Part II – Drinking In Colonial America: Stay Away From the Water, Right?

Israel Acrelius’s drinks list (see Part I) provides a wonderful window into the drinking options of early Americans. It certainly supports the popular perception that they were awash in alcohol (as compared to our modern habits).

The list also offers an opportunity to look at another common perception. Many today believe that early Americans didn’t drink water because it was unhealthy and/or there was a cultural bias against drinking it.

This view seems particularly common among modern cidermakers, cider writers, and others in the food & beverage industry, though historical sources, like the Archiving Early America page, the Smithsonian, and Colonial Williamsburg repeat them too.

There are two problems with the view that early Americans did not drink water: neither modern science nor the historical record support it.

MODERN SCIENCE

First, humans need water to survive. You can go three weeks without food, but only three to five days without water.

Not only do we need water, but alcohol makes us need it more. Alcohol is a diuretic. It increases urine production. Since urine consists largely of water, elevated output can lead to dehydration if that water is not replaced.

Dehydration is not simply feeling dry, hot, or tired. According to the Mayo Clinic dehydration manifests itself in various ways, including:

Heat Injury

Swelling of the Brain

Seizures

Low Blood Volume Shock

Kidney Failure

Coma or Death

Based on human physiology alone, an all-alcohol, no-water diet would result in severe and debilitating dehydration.

Modern science, however, is only half of our story.

HISTORIC RECORD

It’s fair to say early Americans were hyper-aware of their water. Residents and travelers often commented on the qualities of near-by water.

Johann David Schoepf, while touring the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania in 1783, encountered foul waters:

But this fatness of the soil gives the water an unpleasant taste.[1]

At Jacob’s Plain, a few miles from Wyoming, there is a spring on which floats a fat, viscous scum depositing a yellow sediment. The water is said to have an unpleasant bitter taste…[2]

Such unpleasantness may have dissuaded Schoepf and others from trying it, but sometimes people drank unfamiliar water because it’s what they had. And unfamiliar water could cause health issues, like when William Moraley’s ship docked at Philadelphia in 1729 and he and his shipmates:

…drank so freely of the River Water, which, having a Purgative Quality, caused some of us to fall Sick. I got a Diabetes, that brought me so low…[3]

Familiar or not, there was one kind of water which was consistently viewed as dangerous: cold water. There was a professional and folk view that consuming cold water when one was hot (because of either the weather or exertion) cooled the body too quickly which could be lethal.

William Moraley said of cold water:

It is dangerous to drink Water at this Season, hot Liquor being more proper, to allay the Thirst.[4]

The editor of the 1787 English translation of the Marquis de Chastellux’s travel journal mentioned that Philadelphia suffers from:

...extreme heart, and the abundance of excellent water, with which Philadelphia is supplied, occasion many accidents among the lower class of people, for it is no uncommon thing to see a labourer after quenching his thirst at a pump, drop down dead upon the spot, nor can the numerous examples of this kind every summer, prevent them from frequently occurring; but it is to be observed, that if the heat be intense, the water is uncommonly cold.[5]

In 1773 Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote a short review of the supposedly deadly effects of cold water, which he retitled and reprinted in 1789 as An Account of the Disorder Occasioned by Drinking Cold Water in Warm Weather, and the Method of Curing It. He warned that:

Three circumstances generally concur to produce disease or death from drinking cold water. 1. The patient is extremely warm. 2. The water is extremely cold. And, 3. A large quantity of it is suddenly taken into the body. The danger from drinking the cold water is always in proportion to the degrees of combination which occur in the three circumstances that have been mentioned.[6]

While period reports of foul or dangerous water make for dramatic stories, period writers (including some quoted above) were just as likely to mention when water was good.

Schoepf mentions the water in Bristol, New Jersey had two uses:

Situated in a hollow, at the foot of a large, high-lying, natural embankment, is the spring, the waters of which are used as well for bathing as for drinking.[7]

And of Philadelphia’s water he says:

The habitual drinking-water of Philadelphia contains much iron. The metal is so general over the whole surface of America, and particularly in the wilder parts, that it is impossible iron springs should be infrequent. I have come upon them in Rhode Island, and on York and Long Islands. The especial excellence of such springs lies in the more or less purity and very agreeable taste of the water.[8]

Amongst the 48 drinks he listed, Israel Acrelius noted two drinks that used straight, unsterilized (i.e. not boiled or mixed with alcohol) water. He said milk and water mixed together was the common drink of the people (#37) and that water was drunk by harvesters immediately after they had rum (#18).[9]

Gottlieb Mittelberger, who lived in Pennsylvania from 1750 to 1754, seconded much of what Acrelius said:

Of beverages there are many kinds in Pennsylvania and the other English colonies; in the first place, delicious and healthy water; secondly, they make a mixture of milk and three parts water… [10]

The Marquis de Chastellux, mentioning the lack of beverage choices during the first years of any new settlement, said:

…as to drink, they are obliged to content themselves with milk and water, until their apple-trees are large enough to bear fruit, or until they have been able to procure themselves stills, to distil their grain. [11]

Dr. Rush, who warned about the ill-effects of cold water, did not believe that water, by itself, was problematic. He included it as the healthiest drink possible on his temperance thermometer.

While early Americans did drink a lot of alcohol by today’s standards, the scientific and historical sources above suggest two things: 1) early Americans had a more complicated relationship with their water than we do and 2) they needed to and did drink water.

The above is very brief overview of a few sources. For more references to early Americans’ water-drinking habits see “The Later Water Myths: Early America” from Jim Chevallier’s Les Leftovers blog.

************************************

  1. Johann David Schoepf, Travels in the Confederation: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, trans. & ed. Alfred J. Morrison (Philadelphia: William J. Campbell, 1911), 174.
  2. Schoepf, 177.
  3. William Moraley, The Infortunate: The Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley, an Indentured Servant, ed. Susan E. Klepp and Billy G. Smith (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992), 62-63. The editors defined “diabetes” here as, “a term meaning the excessive production of urine.”
  4. Moraley, 107.
  5. François Jean, marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North-America, in the years 1780, 1781, and 1782, Volume One, trans. George Grieve or J. Kent (London: London: Printed for G. G. J. and J. Robinson , 1787), 333.
  6. Benjamin Rush, “An Account of the Disorder Occasioned by Drinking Cold Water in Warm Weather, and the Method of Curing It” in Medical Inquiries and Observations (Philadelphia: Pritchard & Hall, 1789), 129.
  7. Schoepf, 53.
  8. Schoepf, 54.
  9. Israel Acrelius, History of New Sweden, trans. William Morton Reynolds (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876), 160-164. Acrelius mentions eleven drinks which use water, including  #9 Sangaree, #18 Water for harvesters (along with rum), #23 Punch, #24 Mämm, #37 Water, #40 Beer, #41 Small Beer, #44 Mead, #46 Tea, #47 Coffee, #48 Chocolate
  10. Gottlieber Mittelberger, Gottlieb Mittelberger’s Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750 and Return to Germany in the year 1754, trans. Carl Theo. Eben (Philadelphia: John Joseph McVey, 1898), 66.
  11. Chastellux, 39.
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