By the Bottle or the Barrel: 400 Years of Brewing in Portsmouth

Ambrose Gibbons, one of New Hampshire’s founders, couldn’t hold back his complaints.

In a 1633 letter to England, he wrote that there had been no beer for four months.

“He’s whining that he’s totally lacking in beer,” said Sandra Rux, co-curator of “By the Bottle or the Barrel: 400 Years of Brewing in Portsmouth.”

One of the things that Rux learned as she helped assemble this overview of four centuries of imbibing was that much of colonial America’s “strong beer” was not home-brewed.

“I was really surprised about how much beer was imported from England as late as the 1760s,” Rux said.

She said people in New Hampshire always made their own beer, but it had a lower alcohol content – under 3 percent. What came from the Mother Country was 5 percent or higher and could stay fresh over a long ocean journey.

A keg borrowed from the Portsmouth Historical Society will be the centerpiece of the free exhibit, which opens Friday, Aug. 2 in the Athenaeum’s Randall Gallery during Art Round Town, 5 to 8 p.m.

Stoneware bottles, home-brewing supplies, vintage newspaper advertisements and a drawing of Eldredge Brewing Co.’s giant facility will also be on display.

Athenaeum Archivist Susan Kindstedt said by the 1840s, national temperance groups increasingly emphasized that alcohol consumption was destroying families.

An 1845 petition with the names of nearly 900 Portsmouth women calling for reform is part of the Athenaeum’s collections.

“In 1845, when the broadside petition was published, Portsmouth was in the midst of a significant population increase, with the largest influx of immigrants since early settlement,” Kindstedt wrote in a recent blog post. “Viewing the stability of their community and families as being at risk, local temperance advocates pleaded for reform in the city’s newspapers and in public proclamations.”

In the 1851 City Directory, a “bowling saloon” was listed at 46 Hanover St., and although it was not distinguished as a “temperance” establishment, it likely was, Kindstedt wrote.

The exhibit will include a broadside advertising the Victory Bowling Saloon, which stated: “Nothing allowed to offend the strictest propriety” and noted in all caps: BOYS NOT ADMITTED.

Kindstedt cites an 1844 Portsmouth Journal article, describing bowling alleys as a “serious evil,” and “unprincipled rum-holes.” In 1845, in response to pressure from temperance advocates, the New Hampshire state legislature passed an ordinance “to suppress bowling alleys.”

But there was still plenty of alcohol in Portsmouth.

By the 1860s, famed brewer Frank Jones was on his way to being the largest producer of ale in the United States. His chief competitor was Eldredge Brewing, which also used Islington Creek as its source of fresh water.

At one point in the second half of the 19th century, breweries provided 16 percent of the city’s jobs.

“Both stopped brewing beer some time before national prohibition (1920 to 1933),” Rux said. “Eldredge tried to make a comeback after Prohibition, but did not succeed. Frank Jones Brewery did make a comeback, closing its doors in 1950. By then national companies had taken over brewing.”

The founding of Portsmouth Brewery on Market Street in 1991 marked the start of the local craft brewing movement. Rux said the Athenaeum is enlisting the help of Granite State Growler Tours co-founder Dave Adams to help tell this part of the story.

A number of gallery talks are planned in connection with the exhibit, which will be open 1 to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, at 9 Market Square.

Exhibit closes on Nov. 9, 2019.

Written by Sherry Wood.


Exhibit At A Glance


Friday Aug. 2, 2019

5 – 8 p.m.

Randall Gallery, Third Floor, Portsmouth Athenaeum


Nov. 9, 2019