Drinking water in history

20th April 2001 at 01:00
* Although water seems to be the natural drink for all animals, most cultures through the ages viewed it with caution. Long before the science of bacteriology, people knew that foul water could be a source of disease. However, some water was thought to have powerful medicinal properties, and was drunk as a tonic. Very few societies used water in large quantities, as we do.

* The Roman historian Pliny noted that "waters vary with the land over which they flow and the juices of the plants they wash". Rainwater was widely prized as the "best", but also the quickest to become putrid, and water from mountain streams was valued more highly than water from wells. Water from snow or ice was generally thought to be harmful, and running water was preferable to still.

* Chalybeate springs (still to be found around Britain) provided water with a high iron conten, beneficial for people with anaemia. Sulphurous springs helped skin conditions. Pliny wisely advised against drinking water stored in tanks because it accumulated "slime or disgusting insects". The Chinese preferred to drink boiled water, and held that drips from stalactites increased longevity.

* In this country, it was not until the early 20th century, with the introduction of chlorination as a means of disinfecting piped water, that water became reliably safe. Until then, people drank beer, which was usually made with better quality water than was easily available, or tea, made with boiled water. During the 19th century, beer was served in schools and hospitals. Alcoholism was widespread, and concern about this was a driving force in the movement to provide safe drinking water for everybody.

Source: The Cambridge World History of Food

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today