Originally posted 23 September 2012
Europeans and Americans in the 18th and early 19th century were certain that water, especially cold water, was dangerous to human health. In cities, they were right – before modern sewage systems were invented, most city water was contaminated and had to be boiled to be safe, so cold water was suspect. Nevertheless, the warning of Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint Méry, a Frenchman living in Philadelphia, went just a bit overboard: “During hot weather thirst is so widespread and irresistible in all American cities that several persons die each year from drinking cold pump water when hot. Printed handbills are distributed each summer to warn people of these dangers. Strangers especially are warned either to drink grog or to add a little wine or some other spirituous liquor to their water. People are urged to throw cold water on the faces of those suffering from water drinking, and bleeding is also suggested. Sometimes notices are placed on the pumps with the words: `Death to him who drinks quickly.’ But all these teachings are ignored.” This label from a bottle of “medicinal” rum is from a later period, but still reflects the era when rum was part of every doctor’s medical kit.
As for whether adding rum to the water actually did make it safer, it probably wasn’t a bad idea – a little alcohol could kill some of those dangerous germs in the water. I will probably be visiting Philadelphia soon on a lecture tour, and will be sure to add rum to all the water I drink there, just in case Saint Méry was right.