Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/July 1897/The History of Alcohol II

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IT is a curious fact that, although intoxicating beverages have been known and used from time immemorial, alcohol itself was not discovered until after the fall of the Roman Empire, and, when once discovered, it was not used for intoxicating purposes for many hundred years. Pliny, in his Natural History, written about a. d. 50, mentions that oil of turpentine could be extracted from the crude pitch by boiling the latter in open vessels and catching the vapors on fleeces, from which the condensed oil could be pressed. This marks the first beginnings of the art of distillation, which progressed but slowly, for, two hundred years later, we read that sailors were accustomed to get potable water from sea water by similar crude methods.

About this time there existed a flourishing school of alchemists at Alexandria, and it is probable that some of them had, or soon would have, developed the art further. But a. d. 287 the Emperor Diocletian destroyed their books and prohibited their studies, for fear lest by discovering the philosopher's stone, and PSM V51 D389 Old stills used by the alexandrians.pngOld Stills used by Alexandrians hence learning to change base metals into gold, they might overturn the Roman rule. A more serious disaster befell the later Alexandrian School of Philosophy in the destruction of the famous Alexandrian Library by the Mohammedan general Amru, a. d. 984, at the orders of the Caliph Abu Bekr. "If the books agree with the Koran, they are not needed; if opposed, they are injurious." This was the argument which helped to put back civilization some centuries, and gave Literature, as well as science and medicine, a blow from which she has not yet recovered. It is curious to speculate what would be our present condition if only two or three of our recent advances—the discovery of galvanic electricity, for instance, or the germ theory of disease—had been made but one hundred years earlier.

As it was, the study of science had to be begun over again almost from the very foundation by the Arabians under a more enlightened rule. The famous Geber about the close of the eighth century mentions the term distillation, but it is doubtful whether he understood much more by it than the separation by beat of two metals of different melting points. Albucasis, a famous alchemist of the eleventh century, speaks of the process in less doubtful terms, PSM V51 D390 Old stills from an early edition of geber.pngOld Stills, from Early Edition of Geber. and late in the thirteenth century the art of distillation and the preparation, properties, and uses of alcohol were clearly described by two European alchemists, Raymond Lully and Armand de Villeneuve.

In view of the fierce and indeed not undeserved abuse that has been levied against distilled liquors, it is interesting to note that for some hundreds of years after its discovery alcohol was distinctly the most valuable product of chemistry. The old alchemists went wild over it. They wondered at its power of dissolving oils and resins and balsams, calling it oleum vini and balsamus universalis, and making with it varnishes and perfumes and cosmetics, by the sale of which they replenished their not overfilled purses. They admired the clear, colorless, smokeless PSM V51 D390 Still for aqua vitae country farm.pngStill for Aqua Vitæ, Countrie Farme. flame with which it burned, and named it sulphur cæleste, in contradistinction to the ordinary or earthly sulphur, which burns by no means so pleasantly. They used it as a preservative, they used it for the preparation of their chemicals, and above all they used it as a medicine. For during many hundred years this aqua vitæ, water of life as it was almost universally called, was the most valuable medicine in their large but inefficient pharmacopœia. Each alchemist, each physician, prepared his own elixirs, his own cordials, and claimed miraculous results for his own particular nostrums: but the basis of them all was the same—namely, alcohol, sweetened with sugar, and flavored by distillation or infusion with herbs and spices. Some of these "cordials" or heart remedies exist at the present day in the form of the various liqueurs. The Chartreuse and Benedictine are simply the same old medicines, prepared after practically the same old formulæ, that the Carthusian and Benedictine monks used to distill hundreds of years ago to give to the sick and feeble at their convent doors, or sell to the wealthy invalid who sought their treatment.

But the curious part of it is not that it should have been used as a medicine, but that it should have been used as a medicine exclusively. There seems to have been little or no idea of its intoxicating power. In Shakespeare, for instance, there is abundant mention of drinking and drunkenness. But Cassio, and fat PSM V51 D391 Household still country farm.pngHousehold Still, Countrie Farme. Sir John, and the rest got tipsy on sack, and canary, and sherry, or, if of lower rank, on ale and beer, but never on spirits. Indeed, the only mention of distilled liquors in all his plays is in Romeo and Juliet, where the old nurse sighs, "Oh, for some strong waters from Venice!" to restore her energies. As an example of how long this state of affairs continued I may mention a well-known book. The Countrie Farme, published in England in 1616. This large and important work discusses in great detail all the varied occupations of a large country place. It describes carefully the wine industry, the culture of the vines and grapes, the preparation and the varieties of wine, and, while highly praising good pure wine as a beverage, the author is extremely careful to describe fully and with much emphasis the many evil effects which come from intoxication, and from constant as well as from overmuch winebibbing.

A. few chapters further on the author describes the art of distillation. He explains that a still room was a necessary adjunct to a well-equipped country house, and shows curious illustrations of stills, some of them with sixty or eighty retorts on one oven. He mentions the great variety of vegetable and animal substances from which extracts could be and should be distilled, but spends most of his time upon the distillate from wine. "For," says he, "the virtues of aqua vitæ are infinite. It keepeth off fits of apoplexie—it driveth away venime. . . . In wet and malarial climates every one should take a teaspoonful, with sugar, before breakfast, to keepe off the ague," and so on. Not one word about intoxication—purely as a medicine.

It is not to be supposed from this, however, that the English did not have plenty of ways of getting tipsy. They had long been known as ranking next to the Germans and the Dutch for PSM V51 D392 Tartars distilling kumis.pngTartars distilling Kumyss their drinking powers. The Saxons and the Danes had both introduced into England the intemperate habits of the Northmen, and beer and cider, and mead or metheglin made from honey, were quite as efficacious in their way as stronger beverages. The Normans were a more refined and far more temperate race, and it is for this reason, in large part, that they conquered England so readily. The night before the battle of Hastings, so the old chroniclers tell us, was spent by the Saxons in drinking heavily and uproariously around their camp fires. "Next morning, still drunk, they recklessly advance against the enemy," so we read in the old monkish Latin, while the Normans, passing PSM V51 D392 Ancient still for extraction of essential oils and perfumes.pngAncient Still for Extraction of Essential Oils and Perfumes. a quiet, peaceful night, were cool and well prepared for the decisive struggle.

Their habits, however, soon deteriorated, and they drank almost as heavily as their predecessors. In the reign of Henry I the nation suffered a grievous loss, from overindulgence in liquor, in the sad drowning of his eldest son, just married to a princess of France. The wedding party were returning to England on a galley, amid the rejoicing of both nations, and wine flowed freely on board, until even the seamen became intoxicated. As they were nearing the shore, the galley ran upon a sunken rock, and out of the whole company but one person escaped. The young prince, it was said, with his bride and some attendants had pushed off from the ship in a boat, but he insisted on returning to try to save his sister, when the boat was upset, and all perished together.

All during the middle ages, in the chronicles of Froissart, Holinshed, and others, we find records of the fact that our English

PSM V51 D393 George iv as prince regent.png
George IV as Prince Regent. (Gillray.)

ancestors, then as now, "liked a glass of good beer," and of wine too. Sir John Fortescue naively says, "They drink no water, except when they abstain from drinks, by way of penance and from principles of devotion." In 1498 the Spanish ambassador at the English court wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella to ask that Princess Catharine of Aragon, betrothed to Prince Henry, afterward Henry VIII, should learn to drink wine. This was a good-natured tip from the English king and queen, who wished their future daughter-in-law to know that "water in England is not drinkable, and, even if it were, the climate would not allow the drinking of it." Heavy drinking was not by any means confined to the laity, for there are constant complaints of the habits of the clergy, and especially of the religious orders. The drunkenness of both monks and nuns was one of the main excuses for closing the monasteries by King Henry VIII. Good Queen Bess did not frown on the practice either, for, in the records of her visit to Kenilworth, 1575, we read that the Earl of Leicester broached three hundred and sixty-five hogsheads of beer, besides any amount of wine.

Toward the end of her reign drinking increased, thanks to the habits acquired by the volunteers in the Low Countries; and under her successor, the stupid and pedantic Scotchman, James I, the court itself set an ugly example to the people of England. We read that, at a great feast given by the minister Cecil to the king and to a visiting monarch. Christian IV of Denmark, James was carried to the bed intoxicated, and King Christian, less fortunate, rolled around very much under the influence of liquor and grossly insulted some of the ladies present. The latter, in their turn, before the evening was through, became quite as tipsy as the men, and, according to the testimony of an eye-witness, behaved most disgracefully. The nation sobered somewhat during the next reign and under the Commonwealth, only to return again to loose habits after the Restoration. And with the accession of the Dutch King, William, in 1688, the drinking assumed a more dangerous stage than ever.

For by this time people had at last learned that alcohol was intoxicating, and had also learned how to make it cheaply out of grain. Up to the seventeenth century all the aqua vitœ, was made from wine, and was therefore expensive. But now they were able to make it from beer; and not only in France, at Nantes and elsewhere, but in Switzerland, and especially in Holland, at Schiedam and other places, great distilleries were pouring out vast quantities of cheap and fiery spirits. Early in William and Mary's reign encouragement was given to similar distilleries in England, on the ground of assisting agriculture, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century all England was flooded with native as well as imported gin at absurdly low prices.

The results were most disastrous. London streets abounded with ginshops, and one could actually find placards on them reading, "Drunk for a penny; dead drunk for twopence; clean straw for nothing." The effects on the common people were so marked that all thoughtful persons were alarmed by it. In the wet, temperate climate of England people might drink heavily of beer or wine, and still in fair measure retain their health and their capacity for work; but, under the reign of gin, vice and misery and disease increased so fearfully that Parliament finally passed a law practically prohibiting its use.

This famous "Gin Law," passed in 1736, is interesting as the earliest severe blow at liquor dealing among civilized nations. It levied a tax of twenty shillings a gallon on spirits, and a license of fifty pounds for any one selling or dealing in it. And, being in advance of public opinion, it failed much as other, more stringent, prohibition laws have failed in our own day. For the cry was at once raised that it taxed the poor man's gin, and let the rich man's wine go free. Every wit, every caricaturist, had his fling at it. Ballads were hawked round, telling of the approaching death of Mother Gin. The liquor shops were hung with black, and celebrated uproariously Madame Geneva's lying in state, her funeral, her wake, and so on. The night before the law went into effect, so the contemporary journals say, there was a universal revel all over the country. Every one drank his fill, and carried home as much gin, besides, as he could pay for.

To evade the law, apothecaries sold it in vials and small packages, sometimes colored and disguised, generally under false labels, such as "Colic Water," "Make Shift," "Ladies' Delight." There were printed directions on some of these packages—e. g., "Take two or three spoonfuls three or four times a day, or as often as the fit takes you." Informers were very prominent and exceedingly offensive, inventing snares to catch lawbreakers for the sake of the heavy rewards, and spying and sneaking around in a way particularly distasteful to the English mind. In consequence, they suffered in their turn. The mere cry "Liquor spy!" was enough to raise a mob in the London streets, and the informer was lucky if he escaped with a sound thrashing and a ducking in the Thames or the nearest horse pond. Indeed, such an outcry was made about the matter that the ministry became very unpopular, and the law was not enforced after two or three years, and was largely modified in 1743, after seven years' trial.

While the lower classes in England were thus being demoralized by gin, the upper classes were suffering almost as much from the introduction of the strong, sweet, fiery, heavily brandied wines of Portugal, thanks, in part at least, to some favoring clauses in the Methuen treaty, early in the eighteenth century. It is curious to read in the contemporary journals and diaries and in the histories and descriptions of the last century—as, for instance, in Trevelyan's Life of Fox—how terribly demoralized was the state of English society during the period of England's greatest colonial and material expansion. The country was governed by a small, wealthy, land-owning aristocracy, who seemed to take the most unbridled corruption in public, and the most unrestrained dissipation in private life as a matter of course. It was from the long years of peace under the Walpoles, during the first half of the century, when the energy and industry of the middle classes were able to exert themselves, and from the protection of her insular position, that England obtained strength to master her empire, not from any superiority in her governing classes.

For, all during the last century, drunkenness was the rule, not the exception, in all classes of society. In the lower classes it was actually encouraged. Did the troops win a victory, did a prince come of age, "Go home. Jack," would say the master to his servant, "build a big bonfire, and tell the butler to make ye all drunk." It was quite a compliment to call an underling an "honest, drunken fellow." And as for the gentlefolk—well, we PSM V51 D396 The gout.pngThe Gout. (Gillray.) can hardly conceive of the state of affairs. It was part of a gentleman's education to learn to carry his port. One, two, three quarts a night was a proper and reasonable supply. After dinner the ladies retired into another room—practice still observed—so that the men should have no embarrassing restraints, and it was a matter of course for them to drink one another under the table as fast as was convenient. In the army and navy, in the learned professions, among the gentry and nobility, and even in the royal family, heavy drinking was the rule and not the exception until well on in the present century.

And they suffered from it. Their lives were shortened, their usefulness impaired, their estates squandered, and then the gout! Nowadays, with the example of Palmerston and Bismarck, Gladstone and Sherman before our eyes, it is hard to think of a time when statesmen were incapacitated at thirty-five or forty. But it was so. A gentleman who reached middle age without being crippled was either unusually lucky or was a milksop. Lord Chatham and many, nay most, of his contemporaries were horribly tortured by it. At critical periods in the nation's history a severe onset of gout, or the illness leading up to it, would cause the retirement of the most prominent statesmen. Many of them died young. Few indeed of them reached a healthy and vigorous old age. For heavy drinking was not confined to the idlers and

PSM V51 D397 John bull petitioning pitt and dundas to lighten the liquor tax.png
John Bull petitioning Pitt and Dundas to Lighten the Liquor Tax. (Gillray.)

spendthrifts, the courtiers and country gentlemen; it was a custom with the ablest and most brilliant men in England. Pitt and Fox, the two "Great Commoners," were noted topers. The old couplet is still remembered that refers to a scene in the House of Commons when Pitt and his friend Dundas came staggering in, and Pitt says: "I can not see the Speaker, Dick; can you?" "Not see the Speaker? Hang it, I see two." And all through the regency and well on through the next reign until the accession of the young Queen, there prevailed what to us would seem unpardonable license.

But it must not be inferred from this that drinking was much more prevalent in England than in other parts of the world at the same periods. Indeed, the records of Germany and Holland show quite as startling pictures. And in our own country we have not much to boast of.

The North American Indians were, on the whole, unaccustomed to alcoholic beverages before the arrival of the white man. Tobacco they had, and used it freely. In some stray localities we read of drinks made from maize; and from the reports of Captains Amadas and Barlow to Sir Walter Raleigh about the expedition to Virginia in 1584, we find that the Indians along the coast of Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas had learned the art of making wine from grapes. But when the Puritans landed in Massachusetts in 1620 they found, to their disgust, that beer and wine were both lacking, and we find Governor Bradford complaining bitterly of the hardship of drinking water.

Nor was water a more favored beverage among the settlers of Massachusetts Bay eight or ten years later. The first list of necessities sent back to the home company, in 1629, is headed, as our New England friends have so frequently reminded us, by an appeal for "ministers," and for a "patent under scale." We do not hear so often of their request, only a line or two further down, for "vyne planters." They ask for wheat, rye, barley, and other grains, and also for "hop rootes."

The records are still kept of the equipment of the vessel sent out in answer to this appeal. It was provisioned for one hundred passengers and thirty-five sailors for three months, each sailor counting as much as two passengers. They provided for the voyage "forty-five tuns beere, at four and six shillings per tun; two caskes Mallega and Canarie at sixteen shillings; twenty gallons aqua vitæ," and—for drinking, cooking, and all, only six tuns of water!

Higginson, the well-known first minister, went out in 1628. The next year he wrote home a glowing account of the country. Among other things, the air was so fine that his health was greatly benefited. "And whereas my stomache could only digest and did require such drinke as was both strong and stale, now I can and doe oftentimes drinke New England water verie well."

This really remarkable fact we find explained a few years after by Wood, in his New England's Prospect. He says that the country is well watered, and with different water from that of England; "not so sharpe, of a fatty substance, and of a more jetty colour. It is thought that there can be no better water in the world; yet dare I not preferre it to good Beere as some have done. Those that drinke it be as healthful, fresh, and lustie as they that drinke beere."

By 1631 they had passed a law for putting drunkards in the stocks; other laws followed concerning adulterations, sale to savages, etc. In 1634 the price of an "ale quart of beere" was set at a penny, and brew houses were soon in every village, in some places attached to every farm. The manufacture of other drinks followed rapidly, and in Judge Sewall's diary, some forty or fifty years later, we find mention of ale, beer, mead, metheglin, cider, wine, sillabub, claret, sack, canary, punch, sack posset, and black cherry brandy. The commonest of all these was "cyder," which was produced in enormous quantities and drunk very freely. Sack was passing out of date, excepting in posset, a delectable mixture of wine, ale, eggs, cream, and spices, boiled together. Metheglin and mead were brewed from one part of honey and two or two and a half parts of water and spices, fermented with yeast, and very heady liquors they were. The least excess, as they used to say, would bring back the humming of the bees in the ears. Governor Bradford early issued one of his orders against some "Merrymount scamps" on board the bark Friendship, who took two barrels of metheglin from Boston to Plymouth, and "dranke up, under the name leakage, all but six gallons."

But none of these, nor the "beveridge" and "swizzle" made from molasses and water, the perry, peachy, spruce and birch beer, and the rest, did half as much execution as rum. This was introduced from Barbadoes about 1650, and from then on became practically the national drink of the country. A great trade was set up with the West Indies, the ships exporting corn and pork and lumber for the plantations, and returning with cargoes of raw sugar and molasses, which last was almost valueless where it was made, but, diluted and fermented, furnished a ready source of alcohol.

Every little Now England town and village had its distillery—the seaport towns had scores of them—and the rum bullion, rumbooze, or, as it was universally known, killdivil, was sold freely for two shillings a gallon, and was shipped largely to the African coast in exchange for slaves. It was to this profitable trade that Newport and other New England coast towns owed their prosperity, and the interference with this trade by the English Commerce Acts was one of the main causes of the Revolution.

This rum was the basis not only of "flip," when mixed with beer, molasses, dried pumpkin, and sometimes cream and eggs, and stirred, before serving, with a red-hot poker, but also of punch. This latter, named after an East Indian word meaning five, was concocted with sugar, spices, lemon juice, and water, and was imbibed freely. As early as 1686 we find travelers telling of noble bowls of punch, which were passed from hand to hand before dinner. Double and "thribble" bowls there were also, holding two or three quarts each, and the amounts that our ancestors disposed of in those days are staggering.

For liquor was not only used at dinner and supper parties; it was taken morning, noon, and night, as a matter of course. The laborer would not work at the harvest, the builders at their trades, without a liberal allowance of rum. It did not matter, either, what class of work they were doing. When the little town of Medfield, early in the last century, "raised" the new meeting house, there were required "four barrels beer, twenty-four gallons West Indian rum, thirty gallons New England rum, thirty-five pounds loaf sugar, twenty-five pounds brown sugar, and four hundred and sixty-five lemons." A house could not be built without liquor being distributed at every stage of the operation, and this practice was not obsolete till well on in this century.

The clergy, while keeping a strict eye upon the excesses of their parishioners, did not disdain a drop themselves, and their conventions rivaled the dinners of the non-elect. In 1792 Governor Hancock gave a dinner to the Fusileers at the Merchants' Club in Boston, and for eighty diners there were served one hundred and thirty-six bowls of punch, twenty-one bottles of sherry, and lots of cider and brandy. But a similar bill is preserved for the refreshments at the ordination of a clergyman at Beverly, Mass., in 1785, and we notice:

30 Bowles Punch before they went to meeting £3 0s. 0d.
80 people eating in morning, at 16d 6 0 0
10 bottles of wine before they went to meeting 1 10 0
68 dinners at 30d 10 4 0
44 bowles punch while at dinner 4 8 0
18 bottles wine 2 14 0
8 bowles brandy 1 2 0
Cherry Rum 1 10 0
and 6 people drank tea 0 0 9

It would be but useless repetition to discuss the drinking habits of New York and other colonies. It is enough to say that well on into the present century drunkenness was extremely common, and, when people could afford it, a most pardonable and venial offense. It is the pride of our civilization in the present century that, during the last fifty or seventy-five years, the whole tone of society has changed, and intemperance, while still unfortunately prevalent, is nothing like as common as it used to be.

Indeed, it is hardly possible for us to imagine the state of affairs in our grandfathers' times. A hundred years ago a gentleman who went out to dinner, and was not brought home in the bottom of a cab or in a wheelbarrow, was a very poor-spirited fellow indeed. So with the poorer classes. Just a century ago George Washington was engaging a gardener, and in his contract it was expressly stipulated that he should have "four dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk for four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide, to be drunk for two days; a dram in the morning, and a drink of grog at dinner at noon." Nor was the sum mentioned a niggardly one, when George Washington was distilling his own whisky, and selling it, probably, for thirty or forty cents a gallon.

And now, just think of the change. We can hardly imagine a gentleman perceptibly exhilarated with wine at a dinner table. He certainly would never get a second opportunity, if the fact were known. And as for the working classes—a clerk, an engineer, a coachman, or even a gardener whose breath smelt of whisky, or who was seen often dropping into a saloon, would run a good chance of losing his position.

For the world has at last found out what intoxication means. Alcohol in large doses is a poison, but it is a poison which injures the family and neighbors and friends of the inebriate more than the victim himself. It, to some extent at least, causes him discomfort, but think of the discomfort it causes his family! It shortens his life, to be sure, but think of the other lives that it shortens! And while some attack the problem with fierce and violent denunciations, and others by quieter and not the less effective arguments and appeals, the world certainly owes a debt of gratitude to those who are doing so much now, and who have done so much already, to relieve mankind from the burden of inebriety.


The electric telegraph cable laid five years ago between the Senegal coast of West Africa and Pernambuco, Brazil, has broken twice about one hundred and fifty miles from the African coast. On examining it for repairs, the cable was found surrounded by great quantities of vegetable growth, with refuse and rubbish of various kinds; while the color of the sea changed to a dirty brownish green, indicative of the presence of river water; yet the nearest stream was a great distance away, flowing at its point of discharge in a direction different from that of this spot. It was supposed to be a sudden outburst of a submarine gully or stream. A number of such streams or fresh-water submarine wells are known, but how gourds, pieces of orange peel, and scraps of carpets, such as were found around the cable, got into them, remains a mystery.