America sure liked its booze in the old days

Published 9:44 am Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Everything in moderation.

That’s a good saying, especially when it comes to alcoholic beverages.

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I learned something recently about the word temperance. You know, as in the American temperance movement that led to Prohibition. I used to think it meant abstinence from alcohol. And, yes, it does. But it has a second, older meaning. Temperance also is defined as a virtue to mean restrain from impulse, whether it is alcohol, sex, vanity, anger or other demons of human behavior. It’s pretty much another way to say everything in moderation.

If you’ve read my columns about beer, you know I drink quality, not quantity. I’d rather have a couple of hoppy India pale ales than six or seven yellow light beers. That behavior qualifies as temperance, right? Right?

I recently watched the three-part Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” and was stunned by just how much booze Americans drank in the 19th century and early 20th century. Many of us know the history of Prohibition and the repeal of the 18th Amendment, but I would venture fewer of us know about what led to the amendment in the first place. I mean, besides the massive temperance movements. What we probably don’t know is just how much booze was part of the culture.

Here is a quotation from the PBS special:

“They say that the British cannot fix anything properly without a dinner, but I’m sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink. If you make acquaintance, you drink. If you close a bargain, you drink. They drink because it’s hot. They drink because it’s cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice. If not, they drink and swear. They begin to drink early in the morning, and they leave off late at night. They commence it early in life and they continue it until they soon drop into the grave.” — Capt. Frederick Marryat, officer in the English Royal Navy.

The documentary goes on to describe just how intertwined alcoholic beverages were in American life, telling about the use of it by presidents and pioneers in daily life, whether it was a barn raising, a meal or just to brace for the day.

“In many towns a bell would ring twice a day to signal what was called ‘grog time’ so that men could stop whatever they were doing in factories and offices, mills and farm fields to raise a jug,” the documentary’s narrator states.

Take this 1700s habit of drinking mere 2 percent beer, cider and wine and up the alcohol ante. By the 1800s, rum, whiskey and other distilled spirits with higher alcohol content suddenly become widely available in America. As the pioneers moved westward, we grew more corn, oats and wheat, which could be distilled.

“Now all of a sudden people are drinking whiskey instead, and it took the culture awhile to recognize that, wait a minute, there is something really wrong here,” said historian Catherine Gilbert Murdock

OK, now here is the surprise. And by “equivalent” it means total alcohol consumption yet measured in bottles of whiskey. The documentary’s narrator says this: “By 1830, the average American over 15 years of age drank the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey every year, three times as much as their 21st century descendants drink.”

The documentary goes to explain just how drunk the nation was.

Don’t believe Ken Burns? Well, I was thumbing through my brother’s home brewing magazine, Zymurgy, and discovered a chart from the Brewers Association looking back in the number of breweries for the past 125 years.

In 1887, there were 2,011 breweries in America. The number declined until Prohibition and the Volstead Act, when it bottomed out at zero. It rose in 1933 to 703 but declined to just 89 in the late 1970s. The figure shot up in the 1990s and 2000s and in 2012 there were 2,403, catching up with 1887 finally.

Of course, part of the decline was because an entire generation had grown accustomed to hard liquor over beer thanks to bootlegging in Prohibition. Grandpa drank Kessler. The modern-day rise is because of the popularity of local craft beer and brewpubs, yet the number of bottles produced has been about the same since 1990.

I don’t know how many bottles were produced in 1887, but consider this. The population in 1887 was 59.1 million. We had 313 million in 2012.

Man, could those people down some beer or what?

The lesson I have learned is this: Never be surprised by how much booze our forefathers could drink. Compared to them, many of us are temperate.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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