Alcohol quenched nearly every thirst there was in colonial America. Author Ed Crews explains why the preference existed and how the prevailing medical wisdom supported it.
Podcast (audio): Download (6.7MB)
Harmony Hunter: Hi. Welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Today I want to introduce you Ed Crews, a writer for the Journal Colonial Williamsburg. Ed, thanks for being here.
Ed Crews: Thank you so much for having me, Harmony.Harmony: Well, you've done some research for a journal article showing that the colonial American would use just about any excuse at all to take a drink. When were they were drinking? What purposes were they drinking for?
Ed: Well, they drank from the time they got up until the time they got to bed. They'd have a pick me up and a put me down between the beginning of the day and the end of the day. They would drink during the workday. We take a coffee break, they take a drink break. They'd have alcohol with lunch, they'd have a drink in the afternoon, they'd have drinks with supper, and then they'd often have a drink so they could go to sleep at night, so they drank throughout the day.
They would drink on any occasion; weddings, christenings, burials, any event. In the political realm of campaigning it was very important for a politician to be very free and open in handing out drinks, not only to his own supporters, but also those he knew who were not his supporters. So any social occasion was an excuse to drink. Work was an excuse to drink. Getting up and going to bed were excuses to drink.
Harmony: So if this were the 18th century, you and I would probably be a little bit drunk right now?
Ed: We'd have a nice buzz on and we'd continue that throughout the afternoon and then into the evening as well.
Harmony: Well it sounds like a funny idea when we compare it to today's culture, but why were they drinking, why was that their primary beverage in the 18th century?
Ed: There were a couple of reasons. The primary one was that in Europe, the water was largely polluted. You couldn't drink it. So when the colonists came to America, they brought this prejudice against water with them to America. Now there was plenty of clean drinkable water, easily accessible, but having these notions they brought from Europe they didn't want to drink water. They preferred to drink alcohol. They often considered alcohol not so much as a treat, but as a food, as just a part of everyday life. So it was built into their culture, it was built into their beliefs and that's primarily why they drank.
Harmony: You talked about the culture and the beliefs surrounding alcohol, again unlike today, the 18th century actually viewed alcohol as something that was restorative, strengthening, would revitalize you.
Ed: They did. They thought that alcohol could be used to cure certain conditions. Often women in labor were given a shot, which really sounds strange to us. We think today about how any woman knows that a part of prenatal care is to not consume alcohol. We're very aware for example of fetal alcohol syndrome, but in the 18th century alcohol was considered an accompaniment to life. That it could cure disease, make you healthy, make you happy, and get you through the absolute worst conditions you'd ever face, i.e. childbirth.
Harmony: It's the healthiest thing you can do.
Ed: It's the healthiest thing you can do.
Harmony: Well, what were they drinking? What were the beverages they were enjoying?
Ed: Well, they drank anything they could get their hands on, but the drinks of choice for Americans — for Americans, now we're talking about colonists in America — they drank beer. Beer was extremely popular. They made beer out of all sorts of materials to include, I read somewhere, green corn stalks. I don't think I'd want to drink it, but they made a lot of beer. Now the problem with beer in the 18th century was it was not pasteurized, there were no preservatives, so if you made it you had to drink it. As a result, beer tended to be consumed in taverns in large metropolitan areas where you had a lot of people who come in, drink a whole lot of beer, then you'd make another batch tomorrow. So beer was very popular and was common throughout all the colonies. People enjoyed that.
They also drank wine. Now wine could be made from berries, grapes, things they found in America although there was plenty of wine that was imported to the United States or to the colonies beforehand and then also the United States after we became a republic. Another popular drink they would often take various fruits, apples in particular, and they would make applejack brandy, that sort of thing.
The absolute premier drink prior to the Revolution though was rum. Rum was consumed throughout the colonies, it was consumed by every class, everyone drank it. Rum came from basically two places. It should be noted that rum is made from molasses. Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refinement, so sugar would be grown and refined in the Caribbean, the molasses imported to America, typically to New England, where it would be made into rum.
Now in some cases, rum came from the Caribbean, produced there and imported to the United States, or to the colonies, and then it was also made in New England. You could drink it straight, you could drink it with water, you could use it in punches and everyone drank it. Men, woman, white, black, everyone drank, and everyone drank rum and rum continued to be the drink of choice until the Revolution.
Harmony: Now you say up until and up to the point of the Revolution, what was it about the Revolution that changed that preference?
Ed: What happened was, in part ,it was more difficult now to get the raw material to make it because of blockades and British ships. It was difficult to get the raw material to make rum. So that was a problem. The other problem was that rum was considered a colonial drink, an English drink and it was tainted in the sense that it was not an American thing. It was not an American product, it was not an American act to drink it. So as there was a growing sense of American nationalism and American identity, Americans begin seeking their own drink; a drink that would be uniquely American, which is how we get whiskey, corn whiskey in particular. Corn whiskey becomes eventually bourbon. Many people don't know this, but at the time of his death George Washington was the largest distiller in America, and what he made was this corn whiskey. Now he wasn't making the bourbon, but he would make corn whiskey. In the last few years, Mt. Vernon has actually set up a still that actually runs off this corn liquor and sells it there.
Harmony: And we know that several of our founding fathers actually set the example for this kind of consumption and creation of alcohol. You've mentioned George Washington. Thomas Jefferson actually made an attempt at wine making.
Ed: He did. Thomas Jefferson could arguably be called our first wine connoisseur. Jefferson was fascinated with French cuisine; he was fascinated with wine and wine culture during his time as a representative of the American government in France. He not only sampled all sorts of wine, but actually toured vineyards extensively all over France. So, impressed with the French vineyards and their products, he attempted to take cuttings and bring them home. It wasn't going to work. They simply couldn't thrive in American soil and so he would be frustrated as would anyone else. There were a variety of people who tried at several points in the 18th century during our colonial period to bring vines over. They simply don't take, for a variety of biological conditions too difficult and complicated to go into here. They just didn't take. Jefferson, even in his time though, was recognized as a wine connoisseur. He would consult with other people; told other founding fathers what to put in their wine cellars. He imported wine and, in fact, it is said that he had the finest wine cellar in America both at the White House and later at Monticello.
Harmony: When you examine this story, the history of drinking and the history of alcohol, what do you see as this sort of larger historical insight we can have from just looking at this one little piece of life?
Ed: In some ways, studying the way they consumed alcohol in the 18th century does give us a window into their time. It tells us many things. It tells us what they felt about public health, it tells us about what they thought was healthy. It gives insights into their ideas about medicine, the human body, what was right and what was good. Today, we would never dream of giving a pregnant woman a shot of liquor in the middle of childbirth. They did it in the 18th century and they thought they were doing the right thing. So in that sense you do get a look into the medicine of the period. I think it's interesting too that the 18th century was a very class-conscious society, however, everyone drank. Everyone drank. Soldiers drank, the Army issued you a drink, the Navy issued you a drink, workmen drank, women drank. So there was this interesting societal acceptance of widespread drinking that cut across all class and gender boundaries. However, what you did in drinking reflected a belief in society, decorum, human relationships. So again into another window, another way of looking and understanding how the 18th century functioned with something as simple as alcohol.