By Marjolein van Dekken
Paper given at the Fifth European Social Science History Conference, Berlin (2004)
Introduction: In current Western Europe we have at almost every moment a choice between several hot and cold drinks like soda, coffee, tea, fruit juice and even alcoholic drinks in order to quench our thirst. This fortunate situation did not always exist. Until the eighteenth century most people in North-Western Europe primarily drank only beer. Coffee, tea and soda were unknown, fruit juice was too expensive, milk was regarded as unhealthy for adults and water was often contaminated and therefore could not be drunk.
As an important part of daily nourishment, women had always produced beer at home and for their own household. However, in Holland from the beginning of the thirteenth century beer production for the general market commenced. In the developing cities more and more labour was divided among specialised craftsmen. Professional breweries were established and the beer industry became a serious trade. In several cities of Holland like Haarlem, Delft and Gouda, the brewing industry played a major economic role during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even after the industry’s decline from the second half of the seventeenth century, breweries remained important for the local economy in those cities.
Also in other North-Western European countries like England, Germany and the Southern Netherlands, there was a transition from domestic brewing to commercial brewing at some moment during the late Middle Ages. However, the exact dimension and moment of transition differed. The shift from a domestic to a (partially) commercial industry brought some specific changes. Small-scale domestic brewing by housewives was substituted through large-scale brewing by specialist brewers. Most of those specialist brewers were men. However, in Holland, female brewers did not withdraw from the industry until the end of the eighteenth century.
In this paper, I present a study on female brewers in the Dutch city of Haarlem. It makes part of my PhD-project on working women in the drink industry in the Northern Netherlands. Until recently, little research was done regarding working women in this region. In several textbooks working women are mentioned, but extensive research has not been carried out. However, in the past few years some studies have been published which do shed more light on the subject of working women. Still, it is very difficult to get an overall picture from the results of these studies, since they focus on just one city, profession or population group. My research’s objective is to find out what kind of labour was performed by working women in the drink industry, in particular in the production and sale of beer, distilled spirits and coffee. I also want to know why women worked in those professions, what the background of these women was and if changes occurred over time. The large variety of labour performed, the variety in capital and skills needed to carry out the different crafts and the presumed tradition of women preparing food and drinks, make the drink industry a very interesting research area.