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THANKSGIVING UPDATE: Pilgrims stopping for beer is a falsehood, historian Bob Skilnik says.

Bob Skilnik Beer & FoodIf you’re into beer, you’ve probably heard this quote. When I first saw it I was blown away:

“For we could not now take time for further search our victuals being pretty much spent especially our beer.” _ From the log of the Mayflower.

Bob Skilnik, a Chicago-based author who has become a beer historian during his lengthy research for his books, has this advice: Read the whole quote. Skilnik said he uncovered the truth while researching his latest book: Beer & Food: An American History, (Jefferson Press, 2007).

It’s a fragment, he says. Here’s the rest of the quotation. It’s from Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622
“That night we returned again a-shipboard, with resolution the next morning to settle on some of those places; so in the morning, after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution: to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view of two places, which we thought most fitting for us, for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December. After our landing and viewing of the places, so well as we could we came to a conclusion, by most voices, to set on the mainland, on the first place, on a high ground, where there is a great deal of land cleared, and hath been planted with corn three or four years ago, and there is a very sweet brook runs under the hillside, and many delicate springs of as good water as can be drunk…”

MayflowerAbout Mourt’s Relation: On the same Web site, Caleb Johnson, a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, provides this explanation:

Mourt’s Relation was written primarily by Edward Winslow, although William Bradford appears to have written most of the first section.

Written between November 1620 and November 1621, it describes in detail what happened from the landing of the Pilgrims at Cape Cod, though their exploring and eventual settling at Plymouth, to their relations with the surrounding Indians, up to the First Thanksgiving and the arrival of the ship Fortune. Mourt’s Relation was first published in London in 1622, presumably by George Morton (hence the title, Mourt’s Relation).

Photos: Artist’s version of the Mayflower, right. William Bradford, below.

William BradfordSkilnik traced the origin of the fractured quote to post-Prohibition 1935. “Brewers were very concerned about beer sales, because people were turning to hard liquor,” Skilnik says. Times had changed. When Prohibition – the national ban on alcohol sales – began in 1920, America was still an industrial, blue collar society and men drank most of their beer in taverns, Skilnik says.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, it was a different America. People were working 9-5 jobs; you couldn’t drink at lunch or all day.

“This shocked the hell out of brewers; beer sales were skyrocketing, people were euphoric when Prohibition ended, but by 1935 sales were falling.”

The answer, brewers realized, was to put beer in take-home containers, in cans and bottles, and get it into the home, Skilnik said.

One tactic was a series of magazine ads, using quotes like the one about the Pilgrims to show what a great, homey thing beer was. So they snipped the quote a bit, Skilnik says.

It’s a nice story that the Pilgrims stopped at Plymouth Rock because they were out of beer, but that famous quote is part of a longer account, ” Skilnik says. Off the ship the Pilgrims had no beer and could not make it. In England, water was fouled by thousands of years of habitation. People drank beer because it was boiled and safe, Skilnik said.

Schlitz Ad celebrates the end of Prohibition“The Pilgrims found water in America pure and clean and there was no pressing need for beer.”
He adds that beer remained on the Pilgrims’ minds and they made sure that the first relief ship from England a couple of years later brought along a good stock of beer.

More on this and a discussion of the flak Skilnik caught for being so audacious as to challenge a cherished belief can be found on his excellent Web site.

I also strongly recommend his book. Great recipes, many interesting factoids about beer in American history, all devoid of spin.

Caption: Schlitz advertisement celebrates the end of Prohibition.

Posted by on November 23, 2007.

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Jessica Yadegaran has been a lifestyle writer and wine writer for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, California, since 2004. She discovered wine, and all its sensual and intellectual pleasures, while working at the San Luis Obispo Tribune and frolicking in the Central Coast’s burgeoning wine country. But her relationship with wine goes a [...]more →