“They Drank Beer Because the Water Wasn’t Safe” …OR DID THEY?!


Beer-Lovers, let’s have a chat.

When I was in the Black Creek Brewery, I often received the question, “Did Victorians drink beer because the water was unsafe?” I’d like to spend some time answering that question.

The short answer is, “In Toronto, the water was often unsafe, but that didn’t actually link to beer consumption very much.”

Let’s start at the beginning.

Toronto, 1850s-1860s. Yes, indeed, the water is not terribly safe to drink. Until the 1870s, the drinking water supply was handled by private companies. As you can imagine, they were mostly concerned with profits, and so sometimes let matters of safety slide. Most drinking water came from private wells, which was fine unless they got contaminated. Animals were slaughtered throughout the city streets, and their offal tossed in the sewers. Animals’ manure ended up in the sewers as well. So did untreated human waste. And where did these sewers empty?

Into the bay.

Toronto, 1851. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

An article from The Globe, simply entitled, “The Cholera,” describes Toronto’s water situation thusly:

“The water used in Toronto is a byword through the Province. Thick and cloudy with feculence, it is unfit for human use until purified. No one who can possibly afford it should be without a filter to strain the impurities they are compelled to drink. Crystal clearness instead of yellow decoction of dead plants and animals, must be a blessing to any one”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Well, then.

So, yes. In 1860s Toronto, the water was not always safe to drink.

However.

Remember that germ theory was still developing at this time. In England, Dr. John Snow had established a connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1848, but his work wasn’t entirely accepted until later in the century. Louis Pasteur’s experiments in killing bacteria through heat (i.e. pasteurization) didn’t get rolling until the early 1860s. Obviously, Victorians linked filth and sickness. They knew the water wasn’t safe. They likely didn’t entirely realize the mechanism of why.

In fact, The Globe provides helpful tips on cholera prevention:

“Make a city clean; purge it from every foul smell, bury its reeking corruption, cleanse its drains permit no stagnant cess-pools; make it in fact what decency and common comfort demand, and cholera will pass along our streets harmless…”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Get rid of the ick; you won’t get sick!

An 1866 article is still preoccupied with the water quality—it suggests that allowing a more abundant supply might help flush the city’s pipes and keep everything cleaner. However, it also has good advice for disinfecting water.

Namely, these include solutions of hypochlorite of soda, lime, and “Condy’s fluid” (solution of alkaline manganates and permanganates—you could drink it, or use it like Windex!). These solutions could be poured into cess-pools and chamber-pots. Cooking/drinking water ought to be filtered through charcoal; you could burn a little wood in your hearth at night to encourage air flow.

Still sick? Placing iodine in a box or “in the ornamental cases on the mantle or shelf of a room” was thought to disinfect it. They suggest taking 8-10 grains of sulphite of magnesia when cholera is rampant. And most importantly, protecting one’s self from waterborne diseases by practicing “perfect sobriety” and avoiding all employments which “exhaust nervous energy.”

In other words…no one is suggesting an alternative to water. They’re trying to find ways to make it as safe as possible. In fact, the exhortation for sobriety (immorality = disease, obviously) directly contradicts any notion of drinking beer in place of water.

Indeed, there are calls from this time period for more drinking water. See these letters to the Editor talking about the joys of public drinking fountains—so people can have an alternative to beer.

The Globe, July 6, 1863

 

The Globe, October 24, 1862

 

Look, beer tastes nice. It has calories. Small beer gives a mild buzz (which Victorians assumed was a stimulant effect). Given the choice—without my modern knowledge of health and the effects of alcohol—I’d probably choose the beer too.

So the water in mid-Victorian Toronto wasn’t always safe. But the response does not seem to have been, “Break out the beer.” Rather, the city seems to have reacted by trying to make the water supply safer. Their beer consumptions seems driven by reasons other than health concerns. As they say in the sciences, “Correlation does not equal causation.”

To Queen and Country!

Katie

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