Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You Couldn't Drink the Water, or Could You?

"Take counsel in wine, but resolve afterwards in water."
Poor Richard's Almanac, 1733

Singing colonial drinking songs often leads to questions and discussions of the drinking habits of 18th century Americans, who consumed an incredible amount of beer, wine and spirits. So much so that respected persons of the time, such as Benjamin Rush and Ben Franklin, began to preach the virtues of temperance.

Beer was the everyday drink, both strong (full-strength) and small (watered down). Even children were given small beer. The traditional answer as to why this was done is "The water wasn't safe."

Lately I've heard some historians claim this is balderdash, that one reason colonists headed for America in the first place were reports of how clean the streams and rivers were. Colonial settlers didn't know about bacteria, per se, but they did often boil water and scald milk before ingestion, especially if the
liquid seemed "befouled" (smelled bad or was oddly colored or had obvious slime).

So why exactly wouldn't the water be safe? Same reason as today. Industrial pollution.

As small towns and settlements sprung up along creeks and rivers, so did mills and other businesses. Anyone who needed water or water power for his trade built as close to the streams as possible. This included grist, paper, and textile mills, tanners, blacksmiths, iron furnaces, forges, saw mills, and carpenters. All of them created waste products and many of those wastes were returned to the waterway. The water could contain  lime, lye, and metals, among other pollutants. Using a bit of beer to at least hide the bad taste made sense.

Even if the water was safe, beer was used for basic nutrition. Doing typical 18th century farmwork, each adult could easily burn 4000 calories per day. Beer provided extra calories, nutrients and carbohydrates in a fairly easy to consume form. When the Temperance Movement started to convince people to switch from small beer to tea in the early 19th century, malnutrition was noted among farmers and other more vigorous trades.

Whatever the answer, colonial Americans liked their drink, particularly beer, and wouldn't be denied it, even if that meant being creative.

If barley be wanting to make into malt
We must be contented and think it no fault
For we can make liquor, to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips.

American folk song, circa 1630

Your servants,

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