One would think that as the modern era approached, claims that people drank alcohol to avoid bad water would fall away. But in fact the same claim that is made about the medieval period can be found for colonial America and even for the nineteenth century. Why? One reason might, very speculatively, be a general sense that the past, however distant or near, was, in a general, indefinable way, dirty. And so, by extension, the water must have been too. As has already been seen for the Middle Ages, this is a dubious assumption. But it is a persistent one and perhaps all the more persistent for being unexamined.
In discussing this issue, it is always important to emphasize two points. One is that knowing that people drank a great deal of alcohol tells us nothing about why they did so, anymore than knowing that today's drinkers drink sodas, caffeine drinks, etc. tells us in itself why so many prefer these to water. This is especially important for early America because there is indeed evidence that many Americans drank alcoholic drinks to a noticeable extent. The other is that saying that bad water existed does not in the least suggest that all water was bad. While there are somewhat less mentions of bad water in early American accounts than one might expect, it was certainly a problem in some times or areas. But there are also ample mentions of water that was at the least acceptable to those who drank it and in many cases good, even excellent.
Otherwise, it does not help that, for the colonial period at least, two authors have done their best to suggest that early Americans distrusted water.
More than one person on line, in trying to show that early Americans thought their water unsafe, cites Sharon Salinger and/or W. J. Rorabaugh. Salinger for instance writes: "Alcoholic beverages appealed in part because water was considered an unsafe beverage; it was popularly believed that drinking water endangered one's health." Rorabaugh: “many people believed water unfit for human consumption."
Note that both these writers are writing, principally, not about water, but about alcohol: Taverns and Drinking in Early America (Salinger) and The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (Rorabaugh). To one with a hammer, everything is a nail.
The hitch is that both selectively cite evidence to defend the idea that colonial drinkers avoided water.
Salinger, for instance, writes: “Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony enumerated the enemies to health and the causes of disease as 'chaing of aeir, famine, or unholsome foode, much drinking of water'..." Which is perfectly accurate. But Bradford also wrote of new arrivals in New England: "at length they found water and refreshed them selves, being the first New England water they drunke of, and was now in thir great thirste as pleasante unto them as wine had been in for-times." In addressing reservations some had about coming to America, he cited the claim that "the water is not wholsome.” and wrote: “if they mean, not so wholsome as the good beere and wine in London (which they so dearly love), we will not dispute with them; but els, for water, it is as good as any in the world, (for ought we know), and it is wholesome enough to us that can be contente therwith." This certainly shows that the English preferred to drink alcoholic drinks (many still do), but it also shows they could be content with water, so long as it was wholesome (which Bradford positively stated it was).
She also writes: “Colonists regarded water as 'lowly and common,' a drink better suited to barnyard animals than humans. As a result, colonists avoided water as much as possible.” (Her statement is also quoted in the Encyclopedia of American History: Colonization and Settlement, 1608 to 1760, Revised Edition, vol. II.) The phrase is a surprising one, given that America then was not an aristocratic society and certainly not overall a snobbish one. Who then pronounced the water “lowly and common”?
As it turns out, Rorabaugh. This is not a period quote at all; it is a quote from another secondary source. And in fact it is hard to detect any such attitude in the various period diaries and traveler's journals which mention water. If water was less desirable than various flavored drinks (as, for many people, it still is today), it was not viewed as any sort of social marker.
As evidence for the unpopularity of water, Rorabaugh cites a quip from Benjamin Franklin: "Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, if God had intended man to drink water, He would not have made him with an elbow capable of raising wine glass." But he omits Franklin's more matter-of-fact reference to “my light repast (which was often no more than a biscuit, or a slice of bread, an handful of raisins, or a tart from the pastry cook's, and a glass of water)" or his mention of how he "went for a draught of the river water" (in Philadelphia). Franklin also famously tells how, as a journeyman in London, he drank water, so much that his fellow workers, who mainly drank beer, called him “the Water-American”.
Franklin is a strange example indeed to give of someone who avoided water; he may even have favored the drink. What is more, in a codicil to his will, he showed great concern for the water of Philadelphia:
The water of the wells must gradually grow worse, and in time be unfit for use, as I find has happened in all old cities, I recommend that at the end of the first hundred years, if not done before, the corporation of the city employ a part of the hundred thousand pounds in bringing by pipes the water of Wissahickon Creek into the town, so as to supply the inhabitants, which I apprehend may be done without great difficulty, the level of that creek being much above that of the city, and may be made higher by a dam;
Both Salinger and Rorabaugh demonstrate, accurately, that early Americans drank a great deal of alcohol. What they fail to do is demonstrate that they did so to avoid drinking water.
Colonial water drinking
In his Commonplace Book, William Byrd II (1674–1744) says: “Eat of nor more than one thing at a time, and let your drink be only water, or at best but wine and water." While visiting Virginia mines in 1733, he found his hosts short on food or “good drink”, “the Family being reduc'd to the last Bottle of Wine, which was therefore husbanded very carefully. But the Water was excellent.”
Clearly, Byrd, a rich plantation owner, appreciated water. Yet ironically he too is sometimes cited as proof that people found alcohol safer than water, based on his account of a visit where he had nothing to drink but water:
In the morning colonel Bolling, who had been surveying in the neighbourhood, and Mr. Walker, who dwelt not far off, came to visit us; and the last of these worthy gentlemen, fearing that our drinking so much water might incline us to pleurisies, brought us a kind supply both of wine and cider.
Note first of all that Walker was not concerned that the water itself be diseased, only that Byrd had drunk too much of it. Why? Because he was afraid this would lead to “water on the lungs”, or pleurisy. This was a question of excess, not contamination.
But further, how did Byrd himself feel about his drink? He writes “it proved but a Mahometan feast, there being nothing to drink but water...” That is, he considered it a limited choice (despite his advice elsewhere). But he expresses not the least anxiety about drinking it. Nor, for all his wealth, does he even hint that it is “lowly and common”.
The Swedish-Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm (1716 – 1779) came to America in 1747 and remarked on the water in several spots. In Albany, he says, “They commonly drink very small beer, or pure water.” But he himself found this “pure water” off-putting, and even unhealthy. This illustrates the important point that even when water was less than optimal, people would sometimes become accustomed to it.
The water of several wells in this town was very cool about this time; but had a kind of acid taste, which was not very agreeable. On a nearer examination, I found an abundance of little insects in it, which were probably Monoculi. ... I poured some of this water into a bowl, and put near a fourth part of rum to it. The Monoculi, instead of being affected with it, swam about as briskly as they had done in the water. This shews, that if one makes punch with this water, it must be very strong to kill the Monoculi. I think this water is not very wholesome for people who are not used to it, though the inhabitants of Albany, who drink it every day, say, they do not feel the least inconvenience from it. I have been several times obliged to drink water here, in which I have plainly seen Monoculi swimming; but I generally felt the next day somewhat like a pea in my throat, or as if I had a swelling there; and this continued for above a week... I have always endeavoured, as much as possible, to do without such water as had Monoculi in it. I have found Monoculi in very cold water, taken from the deepest wells, in different parts of this country. Perhaps many of our diseases arise from waters of this kind, which we do not sufficiently examine. I have frequently observed abundance of minute insects in water, which has been remarkable for its clearness.
Note too that he did not find alcohol of much use in correcting what he (but not the locals) regarded as a defect.
In New Jersey, he found people happy to drink from a swamp:
All the inhabitants here were of opinion, that the water in the cedar swamps is wholesomer than any other drink: it created a great appetite, which they endeavoured to prove by several examples. They ascribed this quality to the water itself, which is filled with the resin of the trees, and to the exhalations which came from the trees, and can easily be smelled. The people likewise thought that the yellowish colour of the water, which stands between the cedar trees, was owing to the resin, which comes out of the roots of these trees. They likewise all agreed, that this water is always very cold in the hottest season, which may be partly owing to the continual shade it is in. I knew several people who were resolved to go to these cedar swamps, and use the waters for the recovery of their appetite.
In describing an evangelical trip in 1766, Reverend Charles Woodmason says he “drank not but water”. He presents this as a hardship, but certainly not as a health risk.
Philip Vickers Fithian (1747–1776) provides a comic illustration (from 1774) of alcohol not being a substitute for water. He describes a drunken carpenter, holding a bottle of rum, begging for water: "O sir call in a servant and have me some Water".
In the same year, John Adams (1735–1826) wrote his wife of the hardships to be faced in defying England: "Let us eat potatoes, and drink water. Let us wear canvass, and undressed sheepskins, rather than submit to the unrighteous, and ignominious domination that is prepared for us." This again shows that water was indeed viewed as a limited option. But there is no hint of snobbishness in his tone, and certainly no sense that it is, in general, unhealthy.
Still, Adams does present a rare example of someone explicitly drinking alcohol to avoid bad water. In 1777, he wrote from Philadelphia:
I would give three guineas for a barrel of your cider. Not one drop is to be had here for gold, and wine is not to be had under six or eight dollars a gallon, and that very bad. I would give a guinea for a barrel of your beer. The small beer here is wretchedly bad. In short, I can get nothing that I can drink, and I believe I shall be sick from this cause alone. Rum at forty shillings a gallon, and bad water will never do, in this hot climate, in summer, when acid liquors are necessary against putrefaction.
Truth be told, here he seems unhappy with virtually all the options available. Too, he is mentioning water at a specific moment of the year. But he does indeed seem to prefer alcohol to bad water (not, be it noted, to water in general). If such comments were common in the writers consulted here, this might indeed support the idea that alcohol was regularly used to avoid drinking bad water. But in fact Adams' comment is very unusual.
Adams also describes an early water municipal water supply, here in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:
They have carried the mechanical arts to greater perfection here than in any place which I have seen. They have a set of pumps which go by water, which force the water up through leaden pipes from the river to the top of the hill, near a hundred feet, and to the top of a little building in the shape of a pyramid or obelisk, which stands upon the top of the hill, and is twenty or thirty feet high. From this fountain, water is conveyed in pipes to every part of the town.
The French Marquis de Chastellux (1734–1788), while serving in the Revolutionary War, noted settlers (apparently in North Carolina) who were “obliged to content themselves with milk and water, until their apple-trees are large enough to bear fruit, or until they have been able to procure themselves stills, to distil their grain.” Clearly these settlers preferred drinking cider or spirits. But there is no hint that they regarded water as dangerous; they were able to “content themselves with it”.
Joseph Plumb Martin (1760–1850) offers a soldier's perspective during the war. In one case, a lieutenant asked an old man “for a vessel to dip some water from a spring near by, which was six or eight feet deep, but the old man refused, saying that he would not let a soldier have a cup to drink from if it were to save his life." In another passage, he shows how important good drinking water was to the soldiers:
The greatest inconvenience we felt, was the want of good water, there being none near our camp but nasty frog ponds.... All the springs about the country, although they looked well, tasted like copperas water, or like water that had been standing in iron or copper vessels. I was one day rambling alone in the woods, when I came across a small brook of very good water, about a mile from our tents; we used this water daily to drink, or we should almost have suffered.
Finally, toward the end of the century, in 1794, Martha Ballard (1734/1735 – 1812). a midwife and healer, noted “I was at Mr. Densmore's to see his daughter Dorcas who has a soar throat. We gave her cold water, root tea and a fue drops viteral." In this case cold water was actually part of a cure.
It should be clear from these examples that water was a standard, if not favored, drink in colonial America. If some water was bad or, at the least distasteful, that was not enough to prevent people from drinking water in general. Clearly, many people would have preferred something stronger or more flavorful, but nothing supports the idea that this was because water was considered “lowly” or dangerous in general. It may be too that some drank alcohol specifically in cases where they distrusted the water, but if so, Adams' remark in this regard is a rare one to note as much.
The nineteenth century
At the start of the nineteenth century (1807-1809), Fortescue Cuming (1762?-1828?) visited the West. In Natchez (Misssissippi), he wrote, "Water is well supplied by wells about forty feet deep, and about a quarter of a mile from the east end is a delightful spring... I found three or four companies of males and females...enjoying the cool transparent water, either pure or mixed to their taste." As he traveled to Lexington in Kentucky, he took “a glass of milk and water on horseback". While in Beaver, in Pennsylvania, he noted that "the inhabitants not finding water at a convenient depth, have... led it by wooden pipes from a hill near a mile from the town, and have placed publick wooden fountains in the streets at convenient distances."
In several different places, then, water was a standard drink. In Natchez, it seems, they even enjoyed it.
Cuming is also one of the first to describe Philadelphia's waterworks:
This water steam engine, otherwise called the waterworks, is a work of great magnitude. It cost 150 thousand dollars, and is capable of raising about 4,500,000 gallons of water in 24 hours, with which the city is daily supplied through wooden pipes....The first stone of this building was laid on the 2nd May, 1799, and it was completed in 1801-2. The works belong to the city, and the citizens pay a water tax equal to the expence of keeping the engine in motion...
In 1832, Frances Trollope (1779–1863) published an account of a visit to the States. She provides a more vivid account of this municipal effort:
The water-works of Philadelphia have not yet perhaps as wide-extended fame as those of Marly, but they are not less deserving it. At a most beautiful point of the Schuylkill River, the water has been forced up into a magnificent reservoir, ample and elevated enough to send it through the whole city. The vast yet simple machinery by which this is achieved is open to the public, who resort in such numbers to see it, that several evening stages run from Philadelphia to Fair Mount for their accommodation....... The works themselves are enclosed in a simple but very handsome building of freestone, which has an extended front opening upon a terrace, which overhangs the river: behind the building, and divided from it only by a lawn, rises a lofty wall of solid lime-stone rock, which has, at one or two points, been cut into, for the passage of the water into the noble reservoir above. From the crevices of this rock the catalpa was every where pushing forth, covered with its beautiful blossom. Beneath one of these trees an artificial opening in the rock gives passage to a stream of water, clear and bright as crystal, which is received in a stone basin of simple workmanship, having a cup for the service of the thirsty traveller.
Ten years later, Dickens would also mention this structure in his American Notes:
Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off, everywhere. The Waterworks, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order.
Again, this not only shows Americans drinking water, but a city going to some effort to provide it.
One of Trollope's remarks only incidentally shows how normal it was to drink water at that point:
A Virginian gentleman told me that ever since he had married, he had been accustomed to have a negro girl sleep in the same chamber with himself and his wife. I asked for what purpose this nocturnal attendance was necessary? "Good heaven!" was the reply, "if I wanted a glass of water during the night, what would become of me?
Note once again that this is clearly someone of at least some means, yet there is no hint here that water is “lowly”.
In New York, she notes, "Ice is in profuse abundance; I do not imagine that there is a house in the city without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water, and harden the butter."
Her most telling remark is on America in general: "Almost everyone drinks water at table, and by a strange contradiction, in the country where hard drinking is more prevalent than in any other, there is less wine taken at dinner". It was true, that is, that many Americans drank alcoholic drinks; but this was separate from their use of water. She goes on to say: "the hard drinking, so universally acknowledged, does not take place at jovial diners, but, to speak plain English, in solitary dram-drinking." This is as clear a statement as one can find of the difference between drinking water (for refreshment) and drinking alcohol (apparently, mainly to get drunk).
Dickens, in 1842, provided several notes on American water drinking as well. On a steamboat to Cincinnati, he writes, “At dinner, there is nothing to drink upon the table, but great jugs full of cold water”. While being harried by urchins on a train from Baltimore to Washington, he describes one "refreshing himself with... a draught from the water-jug". Even in the Eastern Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, he writes, "Fresh water is laid on in every cell, and [each prisoner] can draw it at his pleasure."
Still, in Columbus, Ohio, he did encounter bad water – but alcohol here was not an option: "As [the coffee and tea] are both very bad and the water is worse, I ask for brandy; but it is a Temperance Hotel, and spirits are not to be had for love or money." This is now something to consider in American drinking habits; where Temperance reigned, water could be one of the few options; alcohol was out of the question.
People continued too to drink water about which they had reservations. In 1840, Lydia Bacon (1786-1853) was in Indiana, where she was able to enjoy water despite doubts about its purity: "We drink the river water; it tastes very well, but I do not like to think of the dirt that is thrown into it."
When speaking of the American West, it seems all the more ludicrous to suggest that people avoided water. There was only so much liquid – of any sort – wagon trains or other travelers could carry and so the search for plain water was concern enough, without demanding alcohol in its place. A Forty-Niners' journal captures the pure ecstasy of simply finding drinking water:
We were all weak, as we did not like to eat for fear of increasing our thirst... The men on the lead reached the kanyon a long time ahead of those who were behind. After proceeding up the kanyon a little distance they found running water. As soon as they saw it they shouted "Water, Water" at the top of their voices. The cry was caught up by those behind, and was rapturously repeated the whole length of the line.... they reached it at last. Pure, sparkling, cold water was there, gurgling as it ran over the rocks in the channel. Oh, what music to our ears was in the sound! How ravishing the sight!... Though nearly twenty years have elapsed since then, the impression still remains; I cannot bear now to see water wasted.
The Civil War
This point in history may serve as the end of “Early America”. Soldiers' accounts vividly show the importance of drinking water: "I ran through the open gate and asked if I might fill my canteen with water from the well. And she, the haughty Virginia maiden, refused to notice me." (Wilkeson); "Our haversacks are filled with salt pork and hard bread and our canteens with water."; "One gentleman kindly sent me some iced water by a servant as I passed his house."; "We have moved our camp from near the river to a hill where we get plenty of pure water from a spring. This is a great luxury, for in most of our camps we have been obliged to go long distances for water."; "Yesterday some of my men discovered an ice house full of ice, and we have been having a luxury in the way of iced water." (Rhodes); "We have an excellent well of water in the yard, which is a great thing in this part of the country."; "Many of the commands are sinking wells, so as to get good water for the men." (Wainwright).
Finally, from the same period (1863), here is a note from Frances Trollope's son, Anthony, writing of the public rooms in American hotels: "On a marble table in the middle of the room always stands a large pitcher of iced water". One can be sure that in such hotels spirits were (except where Temperance reigned) readily available. Nonetheless, for pure refreshment, what could replace cool water?
Why is it that so many writers insist on imagining a past where water was suspect, dangerous, avoided by most drinkers? This tendency, first apparent in regard to the Middle Ages, continues to appear for subsequent eras and has established a pre-conception in many people's minds that is hard to shake. Salinger offers a handful of examples which show, one can, just, find illustrations for the idea in early America, but at the cost of ignoring what appears in the wider picture. (One would be hard put, on the other hand, to offer specific examples of Americans finding water "lowly and common" or more ludicrously still "better suited to barnyard animals".)
Anyone who cares to leaf through the various sources (linked below) for the examples given here will find that, if they are sometimes scattered through these works, they are not exceptions contradicted by other unmentioned cases of people, for instance, drinking cider or beer to avoid bad water. Such mentions are in fact very rare. Americans, from the colonial period on, found it natural to drink water, even if they also (and apparently with gusto) drank alcohol. They still do today, even as a host of other options crowd supermarket shelves.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Salinger, Sharon V. "alcohol in colonial America." In Smith, BillyG., and Gary B. Nash, eds.Encyclopedia of American History: Colonization and Settlement, 1608 to 1760,Revised Edition (Volume II). New York: Facts On File, Inc.,2010. AmericanHistory Online.Facts On File,Inc. (accessed July 25, 2014).
Franklin, Benjamin, William Temple Franklin,Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin … 1818
Fithian, Philip Vickers, Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor ... 1957
Martin, Joseph Plumb, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some Adventures, Dangers, and ... 2010
Nash,Charles Elventon, Martha Ballard, The History of Augusta: First Settlements and Early Days as a Town 1904
"Flake Rich Company", Journals of Forty-niners: Salt Lake to LosAngeles : with Diaries and Contemporary Records of Sheldon Young,James S. Brown, Jacob Y. Stover, Charles C. Rich, Addison Pratt,Howard Egan, Henry W. Bigler, and Others ed LeRoy Reuben Hafen, AnnWoodbury Hafen
Wilkeson, Frank, Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in theArmy of the Potomac 1885
Wainwright, Charles S., A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright ... 1998