very little too much Boiled it is Spoiled, and grows either Flat or Sour, but if by long Custom you will not part from your Boiling, let it not Boil above a Minute.”[10]

Broadbent much preferred infusion, stating “Put the Quantity of Powder you intend, into your pot then pour Boiling-Hot Water upon the aforsaid Powder, and let if stand to infuse Five Minutes before the Fire.”[11]

To get that lovely cup of coffee in the 1700s, you just needed to purchase the beans, roast them, grind them, and then boil them.

Equipment

As the drinking of coffee moved from the coffee-house to people’s homes, a group of tableware became associated with the drink.  Central to this tableware was the coffeepot and cups.  One of the earliest representations of these items is found in a 1674 woodcut showing an English coffeehouse where men are drinking from porcelain cups without handles and coffee is being served from a metal or earthenware jug.  Later, a print from 1710 shows coffeepots with a long straight spout and small annular porcelain bowls cups.[12]  Initially, these coffees pots and cups looked quite similar to the ones used to serve tea but, over time, they began to differ in appearance to what we today would recognize as two distinct serving sets.

The prevailing but inconclusive theory as to why the two pots changed shape is that the countries of origin of each drink played a part in the style of the tablewares.  Essentially, coffeepots and cups resembled those used in Arabic coffee houses while tea pots and tea cups resembled those used in Chinese tea rituals.[13]

Revolutionary Coffee

We know how colonial Americans made coffee and how they drank coffee but how did coffee become a revolutionary drink that Americans, who were once English, came to prefer over tea, Britain’s national drink?  The answer, in a word, is taxes.  The Tea Act of 1773 was created by the British government to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC). [14]  The government told the Company that they could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC would get rid of loads of tea that was piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists would get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company was selling to the colonists would still be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If the colonists purchased it, they would be indirectly accepting Parliament’s right of taxation without representation.[15]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[16]  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined the boycott and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[17]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

As John Adams wrote to his wife, “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”[18]  However, the colonists still needed their caffeine and coffee stepped up to do its patriotic duty.  Consumption of coffee soared and played a small role in the creation of a new American identity. More than a drink, it became a sign of independence and unity in the midst of revolution and upheaval.[19]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Sources

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution. Oxford: University Press, 2004

Broadbent, Humphery. The Domestick Coffee-Man, Shewing The True Way of Preparing and Making of Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea. London, 1722

Clark, F. (2009) Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages, in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA

Felder, Paula. “George Washington’s Fredericksburg: The Fredericksburg Scene in 1755,” Map in the Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2004.

Goodwin, Mary. “The Coffee House Historical Report, Block 17, Building 34: The Coffee-House of the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 0050 (1956): http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

Jamieson, Ross W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History, Vol 35, No2 (2001): 269-294

 

Regelski, Christina, “The Revolution of American Drinking,” http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America (New York: Ecco, 1981)

Smith, Andrew F., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013, p 266

Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. England: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922

Ukers, W.H. “The Early Preparation of Coffee.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol 2 (1919): 353-356

Witkowski, Terrence H. “Colonial Consumers in Revolt: Buyer Values and Behavior during Nonimportation Movement, 1764-1776,”Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 16, No. 2 (Sep., 1989), pp. 216-226

[1] Ukers, 107

[2] Ibid, 133

[3] Ibid, 105

[4] Regelski, http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

[5] Goodwin, http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

[6] Felder, GW’s Fredericksburg; Ukers, 689

[7] Broadbent, p 8-9

[8] Ukers, “Early Preparation of Coffee”, 354

[9] Ukers, 695

[10] Broadbent, p 11

[11] Broadbent, p 11

[12] Jamieson, 285

[13] Ukers, 602; Jamieson, 285

[14] Breen, T.H. pg 298-301

[15] Ibid, pg 235-239

[16] Clark, p 276

[17] Root, p 127

[18] Smith, p 266

[19] Witkowski, p 218

Henry Mitchell, A Loyalist’s Sacrifice

Editor’s Note: This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Historic Kenmore presents its annual production of Twelfth Night at Kenmore (click for event details). This dramatic theatre presentation imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends. Among these friends is Henry Mitchell, whose support for the American cause is being questioned by his neighbors and by Henry himself. Mitchell is a new character for this year’s Twelfth Night but was also a real merchant living in Fredericksburg in the 1700s. To create this character, we researched the real Henry Mitchell. This blog post shares the fascinating story we discovered. 

When we look back over two centuries, victory in the American War of Independence seems inevitable.  Similarly, we often think that all of our ancestors chose the ‘right’ side and supported independence during the Revolution.  Things were far more complex, of course.  A sizable portion of the population — two historians say about 20% — living in British North America opposed revolution and fought against independence.

benjamin-franklins-join-or-die

This political cartoon from the a 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette and believed to have been created by Benjamin Franklin originally appeared during the French and Indian War but was used again during the American Revolution to encourage the colonies to unite against British rule. Credit: Library of Congress

One such individual in Fredericksburg, Virginia was Henry Mitchell, a merchant born in Scotland who came to America, lived in Fredericksburg for nearly two decades, and worked as the Virginia-based factor (representative) for a trading house in Glasgow.[1]

Henry Mitchell participated in the community and, in the early days of tensions between the colonies and the mother country, took part in the anti-British non-importation movement known as the Virginia Association.  Indeed, Mitchell was named an Associator on October 23, 1770, the same day Fielding Lewis was placed on the committee as noted in the Virginia Gazette.  The Associators made sure the local populace did not purchase boycotted goods. The Association lasted a short-while before collapsing in 1771.[2]

Along with this political activity, Mitchell frequented George Weedon’s tavern and, on December 27, 1773, attended “dinner and club” with Fielding Lewis and several other Fredericksburg luminaries before Masonic services.[3]

Then, a strange incident took place in early 1775.  In nearby Orange County, as reported in the Virginia Gazette, Rev. John Wingate was brought before the local patriot committee to answer for allegedly possessing “pamphlets containing very obnoxious reflections on the Continental Congress and their proceedings.”  He was ordered to produce the pamphlets. Wingate refused, saying “that they belonged to Mr. Henry Mitchell of Fredericksburg” and that he could not show them to the committee without Mitchell’s “express permission.”  The committee tried to persuade Wingate that since Mitchell “was well known to be an associator, and acknowledged by himself to be a hearty friend to the cause” that he would not mind if they looked at the pamphlets.  Then, they noted ominously that “if Mr. Mitchell was not this hearty friend we hoped him to be,” then the committee would demand Mitchell himself come before them and show them the pamphlets.  Wingate finally relented and no further discussion of Mitchell was recorded.

This incident raises all sorts of questions.  Did the pamphlets really belong to Henry Mitchell? Was Wingate telling the truth or attempting to smear Mitchell for some reason? Was Mitchell undergoing some kind of change that had caused or was causing him to shift from supporting the anti-British Virginia Association to embracing loyalism?  Were his earlier patriot leanings an act? If so, to what purpose?  If you’re not careful, you can succumb to all sorts of wild speculation!

Mitchell continued his trade in Fredericksburg throughout 1775. Then, at the end of the year, he placed an ad in the December 8 edition of the Virginia Gazette announcing he would be leaving the colony in the spring and that he wished to settle his accounts before departing. Although loyalists often made their intentions to leave known in this way, Mitchell specifically noted his plans to return.

In July 1776, merchants in Fredericksburg suspected of loyalism were brought before the local committee and direct to either take a loyalty oath as required by the most recent Virginia Convention or, if they would not do so, to give up their arms. Henry Mitchell was among this group of, as the Virginia Gazette put it, “Sundry persons, supposed to be inimical to America” and refused to take the oath.  Having refused to swear allegiance to the American cause, he and other loyalists they were ordered to be sent the governor so they could be expelled from Virginia.[4]

king-george-iii-of-england-by-johann-zoffany-1771

Portrait of George III of the United Kingdom (1771) by Johann Zoffany. Credit: Wikipedia/The Royal Collection.

This expulsion did not happen immediately, however. Mitchell finally placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette on February 21, 1777 announcing his intention “to leave this Country” permanently and notifying those to whom he owed debts and vice versa to settle them up.  He also advertised his houses in Fredericksburg as available for sale or rent.

mobbing-the-tories-from-charles-and-mary-beards-history-of-the-united-states

“Mobbing the Tories” illustration in History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, New York: McMillan, 1921

Why did Henry Mitchell and vast numbers of colonists choose to remain loyal to the crown instead of supporting independence?  The answer to that question really comes down to each individual loyalist whose motivations were often very personal and unique.  Unfortunately, we do not know Mitchell’s particular reasons.  People who found themselves held under suspicion by their patriot neighbors were often pushed to loyalism by the fear of mob rule or anarchy.  The patriots’ use of loyalty oaths may have actually created many loyalists.  People resented being forced to choose sides.  Meanwhile, merchants and others whose livelihood depended on trade with Britain and the rest of the empire sometimes choose empire over independence for simple but powerful economic motivations.[5]

In 1777, Mitchell finally left Fredericksburg for H.M.S. Phoenix and went to New York, where he lived until 1781 and continued his trading activities.  He then sailed to Scotland in 1781 and found his “partners had misapplied remittances” sent from Virginia.  He was left bankrupt and dependent on relatives.[6]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] “Mitchell, Henry,” American Loyalist Claims, Washington, DC: National Genealogical Society, 1980, 351; Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998, 238n.

[2] Felder, 193.

[3] Felder, 180.

[4] Felder, 231, 238.

[5] Shannon Duffy, Ph.D., “Loyalists,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/loyalists/ [accessed December 14, 2016].

[6] American Loyalist Claims, 351; Felder, 240n.

A Christmas of Uncertainty, December 1775

Kenmore in Snow.JPG

When Fielding Lewis moved his family into their new home – the magnificent brick house we call Kenmore – in late 1775 it was the culmination of years of hard work and planning. It might seem as though that year’s holiday season should have been one of continual joy. Unfortunately, the Lewis family’s first Christmas inside Kenmore was far from joyful. December 1775 was an extremely difficult time in their lives and for the American Revolution.

That December, the Revolution was in a frustrating state of limbo. Although declared to be in open rebellion by the King and Parliament, few colonies had yet to see any armed conflict. Fighting outside of Boston started in the spring but fizzled into stalemate following the Battle of Bunker Hill in June.  Independence may have been discussed in taverns but was still far from being discussed at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The colonies were still suffering economically and had been suffering for some time. In 1774, Congress passed the Non-Importation Agreement. These measures stopped all trade with Great Britain and other British-owned ports. The Association, as it came to be known, remained in effect in December 1775.  Colonists lacked numerous supplies and goods.  Fielding Lewis experienced a significant drop in his shipping business and the family’s finances began to suffer.

Even though it was the holiday season, the Non-Importation Agreement also discouraged…

every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments. 

To be loyal to the American cause, one could not delight in the revelries typically enjoyed during Christmas.

All levels of Virginia society felt the strain of war’s uncertainty that fateful December. John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore and Virginia’s Royal Governor, had been at odds with his colonists since he removed portions of the public stores of gunpowder to a Royal Navy ship back in the spring. Lord Dunmore’s most recent action, however, hit much closer to home for Fielding Lewis and his fellow planters.  The Governor threatened to take their slaves, the precious private property, as they saw them, upon which they had built their livelihoods and wealth.

Lord Dunmore.jpg

Portrait of John Murry, 4th Earl of Dunmore by Joshua Reynolds (1765)

In November 1775, Dunmore had issued a proclamation in Virginia intended to swell his ranks and cripple the so-called ‘rebels’ by imposing martial law, raising the King’s standard, and declaring, most significantly,

all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms.

DunmoresProclamation

A copy of Dunmore’s proclamation. Library of Congress photo

Dunmore’s Proclamation angered and frightened slave owners throughout Virginia and put the colony’s enslaved population in a difficult predicament. Achieving freedom was highly dependent on an enslaved person’s ability to get to Dunmore in Norfolk. Not surprisingly, the largest percentage of enslaved people who fled to the British came from the counties closest to that port city.  While it is uncertain if any Lewis slaves ran away to the British, at least one indentured servant perhaps did. Joseph Smith, an a painter who had worked for George Washington and presumably for Fielding Lewis, saw the political schism in Virginia as an opportunity to free himself from his servitude and fled in the summer of 1775. In November, Fielding wrote to George, saying “I have never heard of your Painter tho’ suspected he was gone to Ld Dunmore[.] I do not expect he can be got as Dunmore wants Men.” Smith’s successful escape may have been on the mind of the other indentured servants and enslaved people in the Lewis household when word of Dunmore’s Proclamation arrived in Fredericksburg.

December 1775 in the Lewis family’s new home was an anxious one for many and yet for others it must have been a hopeful one as well. The American forces at Bunker Hill had proven to the British that the fight would not be easy or quick. The Fourth Virginia Convention met that December and ordered even more companies formed to support the Continental forces.  Most hopefully, Dunmore’s forces were defeated in the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9. The Governor would leave the shores of Virginia in the early part of 1776 never to return. His forces did include a portion of enslaved people who had dared to hope for their own freedom, a hope that would be denied for many Christmases to come. A large portion were captured and returned to slavery, many more died from disease or lack of supplies, and others perished in battle. Few actually gained their freedom.

Back in Fredericksburg, the December of 1775 was most likely not what the Lewises had expected or hoped for. It was a Christmas of uncertainty, when war raged on Virginian soil.  Yet, the future was not solely bleak for Fielding, Betty, and the Americans. As 1776 began, it begged the hopeful question: what may the new year bring?

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Experience this Lewis family’s Christmas of uncertainty during Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation at Historic Kenmore on Friday, January 8, Saturday, January 9, or Sunday, January 10. The year is January 1776. It is the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual celebration, however. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.  Immerse yourself in the experience the candlelight, music, and decorations of an eighteenth-century Christmas!

Performance Times: 3:00, 3:45, 4:45 and 5:30 p.m.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email
hayes@gwffoundation.org
Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; free ages 3 and under.