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Boston in New England, Intoxicant Town

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 May 2021

Mark Peterson*
Department of History, Yale University, USA


This article explores the relationship between a distinctive early modern city, Boston, Massachusetts, and the dramatic expansion of the production and consumption of intoxicants in the emergent Atlantic world. In particular, it attempts to draw together two strands of Boston's history seldom considered together: its origins as an aspirational settlement of English puritans aiming to build a godly city, and the deep involvement of its merchants and consumers in the overseas trade in intoxicants – tobacco, sugar, rum, wine, coffee, tea, chocolate, and others. By considering the cultures of consumption associated with godliness alongside other clusters of consumption in which intoxicants also played a part, it attempts to open new avenues for thinking about the many ways in which new forms and objects of desire transformed the economy and material culture of early modernity.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Thompson, Pishey, The history and antiquities of Boston (Boston, Lincs., 1856), pp. 4253Google Scholar.

2 Bagley, Joseph, ‘First inhabitants’, in Seasholes, Nancy, ed., Atlas of Boston history (Chicago, IL, 2019), pl. 2Google Scholar; Bagley, Joseph M., A history of Boston in 50 artifacts (Hanover, NH, 2016), p. 7Google Scholar, suggests the relative scarcity of indigenous artefacts found by archaeologists on the Shawmut peninsula.

3 On the early development of Boston's economy, see Bailyn, Bernard, The New England merchants in the seventeenth century (Cambridge, MA, 1955)Google Scholar; Innes, Stephen, Creating the commonwealth: the economic culture of puritan New England (New York, NY, 1995)Google Scholar; Newell, Margaret Ellen, From dependency to independence: economic revolution in colonial New England (Ithaca, NY, 1998)Google Scholar; Peterson, Mark, The city-state of Boston: the rise and fall of an Atlantic power (Princeton, NJ, 2019)Google Scholar.

4 On the material basis for New England's puritan religious culture, see Peterson, Mark A., The price of redemption: the spiritual economy of puritan New England (Stanford, CA, 1997)Google Scholar.

5 Underdown, David, Fire from heaven: life in an English town in the seventeenth century (New Haven, CT, 1992)Google Scholar; Kingdon, Robert M., Adultery and divorce in Calvin's Geneva (Cambridge, MA, 1995)Google Scholar.

6 See Lockridge, Kenneth, A New England town: the first hundred years, Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636–1736 (New York, NY, 1970)Google Scholar.

7 On the social origins of the ‘Great Migration’ colonists, see Virginia DeJohn Anderson, New England's generation: the Great Migration and the formation of society and culture in the seventeenth century (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 12–88. For a useful discussion of the social and culture distinctions that puritans made to separate themselves from the ‘profane’, see Richard Gildrie, The profane, the civil, and the godly: the reformation of manners in orthodox New England, 1679–1749 (University Park, PA, 1994). On the predominance of urban aspirations in English colonization plans for America, see Paul Musselwhite, Urban dreams, rural commonwealth: the rise of plantation society in the Chesapeake (Chicago, IL, 2019).

8 Jan de Vries, The industrious revolution: consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present (Cambridge, 2008), p. 26, citing Becker, Gary S., ‘A theory of the allocation of time’, Economic Journal, 75 (1965), pp. 493517CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 495.

9 Jane T. Merritt, The trouble with tea: the politics of consumption in the eighteenth-century global economy (Baltimore, MD, 2017), p. 6; Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton, NJ, 2017), pp. 23–56.

10 De Vries, Industrious revolution, p. 28. Mastercard advertisement, (accessed 20 Jan. 2021).

11 De Vries, Industrious revolution, p. 31, citing Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history (New York, NY, 1985), p. 214.

12 Sir Henry Blunt to William Rumsey, in W.R., Organon salutis: an instrument to cleanse the stomach (2nd edn, London, 1659), quoted in Edward Robinson, The early history of coffee houses in England (London, 1893), p. 61.

13 The point of origin for this scholarly conversation is Jürgen Habermas, The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA, 1989; orig. published in German, 1962). For later examples, see David W. Conroy, In public houses: drink and the revolution of authority in colonial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill, NC, 1995); Pincus, Steve, ‘“Coffee politicians does create”: coffeehouses and Restoration political culture’, Journal of Modern History, 67 (1995), pp. 807–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Peter Thompson, Rum punch and revolution: taverngoing and public life in eighteenth-century Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA, 1999); Sharon V. Salinger, Taverns and drinking in early America (Baltimore, MD, 2002).

14 On this score, it is worth noting that John Potter, depicted in Figure 3, was caught in a counterfeiting scheme in 1742, attempting to use his position on the committee that signed Rhode Island's paper money emissions to issue false twenty-shilling bills; see Kenneth Scott, Counterfeiting in colonial Rhode Island (Providence, RI, 1960), pp. 18–19.

15 De Vries, Industrious revolution, pp. 34–6, emphasis in original. De Vries's graph of consumption clusters bears a clear relation to the diagrams of taste across quadrants depicting ‘the space of life-styles’ in Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA, 1984), pp. 169–225, at p. 186, fig. 9, ‘The food space’.

16 Hull, John, ‘Some observable passages of providence toward the country’, Archaeologia Americana, 3 (1857), pp. 167–8Google Scholar.

17 Peterson, Mark, ‘Puritanism and refinement in early New England: reflections on communion silver’, William and Mary Quarterly, 58 (2001), pp. 307–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 The literature on church formation and its relationship to spiritual life is extensive, but for a discussion of its communal and social aspects, see David D. Hall, Worlds of wonder, days of judgment: popular religious belief in early New England (New York, NY, 1989), pp. 117–65.

19 During the antinomian crisis of the late 1630s, the minister Thomas Shepard, in criticizing the outbreak of radical spiritism in Boston, declared that ‘every man hath some drunken conceit that rocks him asleep’, and a previously orthodox follower of Anne Hutchinson was ‘found to have drank in some of Mrs. Hutchinson's opinions’. Philip Gura, A glimpse of Sion's glory: puritan radicalism in New England, 1620–1660 (Middletown, CT, 1984), pp. 53, 64.

20 John Cotton, ‘Christ the fountain of life’ (1628), in Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson, eds., The puritans (2 vols., New York, NY, 1963), I, pp. 327–34, at p. 329, emphasis added. Edward Johnson, an early emigrant to and historian of New England, estimated the minimum overall cost of the Great Migration at £192,000; see Johnson's wonder-working providence (1654), ed. J. Franklin Jameson (New York, NY, 1910), pp. 54–5. For a sense of the scale of these expenses, the annual revenue of the English crown over the decade of the Great Migration averaged around £250,000 per year; see Simon Mark Healy, ‘Crown revenue and the political culture of early Stuart England’ (Ph.D. thesis, Birkbeck College, London, 2015), p. 29,

21 M. Halsey Thomas, ed., The diary of Samuel Sewall (2 vols., New York, NY, 1973), I, p. 33. John Hull, Cotton's parishioner in Boston and Sewall's father-in-law, was likewise echoing his former pastor's metaphor in his description of the founders’ spending to create a ‘wine-cellar for Christ to refresh his spouse in’.

22 Edward Taylor, ‘Preparatory meditations’, 2nd ser., no. 104, c. 1711, in Edward Taylor's Gods determinations and preparatory meditations: a critical edition, ed. Daniel Patterson (Kent, OH, 2003), p. 398.

23 Henry W. Bowden and James P. Ronda, eds., John Eliot's Indian dialogues (Westport, CT, 1980), p. 71.

24 Peter C. Mancall, Deadly medicine: Indians and alcohol in early America (Ithaca, NY, 1997), pp. 68–9.

25 Richard W. Cogley, John Eliot's mission to the Indians before King Philip's war (Cambridge, MA, 1999).

26 For a still valuable overview, see Samuel Eliot Morison, The maritime history of Massachusetts (Boston, MA, 1921).

27 Benjamin Carp, ‘Boston in 1743’, in Seasholes, ed., Atlas of Boston history, pl. 10; John M. McCusker, Rum and the American Revolution: the rum trade and the balance of payments of the thirteen continental colonies (2 vols., New York, NY, 1989).

28 Hancock, David, Oceans of wine: Madeira and the emergence of American trade and taste (New Haven, CT, 2009), pp. 200–9Google Scholar.

29 See Samuel Adams Drake, Old Boston taverns and tavern clubs (Boston, MA, 1917); Walter K. Watkins, The Crown Coffee House: a story of old Boston (Boston, MA, 1917), and n. 13 above.

30 David Conroy, In public houses, pp. 13–21; McNamara, Martha, From tavern to courthouse: architecture and ritual in American law, 1658–1860 (Baltimore, MD, 2004)Google Scholar.

31 See David D. Hall, ‘The mental world of Samuel Sewall’, in Hall, Worlds of wonder, days of judgment, pp. 213–38.

32 WMcNeill, illiam, Keeping together in time: dance and drill in human history (Cambridge, MA, 1997)Google Scholar, offers provocative possibilities for thinking about intoxicants of immaterial sorts.

33 Thomas, Diary of Samuel Sewall, I, pp. 40, 181, 291, 328, 339, 491; II, pp. 718, 741–2, 764, 837, 886–7, 900.

34 Conroy, In public houses, pp. 89–93; Watkins, Crown Coffee House, pp. 17, 25–35.

35 Richard Bushman, The refinement of America: persons, houses, cities (New York, NY, 1992), pp. xi–xiii, identifies the era around 1690 as the time when this transformation begins.

36 Robert J. Dinkin, ‘Seating the meetinghouse in early Massachusetts’, in Robert St George, ed., Material life in America, 1600–1800 (Boston, MA, 1988), pp. 407–18; Philip D. Zimmerman, ‘The Lord's Supper in early New England: the setting and the service’, in Peter Benes, ed., New England meeting house and church, 1630–1850 (Boston, MA, 1979), pp. 124–34, at pp. 124–9; Peter Benes, Meetinghouses of early New England (Amherst, MA, 2012).

37 Hancock, Oceans of wine, p. 297.

38 A serious address to those who unnecessarily frequent the tavern, and often spend the evening in publick houses, by several ministers (Boston, MA, 1726), pp. 2, 10, 11.