What Did Colonial People Drink?


In the eighteenth century, most people believed that water was bad for their health, and they weren’t wrong in thinking this! In London Town, drinking water directly from the South River could make a person sick and vomit. The river water was brackish, meaning it was a mixture of salt and fresh water. Some people tried to dig wells to get water from the ground, but they often dug the wells too close to their privies. Privy, another word for outhouse, is where they had their toilets. The contents of the privy would contaminate the water in the well. When people drank well water they also got very sick. Germs, bacteria, and viruses had not been discovered during most of the 1700s, so people did not understand why they got sick. They just knew that water made them ill. So instead of drinking water, many people drank fermented and brewed beverages like beer, ale, cider, and wine.

Children drank something called small beer. One of the first steps in brewing beer is to boil the water, which kills the germs and bacteria and makes it safe to drink. This first brewing has alcohol in it. The ingredients were brewed again in a second and then a third batch of beer or ale (this is similar to us using the same tea bag to make a second and then a third cup of tea). The beer produced by this third brewing had almost no alcohol in it—this is the small beer that children would drink.

On average, an adult drank a gallon (a milk jug) of ale a day. People in colonial times believed alcohol was good for your health and many doctors prescribed and sold alcohol to their patients. Alcohol was consumed at social events, including business meetings, court hearings, and auctions. At funerals, it was expected alcohol would be served—typically in a large pot placed directly on the coffin!

This project was developed through a Teaching American History Grant partnership between Anne Arundel County Public Schools, the Center for History Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and Historic London Town and Gardens.