– We need our medicine… (Comment of Keith Moon to Ringo Starr in the 1978 biographical film of The Who, “The Kids Are Alright”)
It is impossible to understand the extensive use of beverage alcohol of all types in early North American society without appreciating the rudimentary state of medicine and pharmacy then.
Sickness was a constant threat, often termed “ague” or “fever”, in the south this was often simply malaria. This problem lasted long in America, as even in 1948 an aged H.L. Mencken could recall the frequency of malaria and other epidemic in the Baltimore of his youth. Listen to his recorded reminiscences here (from 5:15, for two minutes). He explains conditions c. 1885 which seem unimaginable today, and this is 250 years after Virginia was permanently settled…
Mencken speaks too, I should interpose, of his famous penchant for alcohol, but oddly deprecates his undeniable reputation as a beerman. This excerpt from the interview contains his comments on alcohol. The interviewer referred to specific works from the 1920s in which Mencken praised the beer styles of old Europe, but Mencken said this was “exaggerated”.
On the other hand, he speaks with great fondness for the best whiskey juleps made in pre-Prohibition New York, which is rather more pertinent to our present subject matter.
And so back to old Virginia: There were no sulpha drugs to treat infection, no medical anaesthetic of any kind, no operating theatre, no emergency department. There were doctors, sometimes, and their services were extensively used, but their arsenal was limited and often counter-productive.
In this atmosphere, alcohol was viewed as a panacea, a welcome counter to the slings and arrows (often quite literal) of a frequently hostile and forbidding new world. From 1650-1850, this was the general picture both in the U.S. and Canada where the primeval forest was still being conquered and new settlements established.
In 1898, Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century was published by the historian Philip Alexander Bruce. He gives full recognition to a quasi-medical role for alcohol in early society, as follows. (The term spirits as used here encompasses all alcoholic drinks. Footnotes are omitted but you find them in the link mentioned below).
The liberal use which was made of spirits by all classes was not simply due to the indulgence of an appetite for liquor inherited with that English blood which has always gratified itself so freely in this respect under English skies. It was supposed to have a favorable influence upon the body from a medical point of view. The “morning draught” was a popular expression in the Colony long before the close of the seventeenth century. This was the draught with which the day was begun, and it was the popular belief, a belief doubtless formed with the most delightful facility, that such a draught was the surest means of obtaining protection against the miasmatic exhalations of the marshes. The taint of sickness in summer lingered about the oldest settlements, and at all seasons followed in the track of settlers on the frontier engaged in cutting down the forest, who thus set free the germs that invariably lurk in a mould created by rotting leaves and decaying wood. This assured a large practice to all who made any pretensions to the art of the physician.
While this context for early drinking is undeniable, at the same time, Bruce’s Victorian rectitude disguises that liquor was also resorted to, as it always has been, for pleasure. This is shown by the great variety of drinks available to early planters and indentured labour. Slaves were permitted use of alcohol as well on some occasions, as Bruce details.
So many wines and spirits were imported that it is impossible alcohol was simply viewed as a medical therapy: the lush cellars of the gentry were a testament to connoisseurship in drink, plain and simple.
In fact, I believe Bruce was something of a connoisseur himself, as he devotes over 20 pages to detailing the alcoholic culture of early Virginians. You can read it all here, from pp 211-234.
For the drinks used in general, he had this to say:
In addition to beer and ale, the liquors most generally used by the wealthier planters in the early history of the Colony were sack and aquavitæ. With the passage of time, madeira became the most popular form of spirits with the members of this class in use at meals, and punch, manufactured either from West Indian rum or apple or peach brandy, at other times. The people at large drank rum or brandy if a strong drink was desired. Mathegelin, a mixture of honey and water, was also consumed. Among the lighter wines in use were claret, fayal, and Rhenish. It is a fact of curious interest, from our present point of view, that the rarest French, Portuguese, and Spanish wines and brandies were found in the ordinaries of Virginia in the seventeenth century, and the rates at which they were disposed of were carefully fixed by law. Where now only the meanest brands of whiskey can be bought, madeira, sherry, canary, malaga, muscadine, fayal, and other foreign wines were offered for sale. Had there been no popular demand for them, they would not have been imported.
The term acquavitae here IMO meant spirits distilled from wine, i.e., brandy, or from sugar, that is rum, or from non-grape fruits, such as applejack or pear brandy. As some beer was made from malt, or imported, we can’t dismiss that some alcohol was distilled from it. However, another historian of the period has dismissed out of hand the possibility that whiskey of any kind or origin was consumed in the Old Dominion as discussed in my previous post.
Indeed it seems Bruce agreed judging by the way he refers to whisky in his last lines above.
Having earlier reviewed the role of whisky and some other drinks in early Ontario society, the picture is virtually the same: alcohol used as a therapeutic but also often for social diversion, and permeating all levels of society, even the church.
The lower strata had beer, or beer substitutes, and more often cider or other fruit wines. The gentry and prosperous middle classes had a wide range of French and Iberian wines and spirits available to them, similar to what was sent to the Tidewater in the preceding 200 years. Increasingly after the Yankees came to Ontario, whisky’s footprint widened steadily.
North American colonial societies were largely consistent in their early bibulous habits. Correlatively, they reacted similarly, that is mostly with enthusiasm, to the temperance and abstinence waves when they came.
This was true from well south of the Mason-Dixon to its border region and on to Pennsylvania, New York and Upper Canada.
So the pattern ran, from Albion down to planter country, and indeed beyond to the Caribbean, with the exception that the temperance fighters never conquered the mother country. That was a schism that developed with time in Anglo-Saxon culture, although the roots of temperance can be found in Britain, too.