More On The Theory London Silk Weaving Gave Porter and Three Threads Their Names

Following up on my keystone post here (see also Addenda in the Comments section), page 31 of this link is instructive. It’s a 1772 French discussion, from a science and mechanical arts repertory, of different types or qualities of fabrics. Note the statement for velvet from Genoa: “Le toile est composée de soixante-trois portées de quatre-vingts fils chacune“. This means, the tissue or warp is composed of sixty-three portees (I’m using a contemporary English spelling) of eighty threads each. Another example from page 31: “Peigne de vingt-cinq portees ou milles dents; trois fils de toile & deux fils de poile dans chaque dent”.  A reed of twenty-five porters or one thousand splits; three threads of tissue, and two threads of ply, in each split.

Tissue means the warp threads and clearly there are forty splits in each porter in this case (40 x 25 = 1000), with three threads in each split. The number of splits could vary although in England and Scotland it seemed generally 20 per porter. “Tissue of three threads” was known in English commerce in the 1600’s. Canvas was so described, for sailcloth and military tents, into circa-1900.

Also, as I said in my earlier post, for some cloth the term porter was used in the commercial trade description,  e.g., 20-porter linen, 16-porter jute. 

I think this shows clearly that anyone familiar with the textiles trade, not just a few people working at a Spitalfields workbench, would twig to the metaphor of threads and porters as applied to mixed beers. To this day, bed sheet quality is shown by stating thread number on the packaging, in Canada, in threads per inch. Originally, this was the number of porters (or beers/bares) specified for the fabric times the total threads in each porter, divided by the reed length, generally 37. I say originally since today, but not the 1600’s-1800’s, the porter system of measuring threads in a given width has fallen into disuse.

At the same time, I theorize that journalists such as Ned Ward wouldn’t have known necessarily this kind of trade or household detail. When he and other writers heard “porters liquors” or “porters guzzle”  they wrote it in the possessive thinking of ticket or other porters who carry articles or goods. I believe porters liquors meant – and it may have been “porter liquors” originally – any beer mixed from two or more beers. Each such porter was distinguished by its number of threads, which was drawn from the pricing. Why not call each glass a splint or dent? Perhaps portée/portee/porter were felt more understandable, but in any case as one sees above, some cloths were described just by reference to the number of threads in the porter.

Here is the page (see D2) from William King’s 1699 book, referred to in my 2010 article mentioned in my last post, which mentions some of the thread beers for the period I am discussing. Porter doesn’t appear in this list, but numerous references exist from about 1698 to porter’s liquors, porter’s guzzle, and the like. I believe entire or entire butt beer, and possibly plain porter, were beers that had the gravity of three threads and probably tasted like the typical three threads, but weren’t mixed.

Pre-Huguenot English silk weavers in London probably knew the French term “portée“, they certainly knew of course the English word thread. It is possible mixed beers were already being called porter, or porter malt liquors, before 1685, perhaps this occurred because the English weavers couldn’t use the term beer: the mixes were already beer. However, given that the first references to the thread beers and terms such as porter’s guzzle are in the 1690’s, I incline to Huguenot influence here. As well, the 1713 Fortune of War was right next to the Huguenot heartland in Spitalfields. So close was the association that a modern developer has called two buildings on the site Silk House and Satin House in recognition of its history.

All this, considered with what I argued earlier, would be too much of a coincidence for there not to be a direct tie to the beers in question, especially as it explains the puzzling term thread well. The ticket porter theory of porter’s origin doesn’t account for the term thread. One might argue it doesn’t need to if the drinks evolved separately, but how then does one explain the circa-1720 “porter’s liquors” (in Edward Ward’s pub guide), and his earlier porter’s guzzle? The only explanation could be, they were an early form of aged brown-black entire, separate from mixed beers. I don’t believe that because first, liquors in the first term mentioned is plural. They liked a group of drinks, those doughty men. What group could that have been apart from the thread beers? “Liquors” suggests beer and ale mixed, as indeed a dictionary definition of three threads said it was. If it was an early form of aged entire, it would be purely beer, not partly (or of occasion) ale, so why it call “liquors”? I just don’t see it. Porter’s beer does later appear, i.e., after 1722, but the period before – before entire butt came in – is the important time frame.

Porter became singular when the new aged entire emerged, the “improved”, more-hopped brown beer Poundage spoke of in 1760. The thread beers faded, perhaps from tax-related legal pressure, or maybe it was more economic to brew entire butt beer as has been argued recently (John Krenzke’s thesis which I find persuasive, discussed here). The form of porter, three threads, closest to porter in ABV and likely palate – and identical in price –  was thus dubbed porter tout court. The French, I now think, via their unwilling Protestant emigrants to London after 1685, are behind one of the greatest beer styles in the annals of malt beverage – behind its name, I mean.

Finally, that this explanation eluded English observers for almost 300 years is not really a surprise given the occult foreign and trade influences in question.