The short version: from colonial times until the mid-1800’s, white America was drunk. Really drunk.  Like, most of the time,  especially the men. But even the women and children made our modern-day party animals look like lightweights in comparison.

The longer version:

Rum, gin, and brandy were thought medicinal.  And even holy, as stated by no less a Puritan than Cotton Mather. Being a loud drunk was bad, but drinking was good for body and soul alike.  Unlike most countries on the other side of the Atlantic, almost all liquor consumption was of spirits.  They drank very little beer, and even less wine.  It was all distilled liquor, all the time, except for some hard cider in areas of New England where apple trees were ubiquitous.  And even cider drinkers mostly drank spirits except at breakfast and maybe lunch.

Drinking started before breakfast.  An “eye-opener” of bitters and liquor with a little water was common, and laborers usually had a drink before going to work.  Lunch involved several drinks, before, during, and after the meal.  Same at dinner time, and then it was either a nightcap at or a trip to the tavern for more.

Speaking of the taverns: business was often conducted at them.  Legal proceedings would be settled “out of court” with the judge, jury, and lawyers drinking together.  In towns with only one tavern, it was usually next to the courthouse for that reason.

Babies would be given sips of liquor to make them sleep.  Toddlers would drink the sugary residue left in the bottom of their parents’ mixed drinks.  Kids were raised drinking watered down spirits, on the theory that getting them used to alcohol would make them less likely to become drunkards as adults.

Women mostly drank at home, because being publicly drunk was unladylike.  Even women who disdained liquor would drink alcoholic cordials or “medicinal” elixirs.

The upper classes would occasionally try to curb the common people’s ability to get so much liquor, all the while drinking the same amounts themselves.  They’d regulate tavern hours or try to limit access to booze, but it never worked.  Actually, after the Revolution (which was mostly planned in taverns), Americans drank even more. The slave trade made rum dirt cheap, so cheap that even common laborers could afford to get drunk every day.  (Rum comes from sugarcane, and the imported slaves were used to grow sugar.  It was, by all accounts, backbreaking work that killed huge numbers of slaves. Who, by the way, rarely got to imbibe the fruits of their labor.  There were harsh laws against giving alcohol to slaves, although some slave owners would allow for a party with alcohol at Christmas.)

Clergy had no problems with drinking, for the most part.  Just outright drunkenness.

The founders of our nation threw the first American cocktail parties.  Frankly I’m amazed they ever got anything accomplished.  At parties, political and otherwise, alcoholic punch was popular. Cookbooks from that period would have punch recipes that were nothing but gallons of different spirits mixed together, with a little fruit juice thrown in to sweeten it.

So why did it stop? There were a few reasons.  For starters, the spread of rationalist philosophies. But the big reason was financial. Businesses were growing and expanding, and it’s hard to get employees to work hard when they were drunk on the job.  He he Quakers were the first to give up alcohol entirely, for both religious reasons and because it interfered with their business interests.  Then the Methodists, mostly because they hated tradition, and then other denominations followed.  Educated people had also figured out that alcohol caused health problems.  So the temperance movement happened, and suddenly there were “dry” towns and counties, and eventually Prohibition.

Prohibition caused its own problems.  While most Americans weren’t drunk often, people still enjoyed alcohol enough to rebel. Fun fact: the government used to poison illegal spirits so people would get sick on them.  As a result, thousands of people died at the hands of the government just for drinking.  Great move, Washington.

Two sources for this post: The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition by W.J. Rorabaugh, and Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent.  Both are great fun, if disturbing.

Categories: History


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