September 23

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 23, 1766).

“Small Beer, Cyder and Perry.”

Today’s advertisement features a product that was common in the eighteenth century but has declined in popularity in the years since (though it seems to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence recently). The context made it apparent that “Perry” was a beverage, presumably containing alcohol, that some colonists might prefer instead of (or in addition to!) “small Beer and Cyder.” Beer and cider continue to be marketed to the masses and consumed widely in America. But what was this perry promoted in today’s advertisement?

I learned that perry is indeed an alcoholic beverage, made (as the name suggests) from pears, using a process similar to making cider from apples. Perry making became common in western England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the beverage hit the high point of its popularity in the eighteenth century. Consumption of perry had spread to other parts of England following the English Civil War as the result of soldiers billeted in the Three Counties (Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire) developing a taste for it. They may not have missed the fighting, but after being exposed to new food and drink during the conflict they incorporated that portion of their wartime experiences into their everyday lives. Perry also became more popular in England during the eighteenth century due to ongoing conflicts with France disrupting merchants’ ability to import wine from across the English Channel. Perry became a substitute. It comes as little surprise, then, that English colonists in Charleston and its hinterland imported and consumed perry along with small beer and cider.

In anticipation of writing today’s entry, I visited nearby Nashoba Valley Winery and Bolton Beer Works last Sunday to sample some perry, all in the name of research. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the drink was more subtle than I anticipated, the taste of pears apparent but not overwhelming. In the absence of reliable sources of potable water, I can understand why colonists saw perry as a welcome addition to the small beer and cider they consumed.

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