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The Folger Spotlight

Drink Like It's 1699: Four Cocktails Inspired by the Folger Collection

Recipes are pleasure, sustenance, and memory. Recipes are labor, need, and survival. 

Ingredients for early modern recipes (ca. 1400-1800CE) took winding, diverse, and sometimes troubling pathways. By funding research, partnering with industry experts, and engaging with public audiences, the Folger Institute uses early modern recipes as an entry point for studying the important histories of Gender, Sexuality, Class, and Race.  

Our “Mixology” series draws on the Folger’s rich collection of handwritten English recipe books—the largest in the world—to examine the early modern world and connect it with the present. Together, let’s rethink how we research and talk about the ways ingredients were grown and harvested, marketed and sold, consumed and imagined. 

All recipes are courtesy of Christopher E. Smith of Crazy Aunt Helen’s. Try the recipes at home and join us on September 22, 2023, for an evening of cocktails and trivia! 


In 1976 historian Joan Kelly asked a paradigm-shifting question: “Did women have a Renaissance?” Instead of seeing women as merely strategic brides or producers of heirs, Kelly encouraged researchers to re-think their analyses using the lens of women’s experiences. After this shift in focus, researchers also started questioning the construction of “womanhood” within the gender-binary culture of the early modern world. This new line of thought eventually led to the development of “gender” and “sexuality” as broader, more nuanced areas of academic study.  

Fertility and reproduction were central to many early modern women’s experiences. We often assume that without contemporary obstetrics, gynecology, and hormonal contraceptives, those born with a uterus were simply victims of biology—if they survived the perils of their first pregnancy and childbirth, they spent much of their lives pregnant. We shouldn’t conclude, however, that early modern women had no reproductive knowledge or choice. In fact, for much of history, women’s bodily agency was due in large part to their knowledge of medicinal herbs like mugwort, which was used to control menstruation (or “flowers”), terminate pregnancies, and aid in birthing and post-natal care.  

Cocktail: For Your Flowers

While some herbs prevented fertility, other foods such as mustard seeds were seen as powerful aphrodisiacs that increased sexual virility. In general, early modern individuals did not associate sexual preferences with identity in the same ways we do today. Instead, the dominant culture insisted that people achieve the “ideal state” of heteronormative sexuality by balancing their physical bodies with intentional diets, exercises, and even mannerisms. Of course, there is also ample evidence of same-sex love and desire, non-heteronormative behavior, and asexuality in the historical record. Researchers are now re-examining and nuancing this evidence using the contemporary vocabularies of gender, sexuality, and queer studies. Approaching history in this way empowers us to question and push back against patriarchal and heteronormative structures, past and present. 

Cocktail: Fadoodling Fizz


Humans have long been interested in classifying and understanding difference. For many years, scholars studying early modern Europe focused on economic and political differences. Wealth disparities, along with the cultural and political divisions that accompany them, were understood as “class.” This emphasis on class, however, was also the by-product of the available historical record, which privileges the writings, objects, and ideas of wealthy individuals who could afford to collect and preserve them… individuals like the Lady Spencer.  

The “Lady Spencer,” born into a powerful and wealthy family, is attributed with a recipe for “Reison Wine” in a commonplace book dated to around 1700.  For early modern ladies, recipes were a socially acceptable means to share and experiment with culinary, alchemical, and medicinal knowledge. As such, recipes became powerful forms of social capital that women readily collected and exchanged. The cachet of a recipe could be increased by attaching it (sometimes falsely!) to a prominent name such as “Lady Spencer.” 

Today, researchers take a more nuanced approach to class. Rather than approaching it as an independent category of historical study, class is viewed as deeply intertwined with constructions of gender and sexuality, as well as the intersections of race. 

Cocktail: The Lady Spencer’s Spritz

In “Sugar and Status in Shakespeare,” scholar Kim F. Hall reminds us that in the medieval period sugar was a luxury available only to members of the “upper class”– nobles and royals. During the early modern period, sugar became somewhat more affordable and therefore accessible to “acquisitive, status conscious, strivers.” Hall writes that “even as its consumption spreads beyond the aristocracy, sugar’s age-old associations with royalty become part of the added value of sugar”.  

“Lisbon sugar,” or refined sugar, is included in many early modern recipes, often where you might least expect it! First refined in India around 3,000 years ago, sugar spread to China and then the Middle East before crossing the Atlantic, where it became a lucrative and exploitative colonial enterprise. As Before ‘Farm to Table’ fellows Dr. Neha Vermani and Dr. Michael Walkden explain,  

harvesting, juicing, and refining sugar cane was labor-intensive. Because of this, the British slave trade was driven by its sugar trade. Britain fought bloody, destructive wars, enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, and utterly changed ecologies, all to satisfy its national sweet tooth. 

Over the course of the 17th century, Europeans and Americans transformed what was once a rare delicacy into a cheap commodity. They did this through slave labor and plantation farming as the transatlantic trade in Black bodies—particularly enslaved African men, women, and children—grew to its height.  

Racial injustice has been and continues to be systemic and damaging. Today, premodern critical race studies offers us new insights into the history of contemporary racialized thinking and racism. Researchers are helping to create anti-racist spaces by writing more inclusive histories, using innovative teaching methods, and contributing to larger conversations about social justice. 

Cocktail: OldFashionedly Sweet

Join us at Crazy Aunt Helen’s!

Drink like it's 1699: A Folger Institute Mixology and Trivia Night
Four cocktails set on decorative plates on a table, with green and pink and white walls in the background

Drink like it's 1699

Put on your wigs and lace up your stays! Join the Folger Institute for a night of 17th-century-inspired cocktails, trivia, and prizes.
Fri, Sep 22, 2023, 7pm