In a century or so, historians and archeologists will be curious about what we’ve been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak, how we’re reacting to these sudden changes, and what we’re drinking to help get ourselves through it all. One wine blogger gave a boost to future researchers. He posted, “A Peek at the Drinking Habits of My Oregon Neighbors.” It’s a wonderful (and literal) look at his neighbors’ drinking habits while they’re self-isolating.
COVID isn’t the first time Americans have dealt with a pandemic. Which means it’s not the first time we’ve sought solace and escape in a bottle of something. I got to thinking about life during other outbreaks and what they were drinking to get through them. While it’s not as simple as an evening’s walk around the block, surviving records can offer us a glimpse into what was going on. One of the most well-recorded outbreaks is the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic. It came on quickly, stretched from the summer into the late fall, and affected every aspect of life in the city.
Later in his life Samuel Breck described that summer for those left in the city, saying
The horrors of this memorable affliction were extensive and heart-rending. Nor were they softened by professional skill. The disorder was in a great measure a stranger to our climate, and was awkwardly treated. Its rapid march, being from ten victims a day in August to one hundred a day in October, terrified the physicians, and led them into contradictory modes of treatment. They, as well as the guardians of the city, were taken by surprise. No hospitals or hospital stores were in readiness to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. For a long time nothing could be done other than to furnish coffins for the dead and men to bury them.1
The first case of yellow fever was recognized on August 3 and spread quickly. On August 26, the College of Physicians published their recommendations to maintain the public’s health, which included social distancing and limiting (if not banning) large gatherings. The eleventh of eleven points suggested people should, “avoid intemperance…” and, “use fermented liquors, such as wine, beer, and cider, with moderation.”2
The term “moderation” is always delightfully ambiguous. Without a trash pit to dig to or a detailed inventory of consumption, it’s almost impossible to tell how people defined moderation, much less if anyone listened.
In looking back, the first thing I learned is that most people were focused on the fever itself. They didn’t write much about what they were eating or drinking, unless they thought it was curative or necessary. It’s likely that people carried on drinking what they always had, just more of it. Instead, the records reveal the drinks caregivers and medical professionals thought were most beneficial.
I assumed cider would be all over the records. It was seen as curative for other afflictions and I thought there would be references to its medical use. But beyond the College of Physicians mentioning it, references to cider are almost wholly absent. Maybe cider was so common that it didn’t attract attention. It might also be that it was not seen as beneficial for those suffering with the fever.3
Wine and beer was mentioned more extensively. The yellow fever hospital established at Bush Hill provided meals and drink intended to aid recovery. An observer noted that “The sick drank at their meals porter, or claret [red wine] and water.”4
The hospital’s administrators, “directed all the drinks to be given in a tepid state,” including spiced wine, wine, and water. However, these drinks met, “with such bad success, that we cannot recommend them in such circumstances.” Instead, they suggested, “Hot brandy toddy… with the addition of a large quantity of powdered nutmeg….”5 It should be noted that brandy toddies were not on the College of Physicians’ approved drinks list.
Wine was also a primary ingredient in one “cure.” Some doctors prescribed “wine and bark” (a blend of red wine and quinine) to their patients, rather than bleeding. Since fewer patients died from wine and bark treatments than bloodletting, many believed it was an effective cure.6 It’s equally possible that bloodletting was simply an unhealthy practice.
Alcohol wasn’t the only drink offered to patients. At the Bush Hill hospital, patients’, “constant drink between meals was centaury tea [for digestive comfort], and boiled lemonade.”7
Perhaps the most sought after drink, the one recognized for being healthiest, was water. Certainly it was important for the hospital at Bush Hill to have it. At one point, the minutes mentioned that the, “pump had failed, but they had found a spring nearby which will be helpful.”8
For some, getting water was not simply walking to the pump or spring. One incident showcased that fear almost prevailed over people’s humanity. A “poor, probably homeless, man lay begging for water. No one offered him any, until a woman brought a pitcher to him. She put it on the ground some way off from him, so she wouldn’t have to get too close and he crawled to it.” Even so, “After a couple of days he died.”9
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen wrote about the contributions of African American caregivers who volunteered to care for fever victims throughout the city.
At the peak of the infection, they said, entire families were found dead in their homes without, “even a drink of water for their relief…” However, not everyone turned a blind eye to such suffering, noting that, “a sick man stood at his window begging for a drink of water. No one would offer him any, even after a reward was offered for the service, until an African American man did it for free.”10
It’s safe to say that these few references are not the whole story of what was going on in Philadelphia in 1793. Records can only tell us so much. The same goes for recycling bins. For example, since I use and reuse lightning stopper bottles, my household’s recycling bin isn’t reflective of our COVID-era consumption.11
What do you see when you look in your bin? What story do you think it tells and is there anything missing? Feel to share your thoughts in the comment section and help a future archeologist out.
1. Horace Elisha Scudder, ed., The Recollections of Samuel Breck, With Passages From His Note-books (1771 – 1862) (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1877), 194.
2. Transactions of the College of Physicians, 3rd Series, V. 9 (Philadelphia: P. Blakiston, Son and Company), 87-88. See also Mathew Carey, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever: Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia, 4th ed. (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1794), 17.
3. So far the only cider reference I found was from September 17, 1793 when a traveling party stopped at a tavern outside of Baltimore. The tavern keeper refused them service for fear they might bring the fever inside his tavern, forcing them to sleep in their stagecoach. The next morning he reluctantly served them a breakfast of cheese, bread, wine, and cider. Carey, Short Account, 85.
4 Carey, Short Account 34; Minutes of the Proceedings of the Committee, Appointed on the 14th September, 1793, by the Citizens of Philadelphia, the Northern Liberties and District of Southwark, to Attend to and Alleviate the Sufferings of the Afflicted with the Malignant Fever, Prevalent, In the City and Its Vicinity (Philadelphia: R. Aitken and Son, 1794), 54.
5 William Currie, A Treatise on the Synochus Icteroids, of the Yellow Fever; As it Lately Appeared in the City of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1794), 51-52.
6 Currie, Treatise, 57.
7 Carey, Short Account, 34; Minutes, 54.
8 Minutes, 18-19.
9 Carey, Short Account, 84.
10 Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793: And a Refutation of Some Censures, Thrown Upon Them in Some Late Publications (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1794), 10-11.
11 And that story is we’re drinking cider (mine and others), home-made cherry brandy, wine, cocktails, and beer, all in greater amounts than before.