Between 1776 and 1779, food shortages caused more than 30 food riots in the American colonies. Angry men and women accosted merchants who hoarded, overcharged or monopolized coffee, tea, sugar or flour.
In Boston, East Hartford and Beverly, Mass., women led some of the food riots. They were trying to manage farms, families and shops while their husbands were away fighting the war. To make matters worse, they could buy few scarce imports as the war cut off trade with the West Indies.
And both the British and Continental armies requisitioned food and livestock.
Women participated in most of the food riots and even organized some of them, according to historian Gary Nash:
Striding onto the public stage, they became arbiters of what was fair, what was patriotic, and what was necessary to serve the needs of the whole community. Fighting for ethical marketplace conduct was consonant with supporting “the glorious cause”…
As one farmer complained, “This is the very same oppression that we complain of Great Britain!”
Boston’s Female Food Riots
Boston merchants faced 14 food riots after the British evacuated the town in March 1776. Abigail Adams reported on one of them. In the summer of 1777 she wrote to her husband, meeting in Philadelphia. She told him “there has been much rout and Noise in the Town for several weeks.”
An otherwise patriotic merchant, Thomas Boylston, had tried to drive up the price of coffee and sugar by keeping them off the market. On July 24, 1777, a horde of angry women confronted him, demanding he charge a reasonable price for coffee.
He refused. Wrote Abigail, “a number of females, some say a hundred, some say more, assembled with a cart and trucks, marched down to the warehouse, and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver.” When Boylston stood up to the women, “one of them seized him by his neck and tossed him into the cart. Upon his finding no quarter, he delivered the keys, when they tipped up the cart and discharged him, then opened the warehouse, hoisted out the coffee themselves, put it into the trucks and drove off.”
Abigail repeated the rumor that the women had spanked Boylston, her husband’s first cousin once removed. “A large concourse of Men stood amazd silent Spectators of the whole transaction,” she concluded. According to another report, the Boston women offered Boylston’s tea to poor people in the North End.
The East Hartford Food Riot
A month after Boston women seized Thomas Boylston’s coffee and tea, a food riot broke out in East Hartford. Twenty women and three men took sugar from a store owned by a merchant named Pitkin. The Connecticut Courant reported the women met at the Lyon Tavern ‘with a Flank Guard of three chosen Spirits of the male line’ and marched one mile to ‘Mr. Pitkin’s store.’
The Courant didn’t describe the confrontation, but did say the women took 218 pounds of sugar stored for the Continental Army. There was a skirmish with a man on horseback who the women thought was the owner of the sugar, but he managed to ride away.
The newspaper made fun of “so unexampled a Spirit of Heroism” and suggested that the women form a battalion to roam the countryside and live off their ‘perquisites and plunder.’
The Beverly Sugar Riot
In November 1777, women in Beverly, Mass., meted out justice to merchants who refused to accept paper money for sugar. Beverly historian Edwin Stone recorded the incident, which happened on a cold November morning.
About 60 women wearing lambskin cloaks with riding hoods marched in order down Main and Bartlett streets, he wrote. Led by three or four women, one bearing a musket, they went down to the wharves with two ox carts.
The women then went to the ‘distil-house,’ where sugar belonging to the late Stephen Cabot, had been stored.
The foreman locked the gates. The women then ‘called to their aid a reinforcement of men, who, with axes, soon demolished the gates.’ The foreman resisted. Wrote Stone,
His fair assailants, nothing daunted, pressed vigorously to the onset, and seizing him by the hair, which was not of nature’s growth, were proceeding to execute summary vengeance, when he eluded their grasp by leaving his artificial covering in their hands–and fleeing all but scalpless to the counting-room, locked himself in for safe-keeping.
The women — Stone snarkily called them ‘gentle expounders of “women’s rights”’ — forced open the doors and rolled out two hogsheads of sugar. They then put them on their carts. Other merchants, seeing the turmoil, started negotiating with the women. In the end, they agreed to sell their sugar for paper money.
With thanks to History of Beverly: Civil and Ecclesiastical from Its Settlement in 1630 to 1842 by Edwin Stone, Food Riots of the American Revolution by Barbara Clark Smith and The Unknown American Revolution by Gary B. Nash. This story about female food riots was updated in 2023.