the pilgrims needed beer -- 01/04/17

Today's selection -- from Colonial Spirits by Steven Grasse. We take for granted how precious potable water is. In sixteenth century European cities there was no such thing. The water was deadly and to stay alive people drank alcoholic beverages instead. In fact, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they were running out of beer:

"It was not for religious freedom nor by divine providence that our ancestors [the Pilgrims] so fatefully settled at Plymouth Rock. It was because we were running out of beer. ... The Native Americans would teach the Plymouth Rock settlers, struggling to survive in a new land, how to ferment alcohol from corn. ... But wait, you're saying, they were Pilgrims: Did not their Puritan ways of piety and seriousness look askance at the consumption of alcoholic beverages? Why would they drink? Because they were afraid of the water. ...

"In the 1600s, when man still had little grasp of what we today hold as the basics of science, there was little concept of water purification. Instead, water putrefaction ruled the day, and often, to drink a glass of water was to take your life into your own hands. Water -- dirty, filthy, stinking, rotten water -- was but one of a myriad of motivations for our American ancestors to quit the European scene. ...

"Monster Soup", by William Heath (1828) depicting a magnified drop of Thames water

"The Enlightenment (and all that came before it) be damned, Brits and Europeans alike made no progress in waterways and sanitation from where the Romans left off -- in fact, they did notably worse. Having ignored ancient Rome's signature contribution to humanity -- devising ways to deliver clean water to human beings -- the waterways of the old countries, from London straight through eastern Europe, were literal cesspools, and would remain so up through the eighteenth century.

"Until then, your average person would know most waterways, be they rivers or sewers, as being loaded with bacteria and waste. And not just the environmentally unfriendly offloading by corporate rogues we know today: No, the seventeenth-century system of pollution was so, well, systemic that no one even thought of it as pollution. It was simply what you did with your human waste, your animal waste, your garbage, perhaps, say, any old blood you had lying around -- you simply chucked it into the Thames! London's notable diversion from this nasty habit was an early form of recycling that would ring ironic with any backyard composter today: At the end of each day, the City of London employed wagons to go around and collect the waste from public outhouses. From there, it would be deposited outside the city in a series of nitrate beds, where they'd make the only thing they could think to make with old shit in those days: gunpowder.


Steven Grasse


Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History


Abrams Image, New York


Text copyright 2016 Steven Grasse


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