Excerpt. . .
“Early Americans consumed spirits at a prodigious rate.”1 That is how one statistician described the consumption of alcoholic liquids in America prior to the American Revolutionary War. That same statistician estimated that every white male over the age of fifteen would have consumed an average of forty gallons of cider, wine or distilled spirits each year. That was estimated at roughly three pints of rum each week, or an average of seven one-ounce shots each day. But before one jumps to the conclusion that the people of the 1700s were all drunken sots, it must be remembered that refrigeration, and the ability to keep liquids fresh, was not something that the people of the 1700s possessed. Glass bottles were expensive and not expendable like they are today. They were primarily used at taverns to transport the liquids from storage to the table. Liquids were stored for long periods of time in wooden casks. And those liquids that were available fresh and unfermented had a tendency to become fermented, if stored for very long in the wooden casks of the time.
The variety of liquids that we drink today were not all available to the people of the 1700s. Water, a very common liquid that we take for granted today, would have been obtained from either streams or hand dug wells, both of which would not have been totally free of disease-causing micro-organisms. Those micro-organisms were the source of diseases such as diarrhea and ‘the flux,’ or dysentery. At the present time, we, who live in industrialized societies, wonder that such diseases are still common in third-world countries, but they can often be traced to impure water supplies. Pennsylvania in the 1700s was not so different than the third-world countries of today in regard to the cleanliness of water. In fact, one food historian stated that the colonists in North America would have had a “built-in resistance to water” because of centuries of learning that many diseases were brought on by drinking water that was less than clean.2 Milk, another common liquid in our diet at the present time, was primarily used for making butter and cheese. The milk that was drank would not have been pasteurized, a technique to sterilize the milk using heat, therefore diseases borne in unclean water were also found in unclean milk. Pasteurization was not used to ‘clean’ raw milk until Louis Pasteur developed the process in the mid-1800s. Carbonated ‘soft’ drinks and powdered fruit flavored drinks were not available until the 1900s.
The primary liquids that were swallowed as refreshment or nourishment by the people of the 1700s were cider, alcoholic liquors, tea, coffee and cocoa. Of these drinks, tea, coffee and cocoa might have been the least common. They required a lot of preparation each time that they were to be drank since tea was only available in dry, loose form and coffee was not very palatable when simply boiled in water; it needed to be percolated to be properly enjoyed. Despite having originated in the western hemisphere, cocoa was not drank in the English colonies of North America until about the 1760s.3 Cocoa, which had been drunk ceremonially, as a sort of sacred homage to their gods by the Olmec civilization as long ago as three thousand years, and later by the Maya, Toltec and Aztec priesthood, had been introduced into Europe by the Spanish invaders in the 16th Century. The bitter drink that the Spanish conquistadors carried to their kings and queens became refined and, as chocolate, spread throughout Europe for a century and a half before being carried to North America. The first cocoa / chocolate manufacturing company was established in Massachusetts in 1765. It simply wasn’t drank widespread. Also neither tea, coffee or cocoa kept well in bottles or wooden kegs because they didn’t ferment like other liquids.
Cider, pressed from apples, and its sister drink, peary, made from pears, were very popular in early Pennsylvania. According to a food historian, as apple orchards sprang up through New England and southward into Pennsylvania: “cider intake of the colonists rapidly reached gargantuan proportions”4 Cider was widely available for consumption in autumn, and during that season would have been very fresh and sweet tasting. As time passed, though, the cider, which was commonly stored in wooden barrels, fermented into hard cider. Hard cider, the alcoholic content of which could vary between 3 and 12 percent, was a common beverage for the whole family. In fact, practically all of the alcoholic drinks downed in the 1700s were drank by both men, women and children.5 Cider provided a number of vitamins that people otherwise would not have gotten in their usual diet. The Germans generally ate a breakfast which included cider or beer thickened with flour to make a sort of pancake.6 Apples were also used to make apple brandy and a liquor called applejack. Cider, but sometimes ale, was the basis of a kind of punch drank during the Christmas holiday called wassail. The name derives from the Middle English Waes Haeil, that translates as ‘good health’ or ‘health to you.’ Wassail was basically a hot mulled (i.e. heated) punch with the addition of sugar and spices including cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.