Once Upon a Time, These Historians Say, America's Motto Was 'in Booze We Trust'

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

For many Americans, the period from Thanksgiving to New Year's is a time for raising a glass—or a bottle—and drinking to the joys of the season. Yet despite all the outward merriment, our tippling often leaves us feeling guilty, not to mention hung over. As historians Mark Lender and James Martin note in their illuminating book, Drinking in America (The Free Press, $19.95), such apprehension has not always been commonplace. Lender, 36, who appreciates an occasional Scotch, is director of grants at Kean College of New Jersey. Martin, 40, a bourbon man, is chairman of the history department at the University of Houston. Both have been long affiliated with the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies. Senior Writer Eric Levin, who says, "Make mine Gewürztraminer," spoke with them about America's bibulous past.

You say that Americans today are teetotalers compared with their forebears. How much did early Americans drink?

Martin: By the 1790s the average American over 15 years old was drinking just under six gallons of absolute alcohol a year. That is the equivalent of about 34 gallons of beer and hard cider, five gallons of distilled liquor and just under a gallon of wine. By 1810 average consumption was 7.1 gallons. Today it's less than 2.9.

Why did Americans drink so much then?

Lender: It was an age that considered alcohol safer than water. In Europe, where the settlers had come from, water was often polluted. On long ocean crossings beer kept better than water. The Arbella, which carried the Puritans to Boston in 1630, set sail with three times as much beer as water, along with 10,000 gallons of wine. Back then people believed drink warded off chills and fever and that you wouldn't be healthy unless you drank in moderation. If you didn't drink you were considered "crank-brained." In the late 1700s you couldn't buy life insurance unless you were a drinker.

Where did people do their drinking?

Martin: In colonial times some New England towns held "ordinaries," weekly gatherings at which people ate, drank and traded news. Absentees paid a fine in liquor. Political candidates engaged in treating voters to drinks while campaigning, and polling places were rarely dry. Farmers took jugs into the field. Revolutionary soldiers were given a gill—about four ounces—of whiskey a day. By the early 19th century it was common to down a shot of whiskey with breakfast. Whiskey breaks at 11 and 4 were more common than coffee breaks. Even schoolchildren were given daily sips. Alcohol was a dietary staple.

What were the first American alcoholic beverages like?

Martin: Early English colonists wanted to duplicate the dark beers of home, but lacking hops and barley they experimented with what was around—pumpkins, parsnips, even chips from spruce and walnut trees. Some of it was pretty wretched. Thomas Jefferson did some brewing at Monticello, Ben Franklin concocted his own spruce beer and George Washington made a passable molasses brew, as well as one of the country's first commercial rye whiskeys.

Lender: Hard apple cider and perry, a hard cider made from pears, also were important. Peach brandy was popular in the South, honey mead in Vermont. But by the early 1700s rum, which was made from cheap sugarcane and molasses shipped to New England from the West Indies, had become the most popular drink in the colonies.

Why did whiskey eventually surpass rum in popularity?

Lender: As the frontier began to open up, molasses and finished rum proved too expensive to ship inland. On the other hand grain was easy to grow. Farmers realized that if they made some of it into whiskey, it would be cheaper and less bulky to ship back East than beer or raw grain and it would fetch a better price than either. And since the stuff would just improve with age they could sit on it for a while if prices were depressed.

With people drinking so much, wasn't drunkenness a serious problem?

Lender: Colonial society was much more homogeneous and tightly knit than our own. Peer pressure worked. In some communities drunkards would be made to stand in church as they were admonished from the pulpit. In Massachusetts Puritans hung a scarlet "D" around one recidivist drunkard's neck. Stocks and the lash were occasionally administered.

Weren't there any less punitive ways of dealing with problem drinkers?

Martin: Yes. The tavern keeper was responsible for his or her patrons and would tell them when they'd had enough. Each colony had laws regulating what and how much taverners could serve and when and to whom they could serve it. Some towns circulated lists of local lushes and forbade taverners to serve them.

How did attitudes change after the Revolutionary War?

Martin: Slowly. The doctrine of liberty espoused in the Revolution eventually contributed to a weakening of community responsibility for individual behavior. On the frontier booze began to be seen as a spur to whoring, gambling and fighting. As society grew more complex the consequences of drinking became increasingly serious. A problem drinker behind a horse-drawn plow was one thing. A problem drinker at the throttle of a 19th-century locomotive was quite another.

When did consumption start to decline?

Lender: Between 1830 and 1840 it fell drastically, almost to today's level. Back in 1784 a respected Philadelphia doctor named Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had published the first tract refuting the old notion that alcohol was, in a famous colonial phrase, "the good creature of God." Rush identified alcohol as an addictive agent and advocated abstinence from whiskey and distilled alcohol. By the early 1800s reform movements of all kinds were flowering, and religious revivals were sweeping the nation. Increasingly there were objections that drinking was something immigrants, as opposed to true Americans, did. The temperance movement was underway. With periodic setbacks it kept growing until it finally succeeded in bringing about Prohibition in 1920.

With its speakeasies and bathtub gin, did Prohibition really prohibit?

Martin: Especially in the cities people knew where to find a taste. But on the whole the country dried out. Absolute alcohol consumption in 1934, just after repeal, stood at less than a gallon, down from 2.6 gallons some 25 years earlier. Illegal booze was vastly more expensive than pre-1920 stuff, and many people just couldn't afford it.

What happened after repeal?

Lender: Largely because of new taxes, liquor stayed costly and consumption didn't get back to pre-Prohibition levels until the mid-1940s. Brewers never went back into the saloon business, a connection that had given them a reputation as less than public spirited. During Prohibition, soft drinks and milk catapulted in popularity, and stayed strong afterward.

What is the derivation of some of the phrases we use to describe drinking and liquor?

Martin: Well, booze was originally a 14th-century English term, but it caught on in America around 1840 because of E.G. Booze, a Philadelphia distiller who started handing out small bottles of free hard cider and whiskey to people who bought his product. Binge is a nautical term meaning to pump full of water. The real McCoy was a notorious Prohibition rumrunner—Bill McCoy. Red-eye, meaning cheap whiskey, comes from Proverbs 23:29-30: "Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine."

How about teetotaler?

Lender: When someone signed a temperance pledge in the 1840s it usually meant they were swearing off hard stuff, not beer or wine. But if he pledged total abstinence a capital "T" was placed next to his name.

And pink elephants?

Lender: We have found documented cases where people with delirium tremens have sworn they've seen snakes, ghosts, skeletons and devils with pitchforks. But we have not found one single case of anyone saying they saw pink elephants. God knows where that one came from.

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