Drinking Like The Colonials Did

Are Americans drinking more as the pandemic continues and many people remain largely shut into their homes? Although we can’t say for sure because no authoritative studies have been done, and people probably wouldn’t tell the truth anyway, the magic 8-ball would tell us that “all signs point to yes.” But it’s also true that modern Americans would need to drink a lot more — in fact, more than double their consumption of spirits — to even come close to the daily intake of our colonial forebears.

Colonial Americans consumed amazing amounts of alcohol. The accepted estimate is that, on an annual basis, they quaffed more than twice the amount of alcohol we enjoy — guzzling somewhere between five and six gallons of pure alcohol every year. The neighborhood tavern was a huge part of colonial culture, so much so that entire books have been written about taverns and drinking in early America. And the people who frequented the taverns weren’t just plotting revolutionary activities, either; they were slamming down prodigious amounts as they fumed about the tea tax, the stamp act, and the other depredations of the British Empire.

Historians believe that the Americans of that era drank more than Americans of any other era. As one historian put it: “Revolutionary War era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman’s average consumption: ‘Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in.'” 

A few years ago, a blogger decided to try to keep pace with the daily intake of the colonials and wrote about his experience. He survived, and his account of his well-lubricated quasi-colonial day is worth the read, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to duplicate the experiment.

People obviously should be mindful of what they are drinking and how much, but at least there may be some comfort in the fact that what is happening in the boozing department now doesn’t really hold a candle to our Revolutionary War-era ancestors. At the same time, we also should recognize that those dawn-to-dusk drinkers produced the Declaration of Independence, organized the Boston Tea Party, convinced the French to support their cause, and ultimately defeated the most powerful nation on Earth. It should make us admire the “founding fathers” all the more.

The New Town Crier

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A human town crier was fine in the colonial days, but this modern replacement in Woodstock, Vermont is a lot more convenient — and doesn’t require a salary or benefits, either. It announces the time, tells the temperature for the weather-obsessed among us, and allows everyone to announce their upcoming events.

Every town should have one.

Colonial Cannibals

In school, we were taught that the colonial settlers were thoroughly admirable — hardy yet devout, hard-working and keen on personal liberty, bringing civilization to an untamed continent.  The reality, it turns out, isn’t quite so trim and tidy.

Anthropologists have uncovered strong evidence of cannibalism among the Jamestown settlers.  The evidence consists of human remains that appear to date from the “starving time” — the winter of 1609-10, when beleaguered settlers were crowded into a fort and under attack by local Indians.  The bones are of a 14-year-old girl who, based upon marks to her skull, appears to have been butchered after she was dead and stripped of meat for the remaining settlers to consume as they desperately sought to stay alive.

Interestingly, there were written accounts of cannibalism that date from the early days of Jamestown, including accounts of starving settlers digging corpses out of the ground to eat their flesh and a crazed husband who killed his pregnant wife and salted her flesh to preserve it for later consumption.  Of course, we weren’t taught any of that in our American history classes, but the recent forensic studies serve to corroborate the early written accounts.

So much of what we have learned about America has been air-brushed and sanitized — and for what purpose?  Why try to make early settlers into saint-like creatures rather than recognizing that they often acted out of desperation, anger, jealousy, greed, and other base human emotions?  No one condones cannibalism, but the true story of Jamestown’s “starving time” tells us a lot more about how far people will go to survive in a desolate wilderness than whitewashed tales of prim colonists praying over tables groaning with food.