The 1800s: When Americans Drank Whiskey Like it was Water

Our American ancestors seemed to like to drink… a lot. According to an article by Jim Vorel in PasteMagazine.com:

The Ale-House Door, a painting by Henry Singleton. c. 1790.

“By 1700, the colonists drank fermented peach juice, hard apple cider, and rum, which they imported from the West Indies or distilled from West Indian molasses. Drinking was an important part of the culture, and people passed around jugs or bowls of liquor at barbecues, on market days, and at elections. Candidates gave away free drinks. A stingy candidate had no chance of winning. Practically everyone drank. Even restrained New Englanders consumed great quantities of liquor. The Puritans called alcohol the ‘Good Creature of God,’ a holy substance to be taken proudly yet cautiously.”

He goes on to note: “By 1770, Americans consumed alcohol routinely with every meal. Many people began the day with an ‘eye opener’ and closed it with a nightcap. People of all ages drank, including toddlers, who finished off the heavily sugared portion at the bottom of a parent’s mug of rum toddy. Each person consumed about three and a half gallons of alcohol per year.”

When Rorabaugh writes “three and a half gallons of alcohol,” he’s talking about 3.5 gallons of pure ethanol, rather than gallons of a specific spirit. To convert that into a more graspable figure, that’s 8.75 gallons of standard, 80-proof liquor per year for the average person by the time of the American revolution. That’s already 45 percent higher than current consumption levels, but hold onto your seats, because the number gets much higher by the 1800s.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Jim Vorel’s numbers but his claims do not surprise me. Numerous other authors have made similar claims. Author Daniel Okrent, in his book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, states:

“Washington kept a still on his farm, John Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider, and Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for drink extended beyond his renowned collection of wines to encompass rye whiskey made from his own crops. James Madison consumed a pint of whiskey daily. Soldiers in the U.S. Army had been receiving four ounces of whiskey as part of their daily ration since 1782; George Washington himself said ‘the benefits arising from moderate use of strong liquor have been experienced in all armies, and are not to be disputed.’”

You can read about these interesting historical lifestyles at http://alturl.com/5vyfz and at https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcohol-in-the-19th-century/

 

8 Comments

Back then, alcohol was the best water purification product available. Nowadays we use water purification tablets, lifestraws and such to get a drink, which they didn’t have then. They would fill their jug, and add at least a quarter cup of the local rockgut, and let it settle. And settle in for a drink. But with all the industrial around now, I would look for an natural pond.

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This explains, perhaps, the length of the Revolutionary War, why it took so long to eject the Brits. Our men couldn’t shoot straight!

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    That might be an amusing thought, but actually our men shot straighter and more accurately than did the Brits. Sorry if I ruined your fun:) The Redcoats didn’t need marksmanship because they mostly trained for unified volleys. But our soldiers were used to bringing home the bacon with as few shots as possible.
    However, I agree that the war certainly dragged on, largely because of the superior fighting experience of the British. Washington sure had a time pulling together a unified, well-trained fighting force!

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Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I heard it, so I don’t have the source, but yesteryear’s hard cider was actually weaker than today’s common beer. You couldn’t even get drunk with it. So, most of our Founders, soldiers, children, etc., were not a bunch of drunks (there was definitely some mighty strong stuff, but it wasn’t everywhere like people say it was). In fact, I spoke to one of the ladies at Buckman’s Tavern, Lexington Green, MA, on the subject and she agreed with what I’d heard and wished that that common misconception would stop going around.
But anyway, have a look at this pamphlet by Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the most prominent Founding Fathers. I read it awhile back and found it fascinating. He details the effects of the various alcoholic drinks during his day. You can then draw your own comparisons to modern alcohol. I imagine most people here would find the pamphlet interesting and somewhat amusing, regardless. Enjoy!:)
https://archive.org/details/2569031R.nlm.nih.gov

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Water was often unhealthy, especially in urban and coastal areas. See
https://www.ccpl.org/news/language-libations

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I don’t have the references, but I have read in several old accounts that jugs of whisky were used at currency in those times. I remember reading an old court order fining someone a “jug of whisky” as a final award in a civil tort case, instead of currency. Real currency was at times impossible for settlers on the frontier to get their hands on.

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Since I have ancestors who were distillers, brewers, and barrel makers — and also Puritans — I found this very interesting. As is almost always the case, the comments are also enlightening.

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Femme_Fashion_Forward December 10, 2018 at 5:58 pm

It’s interesting to think about alcohol in this perspective back then, as an average part of daily consumption, not just celebration or indulgence. I suppose it makes sense as clean water was not always easy to come by.

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