January 6th, 2001

Alcohol Consumption

   During the second half of the eighteenth century the annual consumption of beer in all the towns for which figures are available varied between 250 and 350 litres per person. Now this impressive quantity does not necessarily point to abnormality. Even in years of full employment and low food prices most families had to be content with a monotonous and dry food, consisting of rough rye bread, beans and salted foodstuffs.
   Clean water was rare in the towns and, where available, was by definition tasteless. Fresh milk, because it did not remain fresh for long, could not be transported over long distances and because of the dreadful conditions of hygiene was often of dubious quality. Chocolate, coffee or tea, the fashionable drinks of the eighteenth century, could not be afforded by the large majority of people.Poor people therefore had to quell their thirst with beer, which contained the greatest number of calories (as expressed in their cost). Moreover, the cheaper "small beers" had such a low alcohol content that people had to drain several jars before they reached a state of euphoria. This took place mainly in public houses.    
   There were many kinds of drinking houses, ranging from large and comfortable hostelries, where people could eat and stay the night, to cabarets or pubs, which offered little accommodation and where only beer or brandy was to be had. It was not only thirst and lack of domestic comfort that drove the lower classes in the evenings and on holidays to the public house, where there was space, light and warmth. Public houses also functioned as a crossroads for communication, where local residents exchanged views on items of news or their problems, and doubled as relaxation centres where people could dance and play dice or cards. In short, they were the focus of social and cultural activities. Drinking in company oiled the wheels of a society in which close family ties and good neighbourliness were essential conditions for survival. Inviting all one's relatives and friends to a christening, an engagement or a wedding feast was a social obligation, whatever it cost, because the cohesion of the family and the community had continually to be re-established.
   People in rural settings, especially when poor, could not waste their small incomes on simpler and possibly hygienical safer drinks like "small beer" to satisfy their thirst.

Modified from: Catharine Lis & Hugo Soly "Disordered Lives" Polity Press, 1966 (ISBN 07456-1514-7)