That’s just wrong.

Lots of responses to the Fruit with a Checkered Past post below. Many asking: are you pulling our legs, Joe? Did frontier children really drink? Oh yes they did, and for one simple reason: because alcoholic beverages were frequently safer than water.

The reason should be fairly clear: microbes can’t survive in an environment that’s 10-15% alcohol. This is a reality that peoples all over the Eurasian continent and the Mediterranean discovered millennia ago, even though they had no concept of microbes: people who drank beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks (like kefirs) stayed healthier than those who drank ground water. Sure, in time the people who drank too much alcohol would eventually die of cirrhosis of the liver…but which is better: to die of liver failure at 40, or of hepatitis when you’re five? The question answers itself.

So early Americans were simply carrying on a tradition that had been proven to work in the Old World. In the northern US, where grain was grown, families drank beer. In the West, Midwest and the eastern seaboard, they drank cider. Down south, where corn was king, people (unfortunately) drank whiskey, which was obviously far more damaging and far less hydrating than ciders and beers. Some temperance activists in the 1800’s reported seeing children in the South drinking whiskey by pints. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but at the very least it indicates that children in the South (and probably elsewhere) were well acquainted with spirits.

The good new is that this sort of thing doesn’t go on anymore. In fact, we modern Americans drink far less than our forebears did in general. Even 100 years ago people drank MUCH more alcohol than we do today, about 400% more according to some estimates. Was it for health reasons or out of addiction? Well, certainly it started out being the former and frequently ended as the latter. However it’s beyond doubt that while alcohol abuse is still very much a scourge on modern societies, some of those societies might not exist at all were it not for the consumption of alcohol.

17 thoughts on “That’s just wrong.”

  1. And another thing, besides the safety, is that these historical beers had a lower alcohol content than today. If I remember right the kind of beer a kid would drink, or you would drink at breakfast, etc was called ‘Small Beer’ and had a fairly low alcohol content.

    1. That’s quite true. Usually small beer was like soup…basically just fermented pulp, not unlike nouveau vins, fermented but unfiltered grape squeezings that people drink to this day in Europe during harvest season. It would have had a pretty thick and goopy mouthfeel, but a lot better than getting sick!

      Thanks, Ann!

  2. I’ve read before that it takes a remarkably small percentage of alcohol to kill off the microbes in water. I can’t find that article now, but another that Googles up easily says that between a 2/1 and a 5/2 water/wine ratio was used in ancient Greece. That’s a higher ration of alcohol than I recall reading before, but part of that equation was time, in that leaving the mixture sit for some hours was safer than a quick mix-and-quaff. Historians have apparently also linked years of a poor grape harvest and scare wine to outbreaks of disease.

    Off topic, ancient Greeks and Romans also considered drinking undiluted wine to be barbaric. Under Greek Draconian law, the penalty for drinking undiluted wine (unless prescribed by a physician for curative purposes) was death. Living in California, as I do, with our Prop. 215 medical marijuana law, I’m going to guess that ancient Greece also saw an explosion of wine doctors running wine prescription mills.

  3. Like much commonly-accepted wisdom, the idea that children shouldn’t touch alcohol is actually a quite recent (historically speaking) one – post-1900, certainly. Prior to that, children pretty much invariably drank what the adults around them drank – which on the whole was considerably lower alcohol content than much of the beer and wine available today (Bud Lite and Coors excepted!)

    There are several mead recipes from the early 17th century that have an extremely low honey-to-water ratio (and therefore ferment to a very low alcohol content) – they turn out as something you can drink almost like water with very little effect. (They don’t taste like much, either, but that’s rather beside the point.) Similarly, the small beer commonly drunk at meals probably only had a 2-3% alcohol content. Between boiling the wort when it was being made, and the slightly acid and alcoholic nature of the final drink, it was safer than water, but not alcoholic enough to have much effect.

  4. I would just demur a tiny bit, based on more on statements about medieval drinking than those about the States. Somewhere it got about that earlier drinkers drank alcoholic drinks because the water was unsafe. But, outside cities, water isn’t much subject to human intervention or hygiene and so the fact that the latter was questionable would not, for instance, have made most, well water any less safe. (And cities were pretty much in decline for centuries; ironically it was progress that made city water dirtier and more poisonous – all that tannin, dye, etc thrown into it and, arguably, increased numbers of bodies in cemeteries, which, I’ve seen it claimed, contaminated ground water.)
    As a practical matter, medieval texts are full of references to people drinking water as a matter of course. Did they prefer beer and wine? Most likely. Lots of people prefer other drinks to water today, and the options were more limited back then. But I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that the water was any less safe overall. Nor have I seen any statements – from then or now – suggesting that people noticed people living longer who drank alcohol (some monks avoided it and no one comments on their being short-lived.) Given how many other ways people had to get sick (starting with the food) I doubt they would have, even if that had been the case. (Dysentery was a major concern and probably killed more people than more dramatic diseases like plague and leprosy – just as diarrhea kills many in Africa today.)
    I haven’t studied the American frontier. But it would be nice to have some hard evidence that the water was any less safe then than it is today.
    Medieval writers, by the way, were very concerned about alcoholism. It’s a frequent subject in religious writings especially.

    1. I’ll take issue with that, Jim. American history books are replete with reports of settlers contracting all sorts of illnesses from standing waters, shallow streams, ponds, even lakes. I’ll grant you that wells are generally pretty safe sources of drinking water, but surface waters grow all sorts of ugly stuff and were responsible for many, many deaths from the Colonial period onward. Since I can’t imagine that temperate zones around the world are any less susceptible to infectious microbes than any other, I’m very willing to believe the conventional wisdom on this, that being that alcoholic drinks were safer.

      – Joe

      1. Surface water grows stuff? I think the nasty stuff mostly does its growing in human and animal hosts who poop it into water that is also used for drinking etc. Or they poop it into the land that drains into those water sources.

        So the surface water on the actual frontier was probably not bad…but it stopped being the frontier long before urbanization.

        1. Hehe…I’ll grant you it’s an imprecise term. However there are all sorts of bacteria, viruses, parasites, protozoa and such that can live and thrive in fresh water. Not all of them come from human and animal excrement, though I think you’re right that lots of them do. I think cholera and hepatitis can live in water without being deposited there via droppings. Stuff grows on decaying plant and animal matter, falls in, blows in…you name it.

          There are also plant toxins that can contaminate water and make people sick. I met a fellow from Indonesia who told me that he once mistakenly bathed in a river that was full of a toxin from fallen tree leaves that made all his hair fall out.

          Let’s just say that a lot of stuff can get into fresh water when it flows along the ground and leave it at that. 😉

          Thanks Jim!

          – Joe

    2. Jim, in a reference I came across earlier today before my post up above, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (a writer in the Later Roman Empire), wrote in his “De Re Militari” that armies should not drink “marshy water, for the drinking of bad water is like poison.” This suggests that it was well understood that surface water was potentially dangerous.

      He also mentioned that “If a large group stays too long […] in one camp, the water becomes corrupt.” So even if they knew nothing of microbes, the association of human activities and hygiene with corrupt water supplies was known. This seems to be a principle reason (outside of morale, perhaps) that the Romans went to great lengths to ensure that their armies were well supplied with wine.

      1. We seem to be discussing different kinds of water: “ground water”, “surface water”, water full stop.

        Even today, most people would not drink standing water from ponds, etc. And medieval doctors did indeed warn against that. But that’s very different from suggesting that water in general was dangerous. Also, ground water (which is what supplies many wells) is not the same as what some are calling “surface water” here (standing water exposed to the air).

        I can certainly see people getting sick from the kind of water Joe just listed on the frontier (“standing waters, shallow streams, ponds, even lakes”) – and they still might today. But people knew that. That’s why monasteries dug wells; that’s why the Romans not only built aqueducts, but processed the water en route to make it drinkable. It’s also why Bavarian law punished anyone who befouled a water source (and required that they clean it, though how I can’t imagine).

        As a practical matter, again, references to people drinking water as a matter of course can be found in numerous medieval texts (including several from medical authorities). Conversely, I’ve never seen a single reference to people drinking wine or beer because it was safer than water (not even from the same medical writers who discouraged drinking water that smelled bad, etc).

        One reason, however, people might have preferred to drink alcohol – and given it to children – is that they thought it more fortifying. Ben Franklin tells how the apprentices he worked with in London drank beer all through the day because they thought it gave them strength. And even in Africa today some people regard beer as virtually liquid bread (which, nutritionally, it can be, if it has enough body).

        I doubt anyone will find any reference in the period to people drinking alcohol to avoid drinking water, especially normal, non-stagnant water. I’m sure, to a modern reader, the idea IS credible. But, as tempting as that logical leap may be, it’s thoroughly unproven.

        1. I hear your argument Jim, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. I understand that you have yet to find a reference to the safety of alcohol vs. water in your readings of Medieval manuscripts, but that fact that you haven’t found one yet doesn’t disprove the notion. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as it were. It may have been conventional wisdom by that time…who knows? But let me know if anything turns up!


          – Joe

          1. Conversely, Joe, in the absence of evidence, wouldn’t it be appropriate to be more tentative about a statement that simply has never been proven? Despite being made by numerous “experts”?
            Is it conceivable that people in this period drank alcohol to avoid the water? Maybe (I am so not convinced). But statements on the point tend to be categorical, as if this was proven, yet I have not seen anyone (this includes professors with doctorates) who makes the claim even try to prove it.
            It’s one thing to say something is possible, even likely. It is quite another to state it as an affirmative fact, despite no one having found any evidence to confirm the speculation.
            Sometimes ideas just get out there and people stop even trying to prove them. Right or wrong, this idea seems to be one of them.

          2. But there is good evidence, just in other times and places (i.e. the U.S. and in the Ancient World as Tom points out). That nothing has turned up yet regarding Medieval Europe doesn’t discount any of that. I’d say the weight of available evidence is on the pro side in this case, at least for now. But I’m with you on your broader point, that sometimes totally unsubstantiated ideas get out there and there’s no stopping them. It’s irritating, and I’ve done my best to combat a few of those here on the blog… you’ve helped a great deal to that end from time to time. You have my thanks for sure! And now, on to candied apples!

            – Joe

        2. People back then weren’t differentiating between ‘ground’ and ‘surface’ water. Water was water. When you’re busting your tail keeping yourself and your family alive, you drink what’s easily available, not grab a handmade shovel and start digging a really deep hole for no known (at the time) reason. Logic therefore says that there was every reason for them to distrust water that was almost instantly polluted by runoff from the villages.

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