When it comes to Revolutionary War-era beverages, Boston is of course best known for that time its citizens dressed as American Indians to dump tons of tea into the harbor. But as the year 2020 has shown us, Americans can be surprisingly short-tempered when it comes to things like supply and demand.
Simply put, tea was not the only commodity we Americans started fighting over once the War for Independence started. Combining a population accustomed to its luxuries with an ongoing turf war with the most powerful nation in the world meant we were bound to get into at least one more fight over a beloved foodstuff.
The next time the citizens of Boston rioted over a beverage, it was coffee.
Maybe it was the inherent “Britishness” of drinking tea that suddenly made the drink unpalatable for the newly-declared citizens of the United States. Almost immediately after the war began, Americans began rejecting the tea that once served as a cultural focal point in their lives.
Founding Father John Adams even wrote to his wife, saying “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.” Anti-tea fervor swept the rebellious colonies and in its place, a fondness for coffee arose. That fondness has never left the hearts of Americans.
During the American Revolution, that love was just beginning to catch fire, and coffee’s newest adherents were not going to be denied. Sadly, the nature of war – especially a war your side isn’t winning – sometimes means having to ration your favorite luxuries. Between 1776 and 1779, a British blockade caused widespread shortages of a number of these luxuries, especially coffee, sugar and flour.
As anyone who tried to buy toilet paper or hand sanitizer in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic can tell you, when a massive shortage of a product meets a high demand, human beings can be counted on to take advantage of the situation. These shortages lead to hoarding, price-gouging and a black market of knock offs.
Today, this kind of monopolization leads to federal investigations and public shaming. Back in the Revolutionary War days, Americans handled these situations very differently. It usually ended with a tarring and feathering, but sometimes led to worse. Around the colonies, various food shortages caused riots in major population centers in the early days of the war.
When it came to coffee, the women of Boston would not be denied. Even after the British left Boston in 1776, the city saw no less than 14 food riots. Somehow those riots did not deter Thomas Boylston, a merchant who wanted to make a killing on his current coffee stores and drove up the price to an astronomical degree.
Boston’s women, many of which had husbands away from home fighting for independence, weren’t having it. Abigail Adams, future First Lady of the United States witnessed what happened when the women confronted Boylston and demanded the keys to his warehouse of coffee, which, she wrote, “he refused to deliver.”
Adams said a hundred or more women met at Boylston’s warehouse with a cart and trucks to demand the keys. When he wouldn’t hand them over, one of the women ”seized him by the neck” and threw him into the cart. This apparently changed his mind, because he relented, giving the mob his warehouse keys.
But the women of Boston weren’t done. They tossed over the cart he was in, throwing him to the ground and loaded it and the truck up with his coffee. Before they drove off, they reportedly gave Boylston a public spanking.
So let this be a lesson to us all: don’t get between Americans and their morning joe. And when a hundred women from Boston show up at your house with a demand, they mean business.