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.