Revisited Myth #79: Wine was an expensive luxury, so most people drank beer or cider.

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Sara Rivers Cofield heard this recently during a historic house tour and wondered if it was a myth.

Not a myth–this one’s true. Wine was expensive, lots more expensive than beer or cider, because it was imported. Beer, “small beer” (with lower alcoholic content), and cider were everyday beverages for men, women, and children, drunk morning, noon, and night, and often made at home by the woman of the house. Small beer was served at every meal to boys at the College of William and Mary–in fact, the school had it’s own brewery. But wine had to be imported, usually from France, Portugal, the Canary Islands, or Spain.

The price differential shows up best in the colonial regulation of taverns and ordinaries. Many jurisdictions set “The Rates and Prices that every Ordinary keeper in this County may ask, demand, receive, or take for drink, Diet, Lodging, Fodder, Provender or Pasturage.” While these prices differ throughout time and place, there is a clear price gap between beer and cider and the more expensive wines.

For example, in 1743/1744, Lancaster County, Virginia, regulated beverages by the quart. Wines included Canary or French brandy at 5 shillings, Portugal or French wine at 4 shillings, Madeira wine at 2 shillings 3 pence, and Western Island wine (not sure which islands those were) at 2 shillings. Meanwhile, a quart of strong beer from Virginia or Pennsylvania cost 6 pence and cider was 3 and 3/4 pence. At 12 pence to a shilling, that made wine eight to ten times as costly as strong beer and twelve to fifteen times as much as cider. Wine was for the gentry; cider and beer for everyone.

A related claim–that people drank beer because they thought water was bad for their health–is also true. This statement is often said with a patronizing smile, implying that people “back then” were so ignorant that they thought drinking water was harmful to their health and alcoholic beverages were not. In truth, people “back then” were pretty savvy. They shunned water because all too often, especially in cities, it wasn’t healthy to drink, because it came from polluted rivers or shallow wells. Alcoholic beverages like beer and cider were far safer. 

8 Responses to Revisited Myth #79: Wine was an expensive luxury, so most people drank beer or cider.

  1. Randolph Bragg says:

    I would suggest that “Western Island wine” was most likely from the Azores. There has been wine production there for a long time, and they are sometimes referred to as “The Western Islands of Portugal.”

  2. Joe Greeley says:

    As I tell visitors when this subject comes up: “By our modern standards, our ancestors were all raging alcoholics, but that was a lot better than dying of dysentery or any of the other myriad of waterborne diseases that could be caught by drinking water . . .”

  3. There are two problems with the view that early Americans did not drink water: neither modern science nor the historical record support it. For more check out this quick overview:

    https://pommelcyder.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/part-ii-drinking-in-colonial-america-stay-away-from-the-water-right/

    • Mary Miley says:

      I don’t think anyone suggests they didn’t drink water, rather that drinking water was often unhealthy or distasteful, as your report points out, and they often drank water-based beverages like beer instead. Humans need liquids to survive, yes, but not necessarily water. I go for weeks without drinking water–I drink a good deal of tea, hot and cold, milk, orange juice, wine, and an occasional soda.

      • Actually, many people, history people and others alike, do suggest that they didn’t drink water. It seems like a better story that our ancestors were so hardy they could live on a liquid diet of alcohol and forego water, for whatever reason (health or a healthy tolerance). Yes, they were hyper-aware of their water, and at times knew some sources to be unhealthy. But they did drink water, whether straight or as the base of other drinks, such as your practice.

        The view that they thought all water was bad always, unless mixed with hard alcohol or boiled (as it was in beermaking) is quite common. Hopefully that view is changing among history professionals (though it can still be readily heard at many historic sites), but it remains a popular notion among the general public.

  4. Janice says:

    I heard that the process of distilling beer made the water in it safe to drink.

    • Andrew says:

      The processes in making alcohol each have things to do with making it safer. Distillation is certainly one, since the evaporation involved would cause more pure (and free from disease) alcohol to be finally consumed. The other processes, including the heating help also, since heat can kill bacteria, but more than anything else it’s the alcohol, there’s a reason we use it as a disinfectant even today, because things that can survive in the water supply can’t survive in alcohol.

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