October 7 history blog post: One of a series of short essays to provide the cultural, political and geographical context for the 1766 travelers.
Salome Meurer’s journal describes many challenges during the journey from Bethlehem to North Carolina. One of the recurring challenges: drunk men.
The very first night on the road, when they were preparing to sleep in Antoni Fischer’s barn, Salome writes: “As Sister Brentlin and Liesel Bühlern went into the barn to make places for us to sleep, a drunk sprang upon them. They quickly called to Jacob Blum for help, who had to save them.” The next day they traveled through Reading, Pennsylvania, where 100 people gathered around the group, gawking. They traveled on to Sinking Spring, where Salome notes “we didn’t get any sleep. Those people were drunk and were yelling and whistling until two in the morning. Brother Etwein had to get out of bed and quiet them down. It was very unpleasant to hear.” A few days later, they traveled through Hanover, where “As soon as we reached the town a drunk began to play the drum and sing. He was yelling so that we were afraid to go by. You could hear him throughout the entire town.”
Salome was not anti-alcohol. The traveling group carried rum in their wagon, and Salome notes that “the brothers warmed us up some rum and pitched the tents” on October 20, and then on October 23, they stopped for lunch and “received a drink of warm rum and then marched on.”
In colonial America, potable water was in short supply, especially in the larger communities where chamber pots were dumped indiscriminately. While people in the 18th century may not have understood the concept of germs, they did understand that water could carry many diseases. Alcohol was safer, therefore more “healthful.”
Several types of alcoholic beverages were readily available, including hard cider, rum imported from the West Indies, and beer made from farmers’ grains. Colonial Americans consumed alcohol with every meal, and the average annual consumption in 1790 was 5.8 gallons per person, compared to about two gallons per person today.
In 1737, Ben Franklin published “Drinkers’ Dictionary,” a compendium of colonial slang for different states of drunkenness. George Washington once threw a party where he ordered 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Claret, and seven bowls of punch.
In 1784, physician Benjamin Rush published a pamphlet titled “An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body.” He wrote that intemperance could lead to “idleness, quarreling, fighting, lying and swearing, stealing and swindling, burglary and murder.” He also listed the diseases caused by drinking: “sickness, tremors, puking, bloatedness, inflamed eyes, jaundice, dropsy, epilepsy, melancholy, palsy, apoplexy, madness and despair.”
Virginia S. Hart A’75
Melissa Swindell: “What was in colonial cups besides tea? Cider, water, milk, and whiskey!”
Jane O’Brien: “The time when Americans drank all day long”