The Alewife: A Folkloric Connection between Beer and Fish (Part One)

Image Credit: The Ale-House Door, William Nutter after Henry Singleton, 1790, Yale Center for British Art


The Alewife: A Folkloric Connection between Beer and Fish (Part One)

Anyone who hears the tale of a giant fish that got away may suspect some drinking inspired the exaggeration, but there is another folkloric connection between beer and fish: the alewife. This connection is a thorny one, as it reveals a historical prejudice against women. It requires a careful unpacking, so I will tackle in it two posts.

Historically, beer was brewed by women. In societies in which the division of labor was separated by gender, brewing was often seen as a domestic contribution, akin to bread making, and hence “women’s work.” This is true throughout the globe, even in ancient times, and the tradition continued well into the colonial period in the United States, following English convention.

Beer brewing skills were often incorporated into representations of the ideal (and ideally domesticated) woman. Consider, for example, the praise for Hepzibah Pratt Rockwell (c. 1732-1814), wife of Samuel, as found in the history of Windsor, Connecticut:

Her wool and her flax were always spun and woven in season. Her geese were picked at the proper time of the moon, and everything thoroughly done. Her large Indian pudding was on the table precisely at noon and conch-shell blown in proper season. Her large brass kettle was over the fire for brewing beer every Tuesday morning.

There have been times when males took over the process, especially when profit or influence was to be gained. Medieval monks regularly brewed ale, for example, and enjoyed considerable economic benefits for doing so. And with the rise of industrialization and large scale breweries in the late 1800s, including those on the Connecticut River, beer brewing effectively passed into the hands of men. Only recently have women returned to the venerable tradition they instigated.

 Although the English term “alewife”—meaning a woman who brewed and sold ale or kept an alehouse—appeared in the late 1300s, the profession was established well before then. The activities of alewives were often highly regulated, and sometimes very harshly so. The ancient Code of Hammurabi, for example, contained rather severe punishments for female brewers, tavern-keepers, and barmaids that included death by drowning or by fire. While rules such as these testify to the importance of beer as a dietary staple, they also underscore the longstanding anxiety of women having influence and power.

 In the next post, I will explain how this term for a gainfully employed and relatively independent woman became associated with a fish that frequents the River and New England as a whole.


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