Women in Distilling, 1500s-1700s
March 08, 2023
This is a quick post on some books I've read on women distilling in olden times.
Distillation of spirits came out of medical alchemy (which is to say medical proto-science), and early alchemy books included lots of recipes for distilled medicines with stuff like gold and silver included in them. Some of these alchemy books were written by and for women, such as the best known Secrets of Isabella Cortese.
A very scholarly look from an alchemy/scientific practice perspective is found in Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. It mentions distilled medicines that often resemble pure alchemical preparations.
Those women alchemists were noblewomen, who could afford the stills and other equipment and often a staff to operate them. But as we move into the 1600s and look at other noblewomen in Germany, we find the distilled medicines looking more like medicine (nonsensical as much of it was) rather than alchemy.
Noblewomen (as well as monks and nuns) in the Later Middle Ages/Early Modern Period made beneficial medicines to give as charity to surrounding villagers. Keep in mind that the nobles and monks were landowners, so keeping their tenants alive longer increased their own wealth. The book to read about this time period is Panaceia's Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany.
As we move into the 1700s we find women authoring household books aka recipe books. These books always had a practical aspect to them for running a household (as opposed to books solely on distillation, all written by men, which were solely distilled herbal medicine recipes). The women's books would include information like food preservation techniques along with distilled medicines.
These books have fun names, like:
• The Country Housewife and Lady's Director in the Management of a House, and the Delights and Profits of a Farm Containing Instructions for managing the Brew-House, and Malt-Liquors in the Cellar; the making of Wines of all sorts (1728)
• The Ladies Directory in Choice Experiments and Curiosities of Preserving (1662)
• The Accomlisht Ladys Delight (1684)
• The Queene-Like Closet (1681)
• The Compleat Housewife (1727)
There are some books about these recipe books, but looking more closely at distillation we find Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake. This book is a bit more accessible than the previous two. The author shows that in young America in the Chesapeake area people were more isolated and their technology and social structures closer to those of the previous century. So in the 1600s and 1700s we find more women distilling in the home (or rather, estate) and look at what they used distilled alcohol for and how they made or bought it.
I touch on some of this in Doctors and Distillers, and if you want to go down this rabbit hole I'd recommend reading it first to put a lot of this stuff in context.
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