quality of water and food in 1855

in Back to the Future III, as a point of emphasizing the distance travelled, Marty was at a dinner table where the water was muddy and the food had ball bearings (i assume they were bullets). how true is this? is water in such short supply in the Old West that they don’t clean their catch or possess clear drinking water?

They amped the scene up a bit to make the point.

Most likely muddy water would at least be allowed to settle before serving, but it would still potentially be loaded with parasites. Portray the water murky, and you emphasize the danger.

The ball bearings were most likely shot from a shotgun blast. They again were trying to emphasize the point. Marty might have encountered one or two the cook overlooked, not a plateful.
Upon reflection, after watching several of Chef Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmare’s episodes, I will concede the possibility of a scuzzy restaurant of that era of being as lax as portrayed.
For another view point of cuisine from that era, watch the opening banquet scene in the movie Ravenous.

Ever see the movie(s) Showboat? Travelling theater performers in a big boat on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers going from town to town in the late 1800’s. The movie was based on a book by Edna Ferber and describes how they scooped drinking water straight from the rivers to be stored in barrels, and a few fish, too, and that’s the way they drank it. Back in the olden days, when presumably the rivers were cleaner, at least far from shore. And I went to a wild-game dinner where we were cautioned to chew carefully as there may have been buckshot in the partridge…

It was probably** “birdshot”** from a shotgun shell (tiny little soft lead BB’s).

The fresh meat back then was free of hormones, no chemicals, no additives, and the poultry was “cagefree”.

The water was as clean as whatever water supply you were using. My family had an artesian well on our ranch and the water was clean, cool, pure, cheap, and tasted great.
(the city people back then had it the worst with bad water and sewage and gray water everywhere, not to mention horse droppings all over the city streets )

1885 in the movie, right?

I hunt and eat quite a bit of pheasant, and no mattter how thoroughly I clean the birds I usually find a couple pieces of birdshot.

When I was about 10 years old circa 1966, we went to northern Arkansas to visit my Dad’s parents who lived on a farm with only well water and an outhouse. Grampa was 92 at the time, I think and grandma 89, they were married in 1898 and had 13 children who were raised on this farm.

I was sent to get some water from the well and when I cranked up the bucket there was a frog in the water. I ran back inside and exclaimed, “There is a frog in the well!”.

Grandma told me to throw the frog back into the well because it was eating all the bugs in the water. I do not know what other precautions they may have taken, but the house was full of people and food and it all seemed quite normal to everyone at the time.

Between that and the water moccasin we swam with at the river, the spiders, and other interesting creatures I saw, I found a new love for the Pacific Coast where my parents had moved before having me.

No presevatives except salting & smoking.

No germ theory of disease.
No refridgeration.
No Pure Food & Drug Act.

Total hell.

Despite the references to depictions in pop culture, this actually seems like a GQ question to me, so I’ll move it thither (via DeLorean, natch).

twickster, Cafe Society moderator

The Wikipedia page on Lizzie Borden is an interesting window into the life of a middle-class family in the late 19th century. They emptied their chamberpots in the back yard, and a few days before the murder they all got food poisoning from a pot of mutton stew that sat on the stove for three days.

… being a city boy, I thought the little building was the well-house…


If you lived in the country you were at no worse risk than our ancestors for hundreds of millennia as far as water and fresh food was concerned: if you lived in the town in those glorious days of libertarian freedom not only was the water possibly severely tainted, but food manufacturers habitually added the most frightful crap imaginable to increase profits.

Only government action, both central and local, eliminated both these risks.

Actually, they often didn’t drink water at all. In 1830s New England, for instance, water was considered too dangerous. People drank hard cider. Yes, even kids.

Elsewhere, beer was the common drink.

People also drank a lot of coffee in the Civil War era. The boiling made it safer.

I heard that during the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the White workers were more susceptible to waterborne diseases than their Chinese counterparts. The explanation was that the Chinese liked to drink tea, which required boiling the water.

Wow! I didn’t know that about the cider/beer. It would seem that drinking anything other than water could severely dehydrate a person? Especially anything with alcohol content?

Excuse me - I seem to remember this only partially, but weren’t the Europeans so afraid of getting in the water for baths that they had their dirt scraped off and used powder and rouge to hide blemishes as well as sachets in their sleeves to hide the BO?



There’s also some thought that the tannin in tea is antiseptic enough to have had an impact in this regard. (The link goes to a review of a book that claims tea and beer helped make Britain great. I have no opinion on that thesis, but it would be interesting to know if his ideas about tannin make sense. The Internet seems to be full of woo on the subject and little else.)

crowded cities in the past sounds uncomfortable…

this seems likely. hard to picture anyone drinking muddied water if they had a choice, knowledge of health issues or no.

ow! even a grain of sand is jarring.

As the child of an avid hunter, I have to comment here.

I remember eating quail killed with birdshot in the 1990s and finding the occasional pellet wasn’t that bad. They didn’t flavor the meat and they were big enough to not get between your teeth be swallowed unnoticed, especially if you were expecting them, which you would be. You could also frequently see the holes made by the shot and dig a bit with your fork to remove a good deal of them. Between your eyes and your tongue you’d rarely, if ever, be surprised by shot.

However, the pellets weren’t lead by that point, which likely makes a huge difference.

Yep-the story I heard was that Andrew Borden (Lizzy’s dad) was a tightwad who didn’t believe in wasting money. The (Irish) servant girl wanted to throw the spoiled stew out (it was really smelling bad), but Andrew ordered her to serve it.
This drove Lizzie over the edge, and made her resolve to do away with her parents…which opened her up for a nice inheritance (Andrew Borden was worth over $400,000, which was a lot of money for the time.)

Don’t mention them, because they probably weren’t there. At least, not for long.

Big cities at that time employed people as street sweepers, to clean this up. Plus many city dwellers of the time (and not just poor ones) had gardens in their back yards, and they were well aware of the value of adding fertilizer to their gardens.

Drinking ale or beer in lieu of water was common from the 16th century on. Sucks for those of us who hate the taste of beer.


Both Europeans and Americans from 1755 to 1955 would have a weekly bath night, unless they lived in a slum ( of course, a lot of them did ). Generally either Friday or Saturday.

You don’t get to have $400,000 by eating fancy non-contaminated food.