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Research and Teaching: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Deborah Smith Johnston, Ph.D.
Lexington High School, Massachusetts

This 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  
Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses (Walker & Company, 2005).  
     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. 1
"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." (30) 2
     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.
Thucydides: "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. 4
"Rum 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. 5
"Europe's 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. 6
"The 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 highlighted.
"To 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 battles. 8
     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. 9
    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 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! 10
Biographical Note: Deborah Smith Johnston teaches world history at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts  

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