History of the U.S.: Rum Punch

Rum wasn’t invented in America, but it proved so popular in the colonies that it should qualify as an all- American drink.

It wasn’t the flavor; by all accounts, the batches produced in the seventeenth century were incredibly nasty and dangerous. That’s not surprising, considering the liquor was invented to get rid of the thick and sticky molasses that had to be drained from sugar crystals during the refining process. At first no one knew what to do with the stuff, but eventually someone realized that molasses contains enough sugar to allow fermentation; a little tinkering converted it to booze.

But not delicious booze: one early imbiber called it “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” If this sounds unappealing, consider that distillers might throw a dead animal or animal dung into the “wash” to speed up fermentation. They also used lead pipes in the still construction, sometimes poisoning heavy drinkers - which was mostly everyone. In Barbados, each colonist drank about 10 gallons of rum annually, while North American colonists averaged three gallons per year. That this foul liquor was the most popular drink in the colonies is evidence of the miserable conditions there, especially among poor colonists who came as indentured servants. Despite the occasional case of blindness or death, rum got you drunk enough to temporarily forget your miseries - and when you came to, you could start forgetting all over again.

Obviously this was incredibly bad for your health. In 1639, a visitor to Barbados recounted men so wasted they passed out on the ground and were eaten alive by land crabs. In 1707, a visitor to Jamaica estimated that rum killed over 1,000 colonists a year on that island alone (out of a total population of 7,000 white colonists). Colonial legislatures tried to control the sale and consumption of rum, with laws passed in Bermuda, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and even Barbados itself – but human misery trumped the law and rum continued making great if somewhat unsteady strides.

Fed by molasses imported from the Caribbean plantations, distilleries were established on Staten Island and Boston in the mid-1600s. These drastically lowered the price and increased the level of intoxication to new highs (or lows, depending on your point of view). In fact, rum played an integral part in the development of the American colonies, as New England businessmen invested their rum profits in new industries like textiles.

Looking for more fabulous content like this? You’re in luck - The Mental Floss History of the United States hits bookshelves near you on October 5th! If you pre-order, you’ll get three free issues of mental_floss magazine. Get all of the details over here.

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NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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