and Teaching: A History of the World in 6 Glasses
Deborah Smith Johnston,
Lexington High School, Massachusetts
column hopes to provide suggestions on incorporating new research into the
world history survey. Monographs, articles and presentations will be considered
that provide easy access to new scholarship and that provide the potential
for classroom application at the secondary and college level. The hope is
that this column will suggest content strategies and not merely be an additional
book review. The impetus for suggestions comes in part from the author's
world history book club which meets bi-monthly in the Boston Metro area.
The book club began following the closing of the Northeastern World History
Center as a means for teachers to continue to connect around world history
scholarship. For more information, email email@example.com.
Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses (Walker & Company,
As a high school world history teacher, I look
for sources that will help history come alive for my students. In this book,
Tom Standage tells a popular history of the world through six beverages:
beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca Cola. A thoroughly enjoyable read,
the book is full of those kinds of anecdotes and stories that help students
to enjoy and remember history. Better still is the book's ability to provide
a possible narrative of world history. The book is organized chronologically,
allowing each beverage to tell the story of a period through local stories,
global processes, and connections. Along the way, the reader can make comparisons
amongst these drinks as to which have been seen as medicinal drinks, currency,
social equators, revolutionary substances, status indicators, and nutritional
supplements. In studying drinks, as with food, class and social structure
are emphasized allowing a social historical perspective.
"In both cultures [Egypt and Mesopotamia], beer was a staple foodstuff
without which no meal was complete. It was consumed by everyone, rich and
poor, men and women, adults and children, from the top of the social pyramid
to the bottom. It was truly the defining drink of these first great civilizations."
Standage begins by discussing the history of beer
while presenting the story of the domestication of cereal grains, the development
of farming, early migrations, and the development of river valley societies
in Egypt and Mesopotamia. He talks of beer as a discovery rather than an
invention, and how it was first used alternately as a social drink with
a shared vessel, as a form of edible money, and as a religious offering.
As urban water supplies became contaminated, beer also became a safer drink.
Beer became equated with civilization and was the beverage of choice from
cradle to the grave. By discussing global processes such as the increase
of agriculture, urban settlement, regional trade patterns, the evolution
of writing, and health and nutrition, Standage provides the needed global
historical context for the social evolution of beer.
"the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when
they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine." (52-53)
Standage introduces wine through a discussion of
early Greek and Roman society. Wine is initially associated with social
class as it was exotic and scarce, being expensive to transport without
breakage. The masses drank beer. Wine conveyed power, prestige, and privilege.
Wine then came to embody Greek culture and became more widely available.
It was used not only in the Symposium, the Greek drinking parties, but also
medicinally to clean wounds and as a safer drink than water. Roman farmers
combined Greek influence with their own farming background through viticulture,
growing grapes instead of grain which they imported from colonies in North
Africa. It became a symbol of social differentiation and a form of conspicuous
consumption where the brand of the wine mattered. With the fall of the Roman
Empire, wine continued to be associated with Christianity and the Mediterranean.
Global processes highlighted here include the importance of geography, climate
and locale, long distance trade, the rise and fall of empires, the movement
of nomadic peoples, and the spread of religion.
was the liquid embodiment of both the triumph and the oppression of the
first era of globalization." (111)
In this section, the author introduces the
fact that the process of distillation originated in Cordoba by the Arabs
to allow the miracle medicine of distilled wine to travel better. He talks
of how this idea was spread via the new printing press, leading to the development
of whiskey and, later, brandy. Much detail is provided on the spirits, slaves,
and sugar connection where rum was used as a currency for slave payment.
Sailors drank grog (watered-down rum), which helped to alleviate scurvy.
Standage argues that rum was the first globalized drink of oppression. Its
popularity in the colonies, where there were few other alcoholic beverage
choices, led to distilling in New England. This, he argues, began the trade
wars which resulted in the molasses act, the sugar act, the boycotts of
imports, and a refusal to pay taxes without representation. Indeed, he wonders
whether it was rum rather than tea that started the American Revolution.
He also discusses the impact of the whiskey rebellion. The French fur traders'
use of brandy, the British use of rum, and the Spanish use of pulque all
point to how spirits were used to conquer territory in the Americas. Spirits
became associated not only with slavery, but also with the exploitation
and subjugation of indigenous peoples on five continents as colonies and
mercantilist relationships were formed. Through a look at spirits, students
can better understand the spread of technology, exploration, the use of
Arab technology, the spread of disease, slavery, trade relationships, revolution,
and the subjugation of indigenous peoples.
coffeehouses functioned as information exchanges for scientists, businessmen,
writers and politicians. Like modern web sites.." (152)
Standage presents the history of coffee from its
origins in the Arab world to Europe, addressing the initial controversy
that the beverage generated in both locations. As a new and safe alternative
to alcoholic drinks and water, some argued that it promoted rational enquiry
and had medicinal qualities. Women felt threatened by it, however, arguing
that due to its supposed deleterious effect on male potency, "The whole
race is in danger of extinction." Coffeehouses were places where men gathered
to exchange news where social differences were left at the door. Some establishments
specialized in particular topics such as the exchange of scientific and
commercial ideas. Governments tried to suppress these institutions, since
coffeehouses promoted freedom of speech and an open atmosphere for discussion
amongst different classes of peopleŃsomething many governments found threatening.
Whole empires were built on coffee. The Arabs had a monopoly on beans, while
the Dutch were middlepersons in the trade and then set up coffee plantations
in Java and Suriname. The French began plantations in the West Indies and
Haiti. Through a study of coffee and coffeehouses, students learn vicariously
about the Enlightenment, 19th century revolutions, trade networks,
imperial expansion, colonialism, and the Scientific revolution.
story of tea is the story of imperialism, industrialization and world domination
one cup at a time." (177)
The author discusses the historic importance of
tea in China as initially a medicinal good and then as a trade item along
the Silk Routes with the spread of Buddhism. It became a national drink
during the Tang dynasty, reflecting the prosperity of the time. Easy to
prepare, its medicinal qualities were known to kill bacteria that cause
cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. Though it fell from favor during Mongol
rule, it had already spread to Japan, where the tea ceremony evolved as
a sign of status and culture. Tea was introduced into Europe before coffee
but was more expensive, and so initially denoted luxury and was used mainly
as a medicinal drink. By the18th century, Britain was won over
by tea thanks in part to the role played by the British East India Trading
company. Power plays in India and China as opium was traded for tea increased
the economic might of the British empire abroad. Marriages, tea shops for
women, tea parties, afternoon tea, and tea gardens all evolved as part of
high culture. And yet, tea also showed up amongst the working class and
played a role in factory production through the introduction of tea breaks.
Tea also played a role in reducing waterborne diseases since the water had
to be boiled first. This directly increased infant survival rates, and thus
increased the available labor pool for the industrial revolution. The marketing
of tea and tea paraphernalia provided additional evidence of the emergence
of consumerism in England. Tea drinking in nations of the former British
empire continues to this day. Tea helps to explain the global processes
of trade through the Silk Routes and via later technologies such as railroads
and steamships. The spread of religion, especially Buddhism and Taoism but
also Christianity, can also be understood. The role of tea in disease prevention,
the Industrial revolution, the Rise of the West, and imperialism is also
my mind, I am in this damn mess as much to help keep the custom of drinking
Cokes as I am to help preserve the million other benefits our country blesses
its citizens with . . ." (253)
Similar to the other drinks Standage discusses,
Coca cola was initially a medicinal beverage. Soda water could be found
in the soda fountains in apothecaries as early as 1820. John Pemberton in
Atlanta Georgia in 1886 developed a medicinal concoction using French wine,
coca (from the Incas), and kola extract. However, he needed a non-alcoholic
version because of the temperance movement, and thus Coca-Cola was born.
Thanks to advertising and marketing using testimonials, a distinctive logo,
and free samples, the syrup became profitable when added to existing soda
fountains. By1895 it was a national drink. Legal controversy forced it to
let go of medicinal claims and left it as "delicious and refreshing." Further
challenges to the drink included the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression,
and the rise of Pepsi. With World War II, America ended isolationism and
sent out 16 million servicemen with Coke in their hands. Coke sought to
increase soldier morale by supplying a familiar drink to them abroad. To
cut down on shipping costs, only the syrup was shipped, and bottling plants
were set up wherever American servicemen went. Quickly, Coke became synonymous
with patriotism. After the war, there were attacks of Coca-colonization
by French communists in the midst of the Cold war. The company responded
by arguing that "coca cola was the essence of capitalism" representing a
symbol of freedom since Pepsi had managed to get behind the "iron curtain."
Ideological divides continued as Coca Cola was marketed in Israel and the
Arab world became dominated by Pepsi. Coca Cola represents the historical
trend of the past century towards increased globalization, and its history
raises reader awareness of global processes of industrialization, mass transportation,
mass consumerism, global capitalism, conflict, the Cold war, and ideological
Standage concludes the book by posing the question
of whether water will be the next drink whose story will need to be told.
He cites not only the bottled water habit of the developed world, but the
great divide in the world being over access to safe water. He also notes
water's role as the root of many global conflicts.
In my own high school classroom, I plan on using
this book as a way to talk about commodities and social history. I am thinking
of developing a two day review lesson near the end of the year. Students
would travel to six stations, one for each of the six beverages. They would
use my notes, as well as additional materials I would assemble, in order
to draw comparisons between the beverages and piece together a narrative
of world history over time. In my college survey class, I can see this being
a wonderful supplemental read that could result in a rich class discussion.
If interested in my book club set of notes and discussion questions, please
go to www.newworldhistory.net.
While, strictly speaking, this book does not represent new scholarship by
a world historian, it does provide an entry point into world history for
students more interested in the cultural history of the world. It is entertaining,
accessible and eminently usable in the classroom. And I would toast to that!
Note: Deborah Smith Johnston teaches world history at Lexington
High School in Lexington, Massachusetts