The Drunkest Time in American History

For a lot of us, the Great Quarantine of 2020 has left the home bar stocks a bit more depleted. We have some more time on our hands, we’re not driving anywhere, and then there’s this whole overarching combination of fear and ennui – and that’s just the days when we don’t have Zoom happy hours. I would bet money that our national average alcohol consumption is trending upwards. Try as we might though, there is no way on earth that 2020 will touch 1820. In 1820, we were just about to crest an immense wave of alcohol consumption the likes of which we haven’t seen since. Check it out:

We’re not even halfway there! Drinking has continued to slowly rise in the years after this particular graph ends, but we’re still around 2.8 gallons per person per year. That’s 4 gallons less than the 1820s.

We were clearly heavy drinkers from the beginning, but in the early 1800s it got extra special. That bump came mostly from a shift in style of consumption: we fell out of love with hard cider and in love with whiskey. Here’s liquor consumption in that era:

Source: Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic

It’s an epic spike, a wild fluctuation in our intake of our favorite drug. For something like that to happen, you need two things: a lot of supply, and a lot of demand.

The supply part is pretty straightforward. As the 19th century started, most of the farmland east of the Appalachian Mountains had been claimed, and new pioneers had to head over them, to western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky. The rivers over there didn’t flow to the east, but to the west, to the Mississippi. If you wanted to haul goods east, you had to do it by horse, and it was going to take a while. Your big, heavy, bulky grain might not even be good by the time you got there. And heck, even if you did send it down to New Orleans, it might be easy getting it there, but then you had to hike the whole way back, past robbers and Indian tribes, with all your earnings on you. At the same time, advances in farming (and just the growing number of farmers) meant that there were crop surpluses everywhere. Your community didn’t need your grain, so if you wanted to sell it, you were going to have to get it to a market somehow.

So what do you do when you have to ship your product, but doing so is expensive, difficult and risky? You turn your product into something compact, durable, and guaranteed to make a profit. You turn it into whiskey. Every farmer became a distiller, whiskey production exploded, and the market was saturated. Liquor was cheap, all the more so because there were no taxes on it at this point (this is still a liquor law blog, we have to mention the law somewhere). The supply, clearly, was there.

Demand is a little more complicated. It’s gets kinda deep into the American psyche and the economic forces weighing on us at the time. To keep it short: we were in between an agricultural society and an industrial one. The generation that came of age in these years was split between the values of tradition and family and religion they saw at home, and the values of industry and ambition they saw in the public sphere. It was a confusing time to be alive. In real economic terms, too, goals that had long been attainable—owning your own farm or rising from apprentice to journeyman to master of your trade—grew increasingly out of reach for most people as land filled up and the labor market got more stratified. On top of that, this generation bore the psychological weight of American ideology. Their parents had fought a war and adopted a Constitution in the name of lofty values like Liberty and Independence, and they handed it to their kids with a firm “Here: do something great with this.” (There are a few parallels here with the “greatest generation” and the boomers.) The result was an epic national identity hunt, a crisis of conscience, and a feeling of deep insecurity about the future. The nation hit the bottle, hard. It is notable that during these years our habits shifted, from the slow, regular consumption of alcohol “for our health” (a cider with breakfast, a dram at breaks from work, a nightcap…) to binge sessions, both social and solo. We were a whole country on a decade-long bender.

Getting us out of that bender required a whole shift in our national paradigm, a new perspective that bridged our materialist/industrial and traditional/religious impulses and loosened the impossible expectation of perfect individual liberty we felt burdened with. We embraced materialism, but only when the Second Great Awakening gave that new industrial dynamic religion’s blessing. It was a complex new social fabric, and we stitched it together with new social movements that merged morality and economic progress—chief among them, at least at first, Temperance.[i] Morally, temperance attacked the social ills of alcohol abuse; economically, sober workers were better workers. National mental balance restored, and with a growing number of people speaking out about the ills of alcohol, we stopped drinking so much.

Or at least, that was part of it. Newly built aqueducts that delivered water that wouldn’t kill you were also a big reason. So too was the invention of paddle boats that could go up river, and canals that were dug to connect western farmers with eastern markets. Big investors were also getting involved in distilling and they undercut the farmers and their makeshift pot stills. Selling grain got a lot easier, and selling whiskey got harder. The culturally-induced drop in demand coincided with the economically-induced drop in supply, and alcohol consumption fell like a stone. From there it stayed pretty flat all the way to Prohibition.

It’s worth noting that we are not alone in having such a wildly drunken episode in our history. England had the famous “gin craze” in the 1700s, and places like Russia and Sweden had their moments, too. The common link between them? They all happened during that transition phase at the beginning of industrialization. Turns out that massive economic shifts will drive pretty much anybody to drink. In 2020, we can relate.[ii]

[i] The Abolition movement also rose to prominence during this time, and would, for good reason, soon overtake Temperance as a national issue.

[ii] This article draws on W.J. Rorabaugh’s great 1979 book “The Drunken Republic: An American Tradition.” A tip of the cap to Professor Rorabaugh, who passed away earlier this year.

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