George Washington drank hot chocolate…
...but, so did everyone else. Turns out, hot chocolate was a pretty common beverage in colonial America—before and after the Revolution. Who knew? Of course, we all know the colonists had a vested interest in tea, after all, the Boston Tea Party was no minor incident. But what else did the colonists drink?
I began this search as a project for the museum's upcoming exhibit American Enterprise (opening, 2015). But, like all good research projects, it slowly grew bigger and bigger. What did the colonists drink? Why does it matter? What can it tell us about American History?
Let's work backwards, "What can colonial beverages tell us about American History?" First we need to scrap the image of the late American colonies that we learned in high school. The late colonists were not isolated on the opposite side of the world, far removed from homeland England and all of civilization. By the middle of the 18th century the colonies had formed relatively vibrant urban scenes. The ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Newport received the most shipments of cocoa beans from the West Indies. But these ports also received textiles from England, slaves from Africa, wine from Portugal, and tea from China. Colonial port cities were cosmopolitan hubs. All the latest fashions in clothes, décor, food, and technology were available to the colonists—at a price of course.
So if you could afford it, the goods at market could connect you to remote and exotic locations across the world. So what? That's just it; almost everyone drank hot chocolate from the West Indies. The combination of industrialization in Europe and the plantation-agricultural system in the colonies (American and West Indies) caused prices to drop and availability to increase. The middling class was forming, and almost everyone could afford imported items. Imports were no longer strictly the luxurious purview of the wealthiest elite.
This changes everything. George Washington could afford chocolate, but so could the fur traders out on the frontier. What else was everyone drinking? Were all colonial beverages so readily available? The Enterprise team and I came up with a list of six beverages readily available to the colonists: chocolate, tea, cider, water, milk, and whiskey.
Clearly we now know that everyone, practically, drank chocolate and tea, but what about cider, water, milk, and whiskey? Stay tuned for my second blog post in which I'll explore these other colonial beverages.
Melissa Swindell is a graduate student at George Washington University and a Goldman Sachs Junior Fellow at the museum. You can follow the progress of the American Enterprise exhibition and find more information about our fellowship program.