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Friday, July 31, 2009

Our alcoholic past

I’m reading John Nye’s War, Wine, and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689 – 1900. So far, it’s an excellent analysis of the bilateral trade relations between France and England and a useful corrective to the widely-held belief that England (at least by 1820 or so) was committed to free trade, while France remained committed to one form or another of mercantilism.

But that’s not my point here. Nye points out that in 1742 “the consumption of spirits and strong drink [in England] reached a total of 20,000,000 gallons” (p. 64). He earlier (p. 61) noted that “…on average between one and two pints [of beer] a day were consumed by the late 1600s by each person in Britain, or approximately 4 to 8 gallons of beer per month per capita.” Let’s call that 6 gallons per month (or 72 gallons per year) and let’s assume that per capita consumption of been was the same in 1742 as it had been in the late 1600s. Oh, by the way, those are Imperial gallons (154 fluid ounces, rather than 128).

Then, given a population in the 1740s of about 6,500,000 (p. 66), the average person (not the average adult)) consumed about 1.3 fluid ounces of distilled alcoholic beverages and about 32 fluid ounces of beer a day. That’s per person again, including children, non-drinkers (of whom there were probably few), and so on. [And it excludes consumption of wine (which was, apparently about 1 gallon per month per capita in the mid-1600s).]

We would probably consider that consumption of alcoholic beverages to be excessive. So is there an explanation for it? Turns out there is, and it’s one we would, today, tend to overlook. Here’s Ney (p. 61):

It is well known that beer and wine were free of pathogens and were therefore superior sources of both liquid and [of] basic calorie intake, and, until the introduction of tea and coffee in the West, no widely available alternatives to alcoholic beverages were to be found…” because of “…evidence that water was often unfit for human consumption…”

Given the lack of refrigeration and pasteurization for milk, I suspect that milk was also often unfit for human consumption.

So we were a world of heavy drinkers because the alternative was thirst or illness. Interesting (or at least so it seems to me).


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