Spirits or distilled liquor were consumed so enthusiastically during the 1790’s (and before and after) that tourists and important men alike began to decry the habit. The U.S. was a nation of drunkards. George Washington, a whiskey distiller himself, referred to the heavy drinking as the ruin of half the workmen. And John Adams complained about the length of time it took to get something built. One day’s work earned a man enough to stay drunk all week so they worked one day out of seven. Women, of course, were never supposed to be seen intoxicated.
How did we get into such a pickle? Well, part of it was cultural. Cotton Mater (of Puritan fame) declared, “Drink itself to be a creature of God.”
Water tended to be dirty. It was frequently contaminated and just plain unappetizing. In Natchez water from the Mississippi River had to be set aside so the sediment could settle. (ugh!) Milk was unpasteurized and if the cow ate something like jimson weed the milk would be poisonous. Alcoholic beverages made with boiled water were safe. This was not only true in the United States. Throughout the Middle Ages and continuing onto the eighteenth century, just about everyone drank beer. Even children. They drank ‘small’ beer with an alcoholic content of 4% or so. (Without modern controls, the alcohol content fluctuated wildly. I saw beer being made as would have been done in the 1700s in Colonial Williamsburg. They are not permitted to sell it because the results vary so much. The alcohol content ranged from the 3 or 4% range all the way up to 8 or 9% or more.)
In times where the food supply could be erratic at best, beer – and other alcoholic beverages – supplied a significant portion of the day’s calories. Unfiltered beer especially has a higher nutritional content than leavened bread, more protein and B vitamins and fewer phytates (chemicals that bind to minerals such as calcium and prevent them from being absorbed in the intestines).
Also the cereal grains from which beer and whiskey could be transported from the western frontier (like Pittsburg in 1793) to the east in the form of whiskey and sold for more than four times the price for the grain itself and without adding to the cost of transportation.
Everyone drank. Ben Franklin is quoted as saying if God wanted men to drink water He would not have given him an elbow to bend a glass with. Toddlers were put to sleep with alcohol or the sugary residue at the bottom of the glass. (This makes my hair stand on end.) In the early days of the 1700s, the favorite drink was rum, sweet and alcoholic. Rum was made from molasses. Part of the triangle trade (slaves, molasses and rum) it was distilled at first in Maine and Massachusetts. Later the distillation was moved to the West Indies to be closer to the sugar cane. After the Revolution, however, it was not patriotic to drink rum. Whiskey, especially rye whiskey, was all-American. The grain was grown in the United States and it was distilled into whiskey here as well.
Early opposition to drink came from the Quakers. By 1777 they were ordered neither to distill nor to sell distilled beverages. The Shakers (i.e. the Shaking Quakers) practiced restraint and drank mainly water. They were, however, famous for their cider and it went from ‘kind’ to ‘hard’ very quickly in an age before refrigeration. The Methodists saw drinking as a barrier to purifying the church and society so they joined the crusade. A number of doctors also spoke out against the perils of heaving drinking. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a doctor famous for his work during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 was a leader.
So what about Will Rees, my detective? He doesn’t drink whiskey or rum. His favorite drink is coffee. (After the Boston Tea Party, tea was considered unpatriotic.) Lucky for Rees, coffeehouses, popular in England especially after 1660, crossed the Atlantic to the Colonies. Like the taverns, they were very important to the War for Independence. The rebels met in both coffeehouses and taverns to air grievances and to plan strategy. Coffee became a popular drink and was widely available. To this day the United States is the leading consumer of coffee.
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York.
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