Friend and foe throughout history

Created date

May 9th, 2018
The Drunkards Progress,  N. Currier,  1846.

The Drunkards Progress,  N. Currier,  1846. This piece depicts prohibitionist attitudes of the time.

In its various forms, alcohol is perhaps the oldest drink in human history. For thousands of years, it has served in many capacities, from nutritional source and culinary complement to social lubricant and psychological escape.

Today, alcoholic drinks arguably comprise the best-selling beverages globally. In 2014 alone, they brought in a staggering $1 trillion in sales.

Mankind started its love affair with booze the moment someone first felt the seductive effects of a fermented drink. And throughout history, alcohol appears to have been a cultural fixture.

Historians know well that the Romans drank wine and the Egyptians, beer. In fact, the archaeological discovery of Stone Age jugs implies that people enjoyed alcohol as far back as 10,000 B.C.

A necessary choice

As civilization grew and crowded cities spread, booze was no longer about mere pleasure. It was a necessity.

The constant threat of water-borne disease and death made alcohol a means of survival. Close living quarters and the subsequent challenges posed by waste disposal and medical ignorance, in many cases, rendered alcohol the only potable choice for the parched denizen.

In his brilliant seventeenth-century diary, Samuel Pepys, the father of the modern British Navy, routinely mentions taking his morning ale lest his lips meet with a scoop of water contaminated by a neighbor, or worse, London’s famed tributary. The sewers of the great city emptied into the Thames, understandably causing a pressing public health concern.

Not until the microscope craze of the nineteenth century did scientists truly begin to recognize the multitude of toxic effluvia floating in so many drinking water sources. One contemporary illustration called it “Monster Soup.”

For a time, the antidote was alcohol.

When Europeans crossed the Atlantic, they brought with them the natural human inclination to drink and, in the process, survive. Americans of all classes guzzled the stuff.

George Washington was among the largest distillers of liquor in the Union, producing some 4,000 gallons a year. While surveying the Allegheny Mountains in the mid-1780s, the nation’s first president reportedly always kept with him a canteen of brandy.

Subsequent heads of state likewise imbibed.

Washington’s successor, John Adams, enjoyed the lifelong habit of hitting a tankard of hard cider with breakfast, calling taverns “the nurseries of our legislators.”

His statement was quite true, for Thomas Jefferson and his White House guests also knew how to tip a glass. During his eight years in office, the third president earmarked an estimated $16,000 for wine (over $250,000 today).

One commander-in-chief who could have used alcohol was Zachary Taylor, who succumbed to an agonizing case of cholera in 1850. Then again, President Ulysses S. Grant would have done better with less.

His straight whiskey binges (and cigars) resulted in fatal throat cancer.

The road to prohibition

These consequences, along with drunken violence, spurred a temperance movement that ultimately led to prohibition in the United States.

“Prohibition didn’t happen overnight,” says Dr. Michael Walsh, author of Baltimore Prohibition: Wet and Dry in the Free State (American Palate, 2017). “This was a gradual process; the culmination of numerous temperance movements throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Such moralistic groundswells popped up in the U.S. as early as the 1700s and continued through the 1800s with groups like the American Temperance Society (1826) and the Anti-Saloon League (1893).

In 1920, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, illegalizing booze. Inadvertently, they built an industry.

“During prohibition, organized crime skyrocketed,” explains Walsh, “and those who wanted to drink kept on doing it.”

So what ended prohibition? According to Walsh, it was the government’s purse.

“Long story short, the government looked to organize crime and realized they could be the ones making money off of alcohol—in taxes,” he says. “In the wake of the Great Depression, that was an enticing prospect.”

The rest is history. Cheers!

Do as the Romans…and the Greeks

Ancient hangover cures

For anyone who’s overindulged, the word “hangover” should produce chills—and maybe even prevent such occurrences in the future. But if you decide to tread that same path and find yourself out of aspirin and antacids, here are three fun tips from the Ancients.

1). Almonds—According to the Greek physician Dioscorides, eating a handful of almonds before drinking will prevent drunkenness. In part, he’s right. Drinking on an empty stomach is a bad idea, so lining your belly’s sensitive insides with food will cushion the blow.

2). Go easy, water it down—The Greeks and Romans drank their share of wine, but they usually cut it with water. Drinking straight wine was, according to some historical sources, considered a sign of poor self-control.

3). Cabbage—Eat your cabbage. The Ancients believed this flowering food was the enemy of vine fruits like grapes. They were somehow under the impression that, if the fruit smelled cabbage growing in the field, it would not develop properly. Therefore, cabbage would naturally counteract the effects of too much wine. Good luck with this one.

Source: “Ancient hangover cures to get you through the New Year,” Laurence Totelin, The Conversation, December 31, 2014.