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CHANGE AND REVOLUTION CREATED PROBLEMS
As the colonies grew from a rural society into a more urban one, drinking patterns began to change. Rum became increasingly popular. As the American Revolution approached, economic change and urbanization were accompanied by increasing poverty, unemployment, and crime. These emerging social problems were often blamed on drunkenness. "This simplistic scapegoating of an intoxicant . . . now seems a predictable accompaniment of social unrest and economic problems. The basic scenario has been repeated often-opium, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, each takes its turn as demon for a day" (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 15).
Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation experienced cataclysmic social, political, and economic changes that affected every segment of the new society. Social control over alcohol abuse declined, antidrunkenness ordinances were relaxed and alcohol problems increased dramatically. Drinking, which had been controlled by the tightly knit family and social fabric in the colonial period, increasingly became an individualistic activity associated with masculine aggression and antisocial behavior by the early nineteenth century (Peele, 1987, p. 69). Alcohol use became segregated by gender and age, which encouraged excessive consumption, and concern was frequently expressed over immoderate drinking. "As community life in the colonies became less cohesive and structured, the social sanctions that had kept drunkenness to a minimum began to lose their power (Schlaadt, 1992, p. 9).
The Revolution had caused a shift in the beverages consumed. When the British blockade had prevented the importation of sugar and molasses, and thereby disrupted the production of rum, a substitute was sought to meet the demand for spirits in general and for provisions for the Revolutionary Army in particular. It was found in whiskey produced largely by Scot-Irish immigrants who had settled on the frontier (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 135).
Even before the Revolution, whiskey had become the preferred way to use surplus grains in the frontier settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. The expansion of a corn belt in Kentucky and Ohio had created a corn glut. There were no roads in the region and most transportation was by packhorse. It cost more to transport corn or grain than it could bring on the eastern markets, so farmers distilled it into "liquid assets" that could easily be shipped or bartered. Practically every farmer made whiskey and it became a medium of exchange (Roueche, 1960, pp. 39^0). One wrote that "Distant from a permanent market, and separate from the Eastern coasts by mountains, we have no means of bringing the product of our lands to sale either by grain or meal. We are therefore distillers" (Rorabaugh, 1979, p. 54).
By 1810, there were at least 2,000 distillers producing more than two million gallons of whiskey (Roueche, 1960, p. 42). By the 1820s, whiskey sold for twenty- five cents a gallon, making it cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk (Rorabaugh, 1991, p. 17). Annual consumption may have been as high as ten gallons per person (Clark, 1976, p. 20; Asbury, 1968, p. 12). 4
This level of consumption was over four times the current rate. However,"liquor tended to be taken in small quantities throughout the day, often with meals. Instead of a morning coffee break, Americans stopped work at 11:00 a.m. to drink. A lot of work went undone but in this slow paced, preindustrial age this was not always a problem. A drunken stage coach driver posed little threat, since the horses knew the route and made their own way home" (Rorabaugh, 1991, p. 17).
But not all was well. Writing at the time, the famous observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, suggested that the sudden disappearance of traditional boundaries left people bereft and disoriented (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 136), with negative consequences for social control.
Describing the traditional mechanism that had earlier controlled drinking abuse, Aaron and Musto (1981, p. 137) have pointed out that:
Sanctions to regulate conduct, operating within an overall context of civic cohesiveness, were intended to shame the offender before the community. The stocks or the wearing of the letter "D" subjected the drunkard to ridicule, and such ceremonies of public humiliation were assumed to have a deterrent power. However, with frenzied economic and geographic mobility, exile became self-imposed. The rootless individual, seeking his fortune, living by his own wits, and answerable to no social superior, became celebrated as the national character ideal. The stable, self-policing community was demolished; the forms of behavioral management that grew out of an inherited concept of reciprocal rights and obligations became obsolete.
They (p. 137) explain that:
the combination of precipitate and bewildering change unmoored people from their sense of place, both social and physical. We do know that there was more drinking of hard liquor in settings that no longer even offered the pretense of other activities. The tavern or inn, where food and lodging provided a milieu that militated against intense drinking, gave way almost exclusively to the grogshop, essentially an early version of the saloon. Drinking became detached from earlier safeguards. And whereas before this process of detachment had provoked attempts to reassert controls, efforts at regulation became increasingly listless and ineffectual.
Solitary drinking, unencumbered by social control, increased during this time. "A sizeable number of Americans for the first time began to drink to excess by themselves. The solo binge was a new pattern of drinking in which periods of abstinence were interspersed every week, month, or season with one to three-day periods of solitary inebriation" (Rorabaugh, 1979, p. 144). "Middle- and upper- class Americans cut back their drinking drastically because it was no longer considered appropriate for an industrious life. As alcohol was eliminated from the ordinary daily routines of the middle class, when people did drink, they were more likely to go on binges where they drank all out" (Peele, 1989, p. 36).
For more on societal disorganization and alcohol abuse, visit What Causes Alcohol Abuse.
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