In this video, we make switchel, a summertime beverage popular in the 1700s. Its ingredients contain a lot of potassium which replenishes the body’s electrolytes. Learn more about switchel and other methods used to say cool in the 18th century on this blog post.
“You must be hot in that. I don’t know how colonial people wore such things.”
“I am a little hot, yes. It is hot out today. Aren’t you hot in what you’re wearing?
“I’m sweating buckets.”
“That’s funny, because I’m not.”
I have a variation of this conversation every time I’m in 18th-century dress. Modern visitors can’t fathom how early Americans managed to keep cool in the sweltering summer heat.
Most methods are intuitive; hydration; light clothing; seasonal lifestyle changes; etc., but they seem to be just beyond the grasp of those who have never known life without air conditioning. Most modern readers will find these methods interesting, but few would be willing to give up the miracle of AC.
Water in parts of England was not much better than the water in Virginia and Virginians used English methods to transform water into something potable. Virginian’s drank something called “small beer” and, in the observation of Reverend Gwatkin, “their [Children’s] common drink which is toddy or a mixture of rum water and sugar. In general is made pretty weak, the proportion being about a glass of rum to 6 of water.” Gwatkin also observed that the women of the colony drank water and speculates that is one of the reasons they outlived the men.
Some enslaved Virginians were given rations of milk, but many relied on the local streams and dug wells that white Virginians did not trust. Even in instances where the water may have been compromised, a thirsty and exhausted enslaved man or woman were likely to partake anyway.
Virginian’s seemed content to drink low-alcohol solutions to rescue themselves from thirst, but other British North Americans developed a different beverage to beat the heat. Switchel, which is also known as haymakers’ switchel, haymakers’ punch, and by many other names, was essential to New England farmers working out in the fields.
Recipes for switchel varied, but common ingredients included water, ground ginger, and a sweetening agent (molasses, sugar, honey, etc.). As a number of lifestyle blogs will tell you, this beverage is refreshing and hydrating. Of course, 18th century Americans knew nothing of hydration or electrolytes; it wasn’t until 1887 that these properties were discovered. Fortuitously, the switchel ingredients contain potassium, an electrolyte replenisher.
Dressing for the heat
One of the most important methods of keeping cool was dressing for the weather. Modern Americans dress for the heat, but may not be doing as good a job as their 18th century counterparts. Their secret: natural fibers. Cotton, linen, and wool whisk sweat away from the body and dry relatively quickly. On a hot summer day, I’ve gone from wearing 18th century clothing to a rayon skirt and polyester blend top and my 18th century clothing was MUCH more comfortable.
In 1765, Stephen Hawtrey wrote a letter to his brother, Edward Hawtrey, who was preparing to come to Virginia. Stephen who had experienced the Virginia heat and writes, “Your cloathing [sic] in summer must be as thin and light as possible for the heat is beyond your conception . . . You must carry a stock of linen waistcoats [which were kind of like vests] made very large and loose that they may not stick to your hide when you perspire.” Eighteenth century clothing was not a cure-all, as Stephen Hawtrey’s advice demonstrates. Weather-appropriate clothing had its successes, but the opportunity to “chill out” at home seemed to keep spirits up.
Other ways to keep cool
Gentry woman Sarah Fouace Nourse wrote in her diary about a particularly hot day. So hot, in fact, that after dinner and before tea she stayed in her breezy room and wore nothing but a shift [the most basic of women’s undergarments] and a petticoat [a skirt, probably of light fabric in this situation]. On even hotter days she would go into the basement for relief, where she could be found taking meals and working. In 1774, Landon Carter wrote that he wanted a bed for the passage for the summer months
By the time of Mary, George, and Betty Washington, gentry houses had “passages” in which the members of the family could keep cool. These spaces were more than just a hallway that ran from the front door to the back door. In the summer, they became a place to socialize and a respite from the heat. William Lee wrote Carter, promising him “a line to repose on in a hot afternoon in ye cool passage;” an enticing alternative indeed to the hot, humid, and sticky weather that makes up the Virginia Summer.
They may have not had air conditioning but early Americans could call upon a variety of intuitive methods – keeping hydrated, wearing light clothing, and making lifestyle changes – to keep cool during the hot summer months.
Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
 Small beer only contained 2%-4% alcohol. [n.d.]. Gwatkin’s Chorography of Virginia: “an account of the manners of the Virginians”
 Christina Regelski, “A glass of wine . . .is always ready:” Beverages on Virginia Plantations, 1730-1799,”
 “Svante Arrhenius,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Svante-Arrhenius.
 Steven Hawtrey to Edward Hawtrey, 26 March 1765.
 Wenger, Mark R. “The Central Passage in Virginia: Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Living Space.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 2 (1986): 137-49.
Typically, when modern Americans think of summer barbecue food, they think of meat grilled over an open flame. While that would certainly appeal to an eighteenth century audience, it is not necessarily what they considered ‘typical’ summer fare. Large livestock like pigs and cattle were usually slaughtered and butchered in the late fall/early winter when the weather was far more conducive to task. This meant that large roasts (like mentioned in our earlier blog) were not the norm in the warmer months. Instead, people of the 18th century looked to the seasonality of ingredients to inspire their summer time fare.
Eighteenth century diets were very dependent on the growing seasons. Summer was a bounty of fruits, vegetables, greens, herbs, and anything else that could not be had in the dead of winter. Much like today, there were a variety of methods, styles, and recipes used to please the numerous palates.
With today’s weekend farmers markets and roadside stands, a salad seems the ubiquitous summer option. But what would our forefathers have thought of raw vegetables tossed in oil and vinegar? They certainly had all of the elements available to them but their tastes were different than ours. After all, we still have oysters and ice cream but most of us no longer enjoy oyster ice cream.
While the oldest references to salad come from ancient Rome (usually referred to as sallet) it was not ubiquitous in English summer cuisine. While there are some references in cookbooks and menus of the time that called for ‘salad herbs’ like lettuce and spinach to be served raw, most of their English recipes called for cooking the vegetables in some way.
The modern stereotype of English cooking insists that greens be boiled until no real flavor or texture remains. And while many of 18th century recipes for vegetables include boiling (and some for quite some time) there is also this warning in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
There was a clear appreciation for fresh vegetables even if they were prepared in some manner. An appreciation that extended into George Washington’s own household. One recipe included in Martha Washington’s cookbook was for a ‘Lettis Tart’ which called for ‘cabbage lettis’ and prunes to be put in a crust with cinnamon and ginger and then baked like a pie.
In addition to recipes calling for fresh fruits and vegetables, early Americans were very familiar with numerous preservation methods in order to enjoy vegetables and fruit out of season. In the summer they would pickle vegetables, dry herbs, and make preserves with fruits so they could enjoy them all year long.
In September 1784, George Washington traveled west of the Allegany Mountains. He recorded some of his supplies in his diary and includeed a canteen filled with ‘Chery Bounce’. This was a drink made from cherries preserved in brandy and was a way for Washington to take the taste of Virginia summer with him on his travels.
This summer when you are contemplating your patriotic picnic options for your July Fourth festivities, don’t pass up the greener options. They have far more in common with the summer options of our founding fathers than you may have originally believed.
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
In this video, we talk about how people, including George Washington, picnicked in the 18th century and take a closer look at one particular piece of furniture used while on a picnic 200 years ago.
You can read more about picnicking customs of the 1700s here.
In the summer of 1770, George Washington came to Fredericksburg for an extended stay. His time here would seem familiar to anyone who has gone back to their childhood hometown. While in town he visited his mother, went to the tavern to play cards with old friends, and stayed with his sister and brother-in-law. But the most interesting moment of his stay was on August 4, 1770 when he records…
While it is difficult to understand what exactly he meant by ‘Barbicue’. It is safe to assume that it was a communal meal similar to a modern day cook-out. Going to a cookout, a barbecue or a picnic, in today’s parlance, all mean pretty much the same thing – eating well-known foods while outdoors, probably seated on the ground, in a casual atmosphere. Above all, it is a highly social gathering. We use these kinds of meals to celebrate national holidays, family occasions or just a beautiful day – it’s what Americans do. But where did this past-time come from?
In England, the idea of consuming light fare outdoors in the form of a picnic had been around since as early as 1748, when the word “picnic” first shows up in writing. The word was probably a corruption of the French “pique nique” which basically means “to pick at small foods,” but for the English a picnic meant a fully mobile meal and all the accoutrements necessary to eat it. Baskets of food were packed, equipment for entertainment (games of cricket or maybe some hunting or fishing) was gathered, and wagons were loaded (usually one for guests, and one or more for the provisions). Then, the party set off to a pre-determined picturesque location, where it was all unpacked and set up by servants. Although we might be amazed at the sheer volume of stuff these picnics required (everything from chairs and tables to cutlery and glassware), an 18th century English picnic was still considered a very informal affair by that time’s standards. Guests might even be asked to contribute dishes to the meal (a forerunner of our potlucks), making recipes for picnic food were all the rage by the late 18th century.
While picnic’s etymology is relatively easy to trace, ‘Barbecue’ is far more difficult to pin down in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even the term itself is nearly impossible to decipher. The earliest known recording comes from a Spanish explorer in 1526, who used it as a verb meaning to roast meat. In 1672, the first reference in English came from the writings of John Lederer, a German explorer of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Originally written in Latin, Lederer’s expedition reports were translated into English by Maryland’s Governor Sir William Talbot and published.
Many scholars believe the word “barbecue” most likely derives from the West Indian word “barbacoa” in the 16th century. Believed to be a Taino word (although this is still up to scholarly debate), it is a term for slow-roasting meat over hot coals, usually using plenty of green saplings that would have created a lot of smoke. The meat originally roasted in this style was probably not the ubiquitous pork barbecue. While Christopher Columbus did bring some pigs on his voyage, it is Hernando de Soto who is credited with introducing the pig into Central America and Florida in 1539.
The word, and the meat, was probably encountered by ships’ crews during the colonial period and eventually made its way to the American colonies. Slow-roasting meat and spicing it with various rubs and marinades was a familiar concept in a many parts of the world, and especially on the African continent, so enslaved Africans living in the colonies also helped to proliferate the cooking method. As happened with many traditions from around the globe that found their way to the New World, a true “barbecue” as George would know it quickly became a uniquely American concept, combining the English love of a good outdoor meal and the exotic foods and cooking methods of the West Indies and Africa.
While the first American barbecues were practical affairs, held among enslaved communities or farming populations during the slaughtering season so as to quickly cook and preserve as much meat as possible, they very quickly took on a much more social aspect. An entire town might gather for a barbecue, which might last for several days, perhaps to coincide with court days or a market.
Between 1769 and 1774, George Washington recorded his attendance at six such affairs in his diary, including one barbecue that he hosted himself, another that was probably held at Fielding Lewis’s house in Fredericksburg, and a third in Alexandria at which he stayed all night.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
Historic Kenmore’s beautiful grounds and gardens require much work to remain beautiful. On a recent morning, staff mowed and weeded flower beds in the unending effort to make the flowers and grounds look their best.
Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm always need volunteers to help with our gardens. If you might be interested in volunteering, visit http://kenmore.org/foundation/volunteers.html for more information.
Scenes from the Demonstration Garden at George Washington’s Ferry Farm on a peaceful summer morning. The garden contains a variety of colonial-era plants that would have been grown by the Washington family like tobacco, corn, and squash. There are also modern flower species plus birds and other wildlife.