Revisited Myth # 126: “A boot of ale” derives from the custom of using old boots as drinking vessels.

The myth says that the expression “a boot of ale” comes from the custom of cutting off the top of old boots and using them as serving containers. (How the top of an old boot transformed into a vessel is unclear–to me, at least.) 

As most of you who work at or visit colonial-era museums know, the American colonists drank out of leather vessels called jacks or blackjacks. These were lined with pitch to make them waterproof and are very sturdy. Decades ago, my stores in Colonial Williamsburg sold reproductions, and I believe they still do. These large leather jugs and mugs made such an impression on the French visitors to England in the 17th century that they reported that Englishmen drank out of their boots! A funny story, not meant to be taken literally. (Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art, and Industry, 1946, London) 

Why use leather to make a drinking vessel? It’s an English tradition. In medieval England, there was little glass manufacture, so aside from wood, pottery, or tin, what are you going to use to make a mug or goblet? (Yes, gold and silver, but those are for the nobles, not taverns or average folks, so let’s not go there.) Leather worked very well. Still does. But not boots.



  1. Can you tell us about bootlegging, then? It must come from the same origin. I can’t imagine it’s a reference to carrying liquor in the boot of one’s car. I’m reading your novel, so it’s on my mind! Well, actually I’m listening to the audiobook from Audible, but I still call that “reading”.

    • Mary Miley says:

      The word first appeared in the 1850s in Maine and of course it refers to smuggling liquor. But this seemed odd to me because Prohibition didn’t start until almost 70 years later. That is, except in Maine, the first dry state, where it became illegal to manufacture or consume liquor in 1851. Because Maine shares a border with Canada, the law was easily flouted. Ordinary folks wanting to smuggle liquor into the country could hide a couple bottles in their pants legs in Canada and walk into the United States.

    • Andrew says:

      It’s not about the ‘boot’ of a car, but a literal boot, where flasks of whiskey would be hidden and carried across the border. I live in one of the major cities known for it’s role in the prohibition.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Looking at your illustration/example above, you can’t blame anyone for jumping to a conclusion that people were drinking out of their boots! Except for the stitched handle, that example looks very much like an inverted riding boot. Perhaps they were made from the same leather stock, and from a similar pattern.



6 Responses to Revisited Myth # 126: “A boot of ale” derives from the custom of using old boots as drinking vessels.

  1. David Lloyd says:

    Well one of my Grandfathers was born in the UK in 1865 and I remember him telling me as a young child in about 1952,, that his Grandad had told him that after Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo (I think in 1815?) many Pubs were renamed to “The Duke of Wellinton” and men were seen drinking beer out of ” Welliington Boots” in his honour. of him winning the battle against Napolian.The tall Wellington boots of today of course derive from Wellingtons design of boot.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m still getting over my shock in hearing that your grandfather was born in 1865. Mine was born in 1897 and I’m not exactly young.

      • David Lloyd says:

        1897 ||| Dear Mary .With all due respect -Just kids – Mere youngsters in comparison -(if I may respectfully say so) ?..His wife my maternal Grandmother was born in 1880/ The reason I know it so precisely is that I have in front of me at this moment their SUNDAY SCHOOL prize books with all dates of presentation recorded on the inside cover..They were given for 100% attendance at SUNDAY SCHOOL at protestant churches. Some weeks ago I was looking thru” these prize books and I saw that some of these prize books meant that he was in his 20″s and he was still attending SUNDAY SCHOOL. I investigated this and found out that Sunday Schools at that time in history did not only teach religion. They taught Christianity for a couple of hours tthen afterwards they trained students in various professions . My Maternal Grandad qualified as a Chemical Enjineer in this way. and became the General Manager of a major English Cotton Dying company regards David

  2. Walkowski Lee says:

    New subject, don’t know the proper way to do this.

    PIZZA Don’t know if it is regional but in my part of the country, (Mid-Michigan) it is always pronounced PITZA.

    Is this just a regional variation or accent or is there a history behind this?

    Lee Walkowski Midland MI


  3. David Lloyd says:

    Returning to the theme of drinking from boots and as to whether its a myth or nor not..In my experience most of these things that go from generation to generation have at least a thread of truth in them.However if these stories are in the English language one has to have a grasp of the history and background and structuire of the language. Subequentl to my British anscestors colonising 30% of the world English has developed /evolvedi into about 40 different forms throughout the world. I remember being in a meeting in Singapore about 35 years ago with some very well spoken Singapore men. At the end of the meeting I wa asked if I had understood everything that had been said. I replied that no I had NOT understood everthing.. and I repeated the two “strange words” that had been used in the meeting by a member. He replied “Mr Lloyd – “It”s our language as welll”. That put me in my place did it not!! ??
    Anyway if you are going to try to work out if people drank from boots and if its likely that the saying is very old (say prior to 1650) then one has to look at the various dialect sources in UK.( ie. Scandinavian, Saxon, and Hanseatic League words) .In my experience although many English standard formal words have changed over the centuries the dialect words have not changed at all even though they are never written down..When I was a young kid in the North of England in the 195o”s the local peoplein ,in just this immediate area ., for some reason. used to set fire to the fields in the late Autumn (The Fall,)I found out later in life that it only happened in a 25 square mile area around where I lived.They called it Swealing. Anyway some 20 years later I was talking to a Scandinaviian guy and we spoke agout dialect words in euro langages and i spoke about this wierd dialect word of Swealing. He recognized it straight away –Thats a very old Scandinavian word , he said,which means “”To singe with fire” The Viking word had remained intact for over 1000 years without ever bing written down.

    So now lets start to think about the word “boot” (as per the myth)
    there are many words in Enlglish (by that I mean English as in the Uk)that derive from the Hanseatic Leugue ( a trading group that operated from German and Dutch and some east coast UK and Baltic ports from the 14th to the 17th century) This seafarers in this group standardised many words which have entered the different languages in these regions, for instance –A sailing ship has a Boom for the sail.Comes from the German Baum (tree trunk) The English word Bottle. Used still today in some of the sea ports of these other foreign ExHanseatic League countries but pronounced “Boottle” (not bottle) The Hanseatic word for Boat seems to have been BOOT. it is not unknown for a container for liquid to be called a Boat, (eg Gravy boat) Perhaps they were drinking out of a boat like container and not an actuall boot but because of the Hanseatic league influnce called it a boot The Hanseatic League ports ,in the UK.where in very close proximity to Boston (Uk) hence these dialect words could very well have gone to America with the Pilgrim Fathers


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