We’re delighted to present the sixth installment of the Points Interview, in which we make our first foray into the colonial period in North America. Points talks with Prof. Sarah Hand Meacham, author of Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Prof. Meacham is currently an assistant professor in the Department of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. Every Home a Distillery employs some skillful historical detective work to examine women’s role in the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages, and the manner in which men ultimately asserted their own primacy in that field of endeavor.
Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.
In Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), I analyze the interesting question of how technology and science came to be defined as men’s domain. No one had realized that from the late seventeenth century until the late eighteenth century it was typically women in the Chesapeake (that is the eastern areas of Virginia and Maryland) who made alcohol. Our contemporary assumptions and the historic documents themselves have hidden women’s labor. For instance, tavern licenses were almost always given to men. When I began wondering what kind of credentials a man gave the court in order to be considered for a license, I discovered that all the men who received licenses were married to women with tavern-keeping experience. These were women who had grown up helping their mothers run taverns. The men received the licenses because that was how the law worked, but it was the wives who were doing much of the day-to-day labor of managing the tavern. This makes sense when you consider that the men needed to be away managing farms or other businesses. But if you looked at the legal documents alone, and not the genealogies of the businesses, it would appear as if women had nothing to do with the taverns. That’s one example of how the historic documents can sometimes lead us astray.