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6 Drinks of Economic History

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 21, 2012    •    1821 Views

Combine “spirits,” beer, wine, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola and you get some interesting economic history.

Spirits: In 1758, George Washington was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Some attribute his victory to entertaining his neighbors with 160 gallons of rum, rum punch, wine, beer and cider.  Wondering whether he had demonstrated sufficient largess to a county with 391 voters, Washington said, “My only fear is that you spent with too spare a hand.”

Little did Washington even suspect that “spirits” would become a symbol of the taxing power of his new government when western farmers refused to pay a whiskey tax. Called the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the protesters were subdued and the government’s taxing power was established.

Beer: In ancient Egypt, beer was used to pay the workers who built the Egyptian pyramids. Records say their ration was 4 loaves of bread and 8 pints of beer.

Wine: Believing the higher the quality, the stronger its medicinal value, the personal physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, prescribed it for colds.

Tea: Catherine, wife of England’s King Charles II, made tea an aspirational drink. Portuguese royalty, she brought a dowry that included trading posts around the world, “a fortune in gold, and a chest of tea.”

Coffee: The 1792 origins of the New York Stock Exchange can be traced back to a Wall Street buttonwood tree under which trading was scheduled. During bad weather they met at Wall and Water Streets at the Tontine Coffeehouse.

Coca-Cola. First sold as a medicinal preparation in Atlanta, its name related to its ingredients: coca (extract) and kola (nuts). An early advertisement said Coke was “…a valuable Brain Tonic, and a cure for all nervous affections–Sick Head-Ache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy, etc. …”

Also about fiscal policy, economic growth, innovation, financial markets and world trade, these stories are from Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses and my own book, Econ 101 1/2.

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