How things have changed since 1787

Friday marks the 225th anniversary of the start of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. A few things have changed since then, from how much people drank to who could vote, to how tall people were.

Independence Hall still stands, a few blocks south of the National Constitution Center, with much of the building restored to show its condition in the late 18th century.

Ben Franklin’s house, which also stood a few blocks from the hall, is long gone. The original City Tavern is also gone in Philadelphia, but a replica stands in its place, open for business since 1976.

Back in 1787, the delegates who started the convention on May 25th were locked in a building for most of the summer, without the modern comfort of air conditioning.

The press was barred from covering the event , even though there were 10 newspapers in Philadelphia at the time.

The population of the United States of America was about 3.9 million, according to the 1790 Census. About 700,000 people were being held as slaves. And outside of the census were at least 150,000 Native Americans.

Among that population, only a small number of people were eligible to vote, about 6 percent. Most states restricted voting to white adult men of property.

Today, registered U.S residents who are 18 years of age or older can vote. In 2008, more than 132 million people voted in the general election.

The young nation’s capital was in New York City, compared with Washington, D.C. today.

The biggest city in the U.S. in 1787 was Philadelphia, soon to be surpassed by New York. The City of Brotherly Love had about 40,000 residents in its vicinity.

Today, New York City has more than 8 million residents.

At the convention of 1787, 12 of the 13 states in the union were represented during the summer. Since 1959, the U.S. has had 50 states.

Back in the post-Colonial day, the average life expectancy was around 34 ½ years of age, compared with 78 years of age in 2011. (There are differing life expectancy estimates for people who were slaves in that era.)

But in some ways, things weren’t that different.

The average height of a male in 1787 was 5 feet 8 inches, compared with 5 feet 9 ½ inches today.

And among the general male populace, excluding those held in slavery, daily meat consumption averaged 8 ounces per day, about one ounce more than today.

However, there was a big difference in the amount of alcohol consumed in 1787.

Drinking everything from beer to cider to whiskey to rum to wine was part of everyday life for men, women and children. A good number of people drank at three meals a day (if they had three meals) and at social gathering spots.

There aren’t exact numbers for how much the average person drank in 1787, but it’s widely assumed to be a far greater amount than today.

Some historians argue that the imbibing needs to be put in context. During the era, people did more physical labor and worked in more extreme conditions, which led to more calories being burned off quickly.

One fact is known for sure: the constitutional framers ran up an epic bar tab at Philadelphia’s City Tavern in September 1787.

In a dinner to honor George Washington, the 55 delegates pounded down “54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 22 bottles of porter, beer, hard cider and 7 bowls of spiked punch” according to a record of the event.

Here is a link to the bar tab:

The delegates weren’t alone, as 16 musicians hired to entertain the delegates drank almost the same amount.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of Constitution Daily.


Upcoming Event

On June 6, Jack Balkin of Yale and Randy Barnett of Georgetown will be live at the National Constitution Center to explore the commerce clause and the upcoming Supreme Court decision on health care. Click here for event details. Moderator: John Hockenberry.