A Look Into the Colonial History of Old New York

From beer and buttermilk for breakfast to booze for all, life in the Empire State was always eventful during the colonial era.

From beer and buttermilk for breakfast to booze for all, life in the Empire State was always eventful during the colonial era.

Colonial Days in Old New York
Cover photo provided by HVA Press

As many a Hudson Valleyite learned during those formative elementary school days, the Hudson River region was a happening place to be during the colonial era. From the moment British settlers stepped foot on North American grounds in the early 1500s to the date America declared its independence in 1776, life on the continent was a timeline of highs and lows as foundling communities defined new traditions and forged ahead amid uncertain futures.

In Colonial Days in Old New York: Before, During, and After the American Revolution, acclaimed historian and author Alice Morse Earle delves into the nitty gritty of life in early America. Although previously dismissed as a female historian in a male-dominated field, Earle, who lived from 1851 to 1911, gets a second chance at recognition through HVA Press, a publishing firm which spotlights deceased authors and historians. Through Earle’s book, which blends historic anecdotes with insightful period details, readers can learn about the little moments and everyday traditions that helped transform America into the nation it is today.

Just for Hudson Valley readers, HVA Press shared a few highlights from the book’s quirky, colorful account of colonial New York. Read on, because we promise you’ve never had a history lesson quite like this!

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Beer and Buttermilk for Breakfast (and More Food Facts)

Did you know that Dutch settlers often started their days with homebrewed beer or buttermilk? They’d wash it down with porridge and rye bread with grated cheese and sausage before heading off to taking on the day.

The coleslaw that we all know and sometimes love originated from the Dutch koolslaa, a salad-style dish that mixed shredded cabbage with vinegar.

Wedding cake during the colonial era often featured five key ingredients in the following quantities: 12 dozen eggs, 48 pounds of raisins, 24 pounds of currants, four quarts of brandy, and a quart of rum.

For a savory dish, the Dutch also enjoyed pork cakes, which were made from a mixture of chopped pork, spices, almonds, currants, raisins, and brandy.

When it came time for tea, meanwhile, the Dutch never put sugar straight into the cup. Instead, they sprinkled a small bit into their mouths while they drank.

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Pay Me in Booze

Before the days of the modern cash economy, home builders received booze as a token for their labors. Here’s a bill from Colonial Days which explains what it cost to have a house built:

Clearing for the foundation: a cask of beer
Laying the first stones: a case of brandy
Cellar beams: two barrels of beer and three cases of brandy.
The second floor: another barrel of beer and two more cases of brandy were required.
The beams were brought in one at a time, all 33 of them: ½ a barrel of beer for each beam.
Setting the rooftree: a half barrel of liquor.

On top of that, all workers received a cup of brandy and three pints of beer every day that they were on the job.

Alcohol for All

Not just for building houses and flavoring recipes, alcohol also featured prominently in business transactions. According to Earle, if either party backed out of a contract before signing, they were expected to finish half a barrel of beer or a gallon of rum to ease the disappointment.

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Elsewhere in the colonial era, spirits played a central role at weddings, funerals, church events, and elections. In other words, not much has changed.

Dutch Women in Business

As the new American colonies began to find their footing, they often relied upon Dutch women for their business acumen and shrewd decision-making skills. In fact, widows were often the ones who negotiated business on behalf of their deceased husbands and traded with Native Americans.

In regard to women’s roles in the colonial era, Earle observes, “I am impressed with the debt New Yorkers owe not to their forefathers, but to their foremothers; the conspicuous decorum of life of these women and their great purity of morals were equaled by their good sense and their wonderful capacity in both domestic and public affairs. They were as good patriots as they were good business women.”

Party Time in the New World

Although obstacles came in abundance during the colonial period, Dutch settlers always made time to celebrate holidays and local happenings. During Shrovetide, or the days leading up to Lent, for instance, the young men of Albany let loose — sometimes a little too much. In 1657, Dutch officials in the Capital Region deliberated on the offense of men parading in women’s clothes.

Toward the end of the year, New Year festivities always drew communities together, often with riotous results. When groups took to firing guns to “celebrate,” the local legislature often had to step in to settle everyone down.

Avant Garde Petticoats

Petticoats, or undergarments worn beneath dresses or skirts, were part of the staple uniform for women during the colonial era. Yet, according to author Washington Irving, they sometimes leaned toward the more scandalous variety.

“[Women’s] petticoats were striped with a variety of gorgeous dyes, though I must confess those gallant garments were rather short, scare reaching below the knee,” he observes, adding, “There was a secret charm in those petticoats.”

Irving’s opinion aside, petticoats were a labor of love for women during the period. Although essential for proper dress, the underclothing required endless upkeep, from dying, carding, greasing, rolling, spinning, winding, and knotting the fabric into existence to cleaning and washing it until the day it was no longer usable.

On the men’s fashion spectrum, meanwhile, fanciful attire was key when it came to public dress. As Earle detailed, men in New York’s colonies often wore everything from green silk breeches and yellow fringed gloves to lacquered hats and laced shirts. Add to that a high-heeled leather shoe with — what else — a large silver buckle, and the gents of early America were ready to step out the door in style.

The Downside of Winter

Although cellars were integral for food storage during arduous New York winters, they were an imperfect system when it came to ingredient longevity. As spring approached, remaining vegetables began to rot while leaks from rum bottles added alcoholic fumes to the already pungent space. Combine that with the scents that wafted from barrels of vinegar and cider, plus those of homemade lard and spiced fruit, and the cellar was not the sweetest smelling place to be.


A Local Bounty

The Dutch were pioneers when it came to utilizing the apple orchards of Hudson River region. In addition to munching on Newtown pipping, Kingston spitzenburgh, and Poughkeepsie swaar varieties, they also sipped on cider, which they often diluted and flavored with nutmeg in summer.

Throughout the colonial era, other popular produce included: muskmelons, watermelons, cucumbers, pumpkins, squashes, peas, chicory, carrots, artichokes, lettuce, beets, parsnips, and radishes.

Profane Parlance

While the Dutch tended to steer clear of profanity in their everyday speech, they did sometimes slip in a few, ahem, colorful rejoinders. On the off occasion that anyone spewed the words “black pudding,” “horned beast,” or “thou swine,” they could have been subjected to a visit from the authorities.

Flower Power in the Empire State

As Dutch residents cultivated spaces for themselves, they often extended their attention to their gardens, which provided ingredients for both culinary and medicinal use. From Holland, they’d request tulip bulbs to remind them of their former home. Nowadays, of course, the ancestors of those bulbs light up celebrations like the Albany Tulip Festival, which takes place in May every year.

Want to learn more about Colonial Days in Old New York? Visit the book’s website for information or to find a local bookstore that carries it.

Related: A Massive Chain Across the Hudson River Protected the Hudson Valley From the British

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