Women and Alcohol – What’s the Story?

Hello! Have you missed us? We miss the smell of boiling wort, the great questions we get on tour, the gentle humming of our fridges…

But there is still beer in the LCBO! In fact, I went recently and found our Porter lining the shelves. As I purchased some, I wondered—I’m female. Just how easily could I have strolled in to buy beer in the nineteenth century?

It’s very easy to state generalities about women and alcohol in the 1800s. We’ve probably all heard statements like this: “Oh, ladies would never, ever go into the taproom!” “If you were a woman working with beer, you would be considered a fallen woman.” “Ladies drank tea; men drank beer and liqueurs.”

I dislike generalities. Exceptions abound in history; it’s rarely that easy. In fact, it’s quite difficult to paint a clear picture of the extent to which women and alcohol mixed in the 1800s. Perhaps that’s a project for me next season.

Certainly, women were involved in the manufacturing of alcohol. We’ve discussed Susannah Oland on this blog: the woman who managed and provided the original recipe for Moosehead. Industrialization saw both men and women working in factories, and the expanding breweries were no exception. The jobs filled by women were often deemed similar to their usual, domestic tasks. Bottlers, for instance, did an awful lot of washing, filling, and corking, not so much rolling casks (Molson’s brewery employed female bottlers by 1879).

But while Australia, New Zealand, and Britain had barmaids (and indeed, it was actually a good job for women at the time—decent wages, a sturdy bar between you and the customers, and the chance to learn some accounting skills), but there were far fewer female bar staff in Canada. In the early nineteenth century, women might work in taverns as servants or as relatives of the owner, and they might drink in taverns as well. Sometimes out of sight of the main barroom, but still drinking.

The Barmaid
“The Barmaid” from “Gavarni in London” (1849)
(courtesy http://www.oldbookillustrations.com)

Later, wives might help their husbands run a hotel, or own their own business as widows, but they rarely worked in the taproom itself.  By the 1870s, the saloon seems to have become almost entirely males-only. Almost.

Even women’s alcohol consumption in the home is difficult to trace precisely. Florence Hartley’s The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness (1860), states:

“You can never know, when you place wine or brandy before your guests, whom you may be tempting to utter ruin. Better, far better, to have a reputation as strict, or mean, than by your example, or the temptation you offer, to have the sin upon your soul of having put poison before those who partook of your hospitality. It is not necessary; hospitality and generosity do not require it, and you will have the approval of all who truly love you for your good qualities, if you resolutely refuse to have either wine or any other intoxicating liquor upon your supper-table.”

(Emphases mine)


So, no wine with dinner, then.

Or was there? Our beloved Mrs. Beeton (published in 1861, a contemporary of Hartley) has several recipes for wine, including a malt-wine:


1824. INGREDIENTS – 5 gallons of water, 28 lbs. of sugar, 6 quarts of sweet-wort, 6 quarts of tun, 3 lbs. of raisins, 1/2 lb. of candy, 1 pint of brandy.

Mode.—Boil the sugar and water together for 10 minutes; skim it well, and put the liquor into a convenient-sized pan or tub. Allow it to cool; then mix it with the sweet-wort and tun. Let it stand for 3 days, then put it into a barrel; here it will work or ferment for another three days or more; then bung up the cask, and keep it undisturbed for 2 or 3 months. After this, add the raisins (whole), the candy, and brandy, and, in 6 months’ time, bottle the wine off. Those who do not brew, may procure the sweet-wort and tun from any brewer. Sweet-wort is the liquor that leaves the mash of malt before it is boiled with the hops; tun is the new beer after the whole of the brewing operation has been completed. (http://www.mrsbeeton.com/37-chapter37.html)

Let’s analyze this. We’re mixing together heaps of sugar (sugar, raisins, and candy), some water, and three types of alcohol/potential alcohol (sweet-wort, which hasn’t been fermented yet; brandy; and very young beer).

I don’t see any yeast in this recipe, but Beeton later calls for the wine to ferment. Likely, remaining yeast in the two types of alcohol (wort has no alcohol yet) will attack the three types of sugar, making something that I imagine would be fairly high in alcohol, but still quite sweet.

Ah, Mrs. Beeton... (courtesy National Portrait Gallery; www.npg.org.uk)
Ah, Mrs. Beeton…
(courtesy National Portrait Gallery; http://www.npg.org.uk)

She also calls for teas, coffees, wines, and liqueurs for dinner parties. Interestingly, though, “The mistress of the house should always be certain that the coffee be excellent; whilst the master should be answerable for the quality of his wines and liqueurs” (http://www.mrsbeeton.com/40-chapter40.html).

So, did women drink?


Did they work in bars?

Sometimes. Less often in Canada after the middle of the century or so, but sometimes.

Did they work in breweries?


Stay tuned for more…


Free Afternoon Beer Talk

Happy New Year beer enthusiasts!


Despite the fact that our own historic brewery is asleep beneath a layer of snow for Black Creek’s off-season, we are always keeping an eye open for beer-related events around the city – especially historical ones! And this weekend, we are in luck.

This Sunday January 26th, historic Lambton House is hosting a free afternoon talk titled, ” ‘I”ll Drink to That! Booze and Toronto the Good” led by Craig Heron, professor of history at York University and author of ‘Booze: A Distilled History“.

The talk begins at 2:30pm but come for 2:00pm when the doors open to enjoy Lambton’s House new exhibit “taverns, temperance & tipplers” and enjoy refreshments and free admission!

For more information, find Lambton House online at: 


For the event poster: 

Click to access 2014_LH_booze_talk_v2_poster.pdf