#ColonialAmerica: What’s a High and Dry?

If you look up “high and dry” in the dictionary, you’re likely to find a definition something like this:  being out of reach of the current or tide; being in a helpless position. My dictionary only identifies “high and dry” as an adjective that first came into common use in 1786. It’s first known use was in 1727.

You can find this and additional information about that use of “high and dry” by going to https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/high%20and%20dry. (I hope that’s clickable. I’m having some problems posting this today.)


That’s not the “high and dry” I’m talking about in today’s blog post.

My introduction to the noun “high and dry” came from a docent at the Hezekiah Alexander House in Charlotte, North Carolina. I learned that it was the name of an enclosed tiny cupboard on the mantle of a fireplace. If memory serves me correctly from the tour I took 15 or more years ago, that particular high and dry was approximately eight inches wide and perhaps ten inches tall. It was made of wood and had a secure door. It was where the Alexander family would have kept their cone of sugar in the 1700s.

In the backcountry of the Carolinas, sugar was a precious commodity. In order to be of use, it had to be kept dry. It stands to reason, that a homemaker who had spent precious family resources to purchase a cone of sugar would have taken measures to keep the sugar protected from moisture and the high humidity associated with The South.

One of my handiest reference books as a writer of historical fiction is English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. It has saved me more than once when I was going to use a word in a short story or my work-in-progress novel, only to find out from Mr. Brohaugh’s book that the word I wanted to use was not yet in use in the time period of my story or novel.

Mr. Brohaugh’s book says the “high and dry” was in use as a noun “by 1825.” I had hoped for proof of its use in the 1700s, but seeing it in the Hezekiah Alexander House is proof enough for me. I wish I had a photo of the Alexanders’ high and dry to illustrate my blog post today.


An illustrative blog by Stephanie Ann Farra:  World Turn’d Upside Down

I was pleased to find the following blog post from 2013 that illustrates the form of sugar that was used in colonial America:  https://www.worldturndupsidedown.com/2013/05/how-to-make-colonial-era-sugar-cone-or.html. If you aren’t familiar with a cone of sugar, please look at the photographs Ms. Farra included in her blog post.

Just for fun, I decided last Wednesday to follow Ms. Farra’s instructions and try to make my own sugar cone. How did that go? Here’s a picture of my sugar cone. With the assistance of gravity for several hours and hot water, the cone was eventually released from the vase that served as my mold. I now have more of an appreciation for the making of sugar cones in colonial times.

Sugar cone made with water, sugar, and a vase as a mold.
My attempt at making a sugar cone.

Inheriting the Trade:  A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, by Thomas Norman DeWolf

While writing this blog post, I was reminded of a memoir I read in 2008 (yes, I’ve kept a list of the books I’ve read since 1993) that is related to today’s topic about sugar. Inheriting the Trade:  A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, by Thomas Norman DeWolf, is an eye-opening book about how the trading of slaves, sugar, and rum were intimately entangled in colonial America – the largest such family dynasty being in Rhode Island. I highly recommend this book to anyone who believes only Southerners were guilty of benefiting from the slave trade.

Quoting from the book jacket:  “In 2001, at forty-seven, Thomas DeWolf was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. His infamous ancestor, U.S. senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, curried favor with President Jefferson to continue in the trade after it was outlawed. When James DeWolf died in 1837, he was the second-richest man in America.”

In researching his family’s history, Thomas Norman DeWolf and nine of his relatives retraced the steps of their ancestors, going to Ghana, Cuba, and New England. I salute their honesty in revealing to us their family history. It puts a face on an important part of United States history that has been swept under the rug for far too long.


What was left out of my history textbooks?

When I was in school, I wasn’t taught much about the slave trade in colonial and early America. I grew up believing that The South bore all the blame for slavery in America. That’s how the history books of the day were written.

My textbooks did not tell me that Africans were enslaved in the northern states at all, much less for more than 200 years. They did not tell me that the majority of slave trading in America was done by people from the northern states.

It has only been in my adult years that I’ve learned more of the truth. It troubles me that I wasn’t taught the whole truth as an elementary and high school student. It troubles me even more that so little time is now allotted to the study of American history in the public schools of North Carolina that today’s students will graduate knowing even less of our nation’s history than I did. I hope conditions are different in the state in which you live.


Since my last blog post

When I select a topic for a blog post, I don’t necessarily know where it will take me. In today’s post, I set out to define a high and dry. Little did I know it would lead me into a reference to the slave/sugar/rum trade in America. The three are interwoven, though, and one cannot truly understand the one while ignoring the others.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. Tackling my to-be-read list, I’m listening to The Broker, by John Grisham.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.

Thank you for reading my blog post. You have many things vying for your attention and time, so I appreciate the fact that you took time to read my blog today. I hope you’ll visit it every week to see what I’m up to.


Let’s continue the conversation

I would love to know what any of my blog readers know about the “high and dry” as I’m writing about it today as a noun. Have you seen such a little cupboard as you’ve toured other colonial homes? Please share anything you’ve seen, read, or heard about this tiny piece of cabinetry.

Janet