A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did the surname "Brewster" originally mean a female brewer?

January 1, 1983

Dear Cecil:

I'm told the surname "Brewster" comes from the title given to a female brewer. Is this true? I especially wonder since a brewer was a member of a guild and I didn't think women were allowed to enter the guilds. What's the Straight Dope?

Cecil replies:

Hard to say. Many authorities agree that the ending -ster was originally feminine, and that terms like "brewster" were applied to female practitioners of various crafts. In addition to "brewster," we have "baxter," a female baker, and "webster," a female weaver. However, this distinction was lost pretty early on. For instance, surname expert Ernest Weekley notes the existence of one Simon le Bakestere (i.e., Simon the baxter, or baker) in a 13th century chronicle. Today we have the term "spinster," originally a woman who spun, but we also have "gangster" and "teamster," both predominantly male callings.

Some guilds did admit women in the early years, mostly the widows of master craftsmen who inherited their husbands' shops. Women members were never very numerous, and restrictions against them increased as time went on. But it's interesting to consider that women may once have enjoyed a state of equality that they are now only gradually regaining.

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