Staggering–literally!

I responded to White Rabbit’s comment on the Militia Training Day post with the comment that:

The US prior to prohibition had a tendency toward ardent spirits (i.e., Whisky varients) with people drinking an average of a quart a day! Here’s an interesting statistic for you: yearly consumption at the time of the Revolution has been estimated at the equivalent of 13.249 litres of pure, two-hundred proof alcohol for each person. After 1790 American men began to drink even more. By the late 1820s imbibing had risen to an all-time high of almost 15 litres per capita.

While four gallons of spirits per person may seem like a lot, the large quantities of drink in the US came to my attention when I went to an exhibit at the Library Company of Philadelphia called Ardent Spirits. I also knew that people drank about 15 litres of beer per day, but 15.142 litres of whisky!

It is a fact that the annual per capita consumption of alcohol among Americans stood at its all-time high of 14.763 litres in 1830. That means that, on average, every man, woman, and child in the United States drank almost 15 litres of straight alcohol every year. By 1845, that average had plummeted to 3.78 litres, the lowest figure ever, except for the dozen years of Prohibition.

Drinking in pre-temperance days was so common that even relatively moderate drinking was common (e.g., John Adams regularly started his day with a gill (120 ml) of cider). It was common to observe the custom of “elevens,” a break from work at 11:00 A.M. for a round of drink. Working class men routinely stopped at the tavern for a “few drops” on their way to work in the morning, and again on the way home. This would lead to spending the evening at the tavern. Liquor was a regular feature of all social gatherings, public as well as private (e.g., the Muster Day). It was distributed liberally at the polls by all candidates, including the distinguished Founding Fathers, who understood that the winner was usually the biggest spender on drink (hence the ban in some jursidictions on selling alcohol on election day). Alcoholic beverages were found in the courts, where they were shared by attorneys from both sides, the jury, and even the judge. Women consumed spirits nearly as much as men and children were encouraged to start drinking at an early age.

There were many reasons for the prevalence of alcohol consumption among Americans. First off, grain was plentiful and easy to grow, but difficult and expensive to transport. Farmers west of the Appalachians found themselves with enormous surpluses of grain and only one way to make money from it: to distill it into whiskey. Plentiful whiskey resulted in cheap whiskey, and cheap whiskey resulted in increased consumption. The difference in price between distilled grain and raw grain was the reason for the Whisky Rebellion, an event that showed the economic importance of whisky manufacture (as well as Rum and sugar).

Drink served a social purposes by strengthening relationships (especially among men), a rite of passage from youth to adulthood, and as a way of expressing a particularly American notion of egalitarianism, since all men indeed seemed created equal when one was drunk. This latter idea was sometimes put into practice in unmistakable terms: any man who refused to drink might be shunned, insulted, or even physically assaulted, presumably because he thought himself “above” the leveling influence of alcohol.

No wonder the temperence movement was able to achieve prohibition and still maintain vestiges of it in the US.

Further Reading:
Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

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Posted 06/10/2010 by lacithedog in Ale, ardent spirits, temperance, whisky

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