By Megan Watts, MHS Digital Team summer intern
Many things have served as symbols of status, political leanings, and wealth throughout United States history. One of the most iconic symbols of status is alcoholic beverages. The history of early America and British North America is littered with empty bottles and full glasses. Ale flowed freely in taverns full of sailors and artisans. Rum was often cheap and plentiful in New England, the runoff product of sugar manufacturing made possible by the labor of enslaved persons. Failed vineyards could be found all over the British North American colonies in the 1600s and 1700s.
However, one drink that holds a special place in colonial and American history is Madeira wine. Commonly referred to as “Madeira,” this Portuguese red wine has endured throughout the centuries. In the 1700s, it was consumed by people from different social classes and regions of North America. Madeira was popular because of its international origins (European goods were in high demand at that time), but also because it was an economical choice. Its unique creation process allowed it to survive transatlantic trips easily and remain unspoiled for long periods after purchase.
Wine shipped from Madeira was diluted with “neutral grape spirits,” then packed away in the bottom of ships. In his book Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, Steven Grasse discusses how the “sweltering conditions” of transatlantic travel acted as an integral part in the Madeira creation process, which required an oxidization process in high heat. This heating and oxidation process made it possible for Madeira to stay unspoiled and palatable for long periods of time. In addition, Madeira was imported tax free to the British North American colonies, a result of a long-standing political agreement between Portugal and England. Thus it was the perfect practical choice—an imported wine with no taxes and a long shelf life, perfect for merchants and consumers alike.
Madeira is a significant example of the economic, social and political ties which linked the British colonies and Europe. “The invention of Madeira wine was both an economic act—carried out in response to commercial motives—and a social act—not invented by a solitary “genius” but by an Atlantic network of producers, distributors, and consumers in intense conversation with one another.”
At the end of the 1700s, Madeira became more than just a symbol of transatlantic trade, but a symbol of the American Revolution. Madeira was one of the products that British authorities attempted to collect expensive import taxes on in 1768. When a ship packed with the wine was seized by customs officials, its owner, John Hancock, refused to pay. The ship was later burned by colonists in an act of defiance. This incident, and several other events related to taxation contributed to the socio-political upheaval in Boston. Madeira never lost its cultural significance. By the 1800s it served as one of the ultimate signifiers of socioeconomic status, the choice of powerful politicians, wealthy elites and influential socialites. Madeira thus was the one of the only beverages which mixed science, transatlantic shipping, privilege and coincidence.
Megan Watts is a second-year history M.A. student at Simmons University. Megan enjoys researching anything related to history. However, her most recent research has focused on colonial America- particularly American slavery. This past summer, she completed an internship with the Digital Team at MHS. During this internship she worked with the Harbottle Dorr newspapers and created metadata for some of the organization’s online resources. Currently Megan is completing another internship at the Gibson House Museum in Boston and working at the Paul Revere House.
Grasse, Steven A. “Wine.” Essay. In Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, Being: a Revolutionary Drinking Guide to Brewing and Batching, Mixing and Serving, Imbibing and Jibing, Fighting and Freedom in the Ruins of the Ancient Civilization Known as America, 69–86. New York: Abrams Image, 2016.
Hancock, David. “Commerce and Conversation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic: The Invention of Madeira Wine.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 29, no. 2 (1998): 197–219. https://doi.org/10.1162/002219598551670.
 Steven Grasse, Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, New York: Abrams Image, 2016. 69-71.
 Ibid, 75.
David Hancock, “Commerce and Conversation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic: The Invention of Madeira Wine”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29, no. 2 (1998): 197–219. https://doi.org/10.1162/002219598551670. 199.
Steven Grosse, Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, Being: a Revolutionary Drinking Guide to Brewing and Batching, Mixing and Serving, Imbibing and Jibing, Fighting and Freedom in the Ruins of the Ancient Civilization Known as America (New York: Abrams Image, 2016), 76