The Alewife: A Folkloric Connection between Beer and Fish (Part 2)

Image Credit: Alewife, New York Commissioners of Fisheries, 1898


The previous post invoked the important role that women played in the history of brewing and keeping alehouses. Although this contribution allowed women some independence and clout, it was always couched within male dominated society—and with it, fear of women obtaining power by controlling a means of sustenance. Efforts were frequently taken to check that possibility.

 One way to curb women’s potential influence was to denigrate them through misogynistic representations. This was the fate of alewives as early as the medieval period. The vices of alcohol were often projected onto the women who brewed, sold, and served it, as if the male imbibers had little responsibility. Alewives frequently appeared in folklore as seductresses or sexual deviants. Some have even suggested that the image of witches may have derived from attempts to demonize women’s traditional roles as brewsters. (I’ll have more to say on this in another post closer to Halloween.)

 This brings us to the alewife, a fish that frequents the Connecticut River and other watersheds in New England. Although the term likely is a corruption of a Latin or French word for herring (alosa), a folkloric anecdote arose explaining that the fish was named in honor of the female occupation. John Josselyn, the English traveler to New England, first reported a connection in 1675 when he observed that both have a little paunch—that is, a beer belly.

 Two centuries later, in 1866, his comment remained in a Massachusetts report on the protection of fish in the Connecticut River:

 “The alewife,” says old Josselyn, “is like a herring, but has a bigger belly, therefore called an alewife.” From which it would appear that the keepers of alehouses, two centuries ago, were proverbial for drinking of their own best brewing.

 This report left out or was unaware of the disparagement of women attached to this folk etymology, but later accounts reintroduced that troubling misrepresentation by suggesting the comparison worked because both the fish and the women in question were—ready for it?—ugly creatures.

 In talking to some of the talented artists whose work will populate this blog about ways to address these meaner aspects of alcohol’s history, we all agreed that the best approach would be to put it out in the open and ironize or satirize the underlying ignorance that produced such representations. In this specific case, we wondered aloud if the folkloric naming was ridiculously sincere—maybe, just maybe, there was a time when brewers were half-human, half-fish creatures, a kind of reverse mermaid. Who knows? That’s easier to swallow than a mouthful of sexist nonsense!

 In the future, I’ll post some interpretations of those creatures made by those fantastic young artists.

 And all kidding aside, I would like to draw readers’ attention to the Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit that supports women in the brewing industry. Currently there are chapters in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—alas none yet in the River Valley—all worthy of your support.

 Until next time, cheers!

Stephen Olbrys Gencarella

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