Originally posted 12 June 2012
From the 1700’s to the late nineteenth century, rum was seen as a healthful beverage, and when the Temperance movement launched their campaign against strong drink they were out of the cultural mainstream. A measure of this is seen in the language of the Temperance Battle Hymn, published in 1889:
“Stand up for the cold water fight, Against doctor and lawyer and priest,
Stand up and do battle for right, Against foes from the west or the east.”
Doctors, lawyers, and priests were indeed the foe – lawyers because they prosecuted those who vandalized saloons, priests because Catholics used wine as a sacrament, but the matter of doctors is more complicated. Some doctors did regard rum as good by itself to “calm the nerves,” but many more used alcohol as a base for medicines. The chemistry of the time had no better way of extracting the essence of some herbs or as a base for compounds, and popular remedies such as Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound were 18% alcohol, or 36 proof. Those who eschewed alcohol in all forms did have other options, but those often contained mercury, opium, strychnine, and other virulent poisons. A sensible person might decide that they would get at least as much relief from a glass of rum with lime and sugar, and much more enjoyment from the experience.