Set the Table with Switchel
Written onMarch 01 , 2010
Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.
It would seem that the drink was an acquired taste, even for the haymakers. A certain Charles Morris Cobb was a young man of 19 in Woodstock when he wrote in his journal on the evening of July 7, 1853, “To morrow I’m going to work for Chas Raymond a haying $1 worth, … He made a mixture of water, molasses & vinegar, for drink, and some I took, sickened me so that I stopped and didn’t work for an hour.” While the mixture didn’t sit well with the unfortunate Mr. Cobb, it was certainly a boon to the laborers who spent countless hours in the summer sun engaged in the brutal work of haying.
The particular blend of ingredients that is switchel came about through a fascinating interplay of trade patterns, colonial medical philosophy, public health concerns, the burgeoning temperance movement, and Yankee practicality. In the mid- to late-1700s, laborers drank huge quantities of rum to make it through their day. New England-distilled rum, made from molasses imported from the West Indies, was plentiful and “sold so cheaply that even common laborers could afford to get drunk every day,” writes Andrew Barr in Drink: A Social History of America.
In the 18th century, water was not generally considered fit for consumption, due in part to contamination concerns but also to the then contemporary understanding of a working body. It was thought that as a person sweated during hot work, refreshment should be hot and stimulating rather than cool and hydrating in order to maintain a balance of inside and outside temperature and to prevent illness due to imbalance. Rum fit the bill far better than cold water, which was considered downright dangerous. But with the development of switchel, the combination of vinegar, ginger and molasses mimicked the hot sensation of liquor while providing water and electrolytes, not to mention encouraging sobriety.
The timing of the rise of switchel also coincided with the nascent temperance movement; while it may be obvious that a team of haymakers fortified only with vast quantities of rum would be a severely inhibited team of haymakers, the temperance ethic involved a more spiritual and less practical motivation for tee totaling while on the clock. An 1843 collection of written sketches, Wild Scenes in the Forest and Prairie, calls switchel, along with root beer, “the penitential potations of BAAL ALCOHOL’s converted worshippers.” Philadelphia physician and temperance activist Benjamin Rush pushed to replace rum with “other pleasant and wholesome liquors” to aid in bringing in the harvest, such as “water sharpened with vinegar and sweetened with molasses.”
The ingredients were close at hand, vinegar being a common product of New England’s orchards, and molasses being readily available as unfermented and undistilled rum. Some recipes suggest replacing the molasses with maple syrup (clearly a readily available choice) or cane sugar. And other sources suggest that rum itself was a common addition to switchel. An 1867 issue of The Advocate of Harvard University recalls a time when “the favorite beverage was switchel; a compound of rum, molasses, and ginger, the receipt for which was imported from the rural districts.” Of course, this may suggest more about the age-old proclivity of college students for liquor than it does about the makeup of switchel.
The 1867 undergrads were not alone, however, in preferring their switchel adulterated. In the nation’s capital, “switchel was composed of molasses, ginger and pure water from the celebrated Capitol spring, and was ‘flavored’ with the finest Jamaica rum,” wrote Joseph West Moore in 1895’s The American Congress: A History of National Legislation and Political Events 1774–1895. “Many gallons of it were consumed daily, and whenever there was an exciting debate the supply had to be renewed again and again.”
Despite its benefits to the laborer—and legislator—the drink has suffered a great deal of gustatory scorn. In The Country Kitchen, a 1936 paean to a vanishing era in rural Michigan, author Della T. Lutes referred to switchel as “a not altogether unpleasant substitute for the average mouthwash of today.” Modern descriptions run the gamut from “tangy” and “refreshing” on the positive side, to “hardly wretched” and “not so bad,” all the way to “disgusting.” Just as Woodstock’s young Mr. Cobb found the drink to be an acquired taste, so too do many modern tongues. But then, perhaps all we need to do to fully appreciate switchel is spend the day in a hayfield under the hot July sun.