A Look Back in History: Colonial Fresh-Baked Bread and Hard Cider

This view of the 18th Century Hartman Cider Press located at the 1753 Keim Homestead shows the one-screw lever cider press with the fulcrum brace at mid-point used to raise and lower the 28-foot long beam.
This view of the 18th Century Hartman Cider Press located at the 1753 Keim Homestead shows the one-screw lever cider press with the fulcrum brace at mid-point used to raise and lower the 28-foot long beam. Submitted photo

As we look back over 250 years of American history, certainly nobody thinks about the history of bread, maybe hard cider, but certainly not Colonial bread. I hope most people realize the spongier type of bread manufactured today is not the same bread as yesteryear, let alone centuries ago. Expanding on my initial thought, it becomes even more interesting when one realizes that our forefather’s wives baked bread traditionally only once a week (Friday) and did not have plastic wrappers of today to keep it fresh. Most puzzling back then though was how did they ship bread from the Colonial port of Philadelphia across the Atlantic Ocean and still have it palatable?

It’s reasonable to assume that pies were stored in the various surviving tin pie-safes, some made with beautiful pierced designs and hung from cellar ceilings. So where was the bread kept then; in the cellar as well? But to store a whole week’s supply of bread would be a considerable amount for a large family and to keep it as fresh as possible, but how? Not to worry, this pondering has yet to be solved, only speculation and theories, and obviously, not by the masses. But transitioning to other popular treats, our important apple culture our ancestors had was something to behold!

Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, there existed the practice of storing apple butter in an open gallon crock, and then, sealing it tightly by tying newspaper down over the top of the crock to be placed in the attic and stored for months. But when opening such a crock of stored apple butter, after several months, it would have formed a thick hard crust, and that (hardest part of this crust) had to be cut away. The remaining portion was placed in a pot and heated while adding a small amount of water and sugar. In a short time, the thick mass again becomes a smooth and tasty treat as it was before storage, and therefore magically, no refrigeration or freezing needed. Quite a trick was Grandma’s folk knowledge of preparing and storing food but has become a lost art, as well. Furthermore, when it came to the fermenting arts, some locals can still made their own wine, moonshine, Italians their “grappa,” and the coal region their “boilo” drink deriving from their Eastern Europe heritage.

But many Pennsylvania Dutch farmsteads in our region had a variety of apple orchards that provided domesticated food dishes for these ethnic natives, including sweet cider, or “cider twice” (hard cider), which was transported to the port of Philadelphia by Conestoga wagons where farmers made a significant profit as much of it purchased by wealthy sea captains who exported their cargo to distant lands. They were also a number of farmers who sold household vinegar, as well, at the port city. Almost every fair-sized farms had a sizable one or two-screw cider presses upon which apple mulch was squeezed into barrels of cider then stored in a giant vaulted cellar, until it was shipped to Philadelphia, or processed into vinegar.

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One of the fascinating stories I had been told over years concerned the estate of John Lesher’s Oley Forge operation. Among the cargos Colonel Lesher sent to Philadelphia was a substance recorded he ambiguously called, “Cider Twice” that more than likely was his nickname for hard cider popular in Colonial times among the native peasants and his forge workers, which a sophisticated Lesher who owned property in Philadelphia as well would have most likely frowned upon his workers consuming such a beverage. But the fact that there were so many area farmers with large wooden cider presses leads one to the conclusion that a variety of mixtures might’ve been prevalent that made our folks intoxicated! Obviously, apple pies were and still are a universally loved desert shared by everyone and homemade apple butter was used to spread on a number of meats and dishes, even with crushed native walnuts incorporated in.

Perhaps life in the “good old days,” and before, in Colonial times was made a little easier by this Cider twice, or maybe life not quite as harsh as some historians would have us believe. Although it seems incomprehensible to think otherwise. There are still early ledgers, from very early 1800s, in private hands I have had the luxury of coming across that listed the day to day work life at furnaces, which may have been compromised with this beverage treat, likened to “applejack” of New Jersey. Maybe more credit should be given to fellow Colonial Ironmaster and Revolutionary War hero, Daniel Udree, for banning spirits from workers on his forge.