Lots of responses to the Fruit with a Checkered Past post below. Many asking: are you pulling our legs, Joe? Did frontier children really drink? Oh yes they did, and for one simple reason: because alcoholic beverages were frequently safer than water.
The reason should be fairly clear: microbes can’t survive in an environment that’s 10-15% alcohol. This is a reality that peoples all over the Eurasian continent and the Mediterranean discovered millennia ago, even though they had no concept of microbes: people who drank beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks (like kefirs) stayed healthier than those who drank ground water. Sure, in time the people who drank too much alcohol would eventually die of cirrhosis of the liver…but which is better: to die of liver failure at 40, or of hepatitis when you’re five? The question answers itself.
So early Americans were simply carrying on a tradition that had been proven to work in the Old World. In the northern US, where grain was grown, families drank beer. In the West, Midwest and the eastern seaboard, they drank cider. Down south, where corn was king, people (unfortunately) drank whiskey, which was obviously far more damaging and far less hydrating than ciders and beers. Some temperance activists in the 1800′s reported seeing children in the South drinking whiskey by pints. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but at the very least it indicates that children in the South (and probably elsewhere) were well acquainted with spirits.
The good new is that this sort of thing doesn’t go on anymore. In fact, we modern Americans drink far less than our forebears did in general. Even 100 years ago people drank MUCH more alcohol than we do today, about 400% more according to some estimates. Was it for health reasons or out of addiction? Well, certainly it started out being the former and frequently ended as the latter. However it’s beyond doubt that while alcohol abuse is still very much a scourge on modern societies, some of those societies might not exist at all were it not for the consumption of alcohol.