Drinking in Early America

early american stillAlcohol undoubtedly played a significant role in the daily lives of colonists. Numerous reasons existed to justify the colonists' drinking habits: a fear of a polluted water supply, a belief in alcohol's nourishing and medicinal properties, and its role in warming them in a cold climate. Drinks served at mealtimes made steady drinkers out of everyone, even children. Workers and farmers took breaks in the workday for their dram to relieve tedium and ease physical pain. Social and political events, such as weddings, funerals, and elections, invariably had alcohol on hand. However, for all the alcohol consumed, drinking was a family- and community-oriented activity.

The first settlers brought with them the Anglo tradition of beer drinking, and local production was soon needed to meet the demand. With the increasing number of taverns in colonial America, demand for beer outstripped the supply from home brewing and importation from England. Commercial breweries quickly sprung up in the larger cities to quench the colonists' thirst.

As these settlers adapted to their new world, so did their drinking habits. Many spirits made at home used local ingredients, such as hard cider in the North and peach brandy in the South. With the rise in distilling at the start of the 18th century, rum became an important trading and economic product for the colonies until embargoes after the Revolution affected rum trading.

The opening of the frontier in the early republic provided more acres of land for the growing of grain, and whisky was easily distilled. Besides being a cheap and plentiful commodity, whiskey was also easier to transport than grain.

Taking the Pledge

advertisement for bittersThe early republic was a time of social and political instability. Fearing anarchy, many leaders began to promote temperance as a way to ensure a virtuous and sober citizenry. Temperance was seen as a solution after Dr. Benjamin Rush called alcoholism a disease in his revolutionary work "An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body," which was published in 1784. The movement picked up steam throughout the 19th century as it was linked with various other reform and religious movements. However, the movement divided into two camps: one believing that only hard liquor (not wine and beer) was harmful, and another calling themselves "teetotalers" for completely abstaining from all alcohol.

The Maine Law of 1851 made the sale of liquor a crime, and several other states followed with prohibition laws of their own. One respectable way of continuing drinking in the late 19th century was to take one's "medicine." Bitters contained various amounts of alcohol and were advertised to help cure many complaints.

A national movement was under way and culminated in the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920, which banned the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. The amendment was later repealed in 1933.

More Library Exhibitions...

All Rights Reserved