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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

Dining in Early New England

The international pandemic has had us all staying home more, and many of us are starting or expanding our gardens in order to be more self sufficient, and also so that we need to shop for food less.

This got me to thinking about how the early settlers got their food, stored it, and ate it. Growing and sourcing food was a major pastime, requiring lots of time and work. Everyone who could had a garden where they grew fruits, vegetables, herbs and medicines. They hunted for meat or purchased or bartered for it from local hunters. New England waters were abundant with fish.


What did they Eat?

Food was abundant in New England in the 18th century. Households tried to keep big supplies on hand. A typical family dinner in the countryside consisted of a common boiled dish of salt beef or pork with cabbage and turnips, or in wealthier houses, a fresh roast or chicken. This was cooked up in a big pot over the fire. It varied with the seasons - with fresh fruits and salad greens in the summer, and fresh fish when available.

Tea and coffee were imported and expensive. They were purchased or bartered for from local merchants who got them from the cities which imported them. All homes had tea, and many had coffee. They were kept safe in tea caddies, which were often locked. If they couldn't afford to buy tea, or ran out, they made it from herbs in their gardens, or dried herbs from their storerooms.

Breads and sweets were baked of grains, eggs and milk, sweetened by honey of, if available, sugar. The only leavening agents were egg whites and yeast. If the household had a bit of yeast, a portion of it was always used to create more by adding flour, water and sugar and leaving it to ferment.

Alcoholic beverages were ubiquitious - made from cider, and drunk from morning to night by all family members, including children. Taverns made beer, and bought imported rum, A popular "cocktail" of the time was rum combined with molasses, beer and sugar, heated with a red hot poker, or home made elderberry or currant wine.

There were usually 3 meals in a day, with the largest being mid-day. Breakfast was usually porridge, bread, salted meat or fish, and pudding for children. The main meal consisted of meat, fish, vegetables and sweets. Late in the day a lighter meal was often served.


How Did They Store Food?

In the warmer months food was picked from the garden as needed and some fish and game were also eaten as caught. Since there was no refrigeration, meat and vegetables, as well as grains, flowers, sugar, honey and herbs had to be stored to last the long cold winters.

Most of the meat was salted, brined, dried or smoked for winter storage. Salt was used in great quantities and was a precious commodity. It had to be kept dry and away from critters. It was stored in "saltboxes" which had slanted lids and hung on the wall in a warm and dry place, often near the hearth.

Root vegetables would last the winter if stored in a root cellar or cool buttery in barrels or bins with a covers. Spices and herbs were dried and stored in spice boxes and pantry boxes in the buttery. Grains and sugar were also stored in bins or firkins, with tight lids to keep critters out. Baskets held dried fruit and dried herbs.


Serving and Eating

In the earliest days there was no such thing as sitting down to a family dinner at a table. Food was simply piled onto the table in wooden or pewter bowls and the family stood around the table and took what they wanted and ate it with their fingers. There was one large mug of cider which would be passed around.

As time passed, families would sit together around the table. All of the food was piled onto the table at the same time. Each person had a wooden or pewter plate and a bone handled knife. Wooden spoons were used for serving, but diners rarely had individual spoons. There were no napkins, no forks, no china or glass. The mugs were made of pewter or wood. People shoveled food into their mouths with knives and wiped their mouths on the tablecloth, or their sleeves. The same wooden plate was sometimes reused during the meal by turning it over.

The 2-tined fork was an advancement in table utensils, as was the use or earthenware and pottery. There was no glass on the table in the 18th or early 19th centuries, except in cities and in wealthier homes. Everything was pewter and wood in those early days on the country table. In cities, and among wealthier families, English silver and porcelain was imported, and English table customs were followed.

Beginning in the early 1800s English earthenware and pearlware was imported into America in large quantities. These dishes, mostly in blue and white patterns, were used primarily for entertaining, and stored on display in cupboards in rural homes.

They were brought out for company, set on a white linen table cloth, and then put away when the guests had left.

Glass did not appear on the average table until close to the middle of the 19th century. There was little need for it on the country table. Cider was the drink of choice, and always drunk, often communally, from a wooden noggin or pewter tankard.



Women guarded their personal recipes, often handed down from generation to generation. There were no cookbooks initially. In the late 1700s cookbooks began to appear, as did menus and suggestions for proper entertainment. Cooking and serving became a more social endeavor rather than just a necessity. Early colonial New England recipes can be found on the internet. I am particularly fond of molasses pudding, gingerbread, pumpkin pie, and anything with cranberries.


What this means for the collector

Understanding the function as well as appreciating the form of the antiques I collect and sell has always fascinated me. Look at the chop marks in the bowls and on the treen plates, the shape and form of the boxes, the wear that hands and knives produced as the items were used. And the cracks and chips, the make-dos, often show just how valued these pieces were to their original owners.

Incorporate pewter woodenware, and earthenware into your collections, even some blue and white English transfer ware. It belongs there too. And remember how much work it was to put a meal on the table!

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