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Americans have long had a love-hate relationship with alcohol, and per capita consumption has tended to run in long-term cycles. Men, especially white men, have always been heavy users. When the first European explorers sailed along the Atlantic Coast in the 1500s, they traded beer, wine, and hard liquor with the local inhabitants. Some Native American tribes brewed beer for ceremonial purposes, but none knew how to distill hard liquor. Prior to white contact, alcohol was used sparingly.

After the English founded Virginia in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620, they regularly imported alcoholic beverages both for the Indian trade and for their own use. During the 1600s, colonists obtained increasing quantities of West Indian rum or molasses for distillation. In general, most drinking at this time took place at home. Housewives brewed weak beer, and farmers in the northern colonies routinely pressed apples into hard cider. Alcoholic beverages were often safer than water because alcohol naturally killed dangerous bacteria commonly found in water.

By the time of the Revolution in 1776, Americans were in the midst of the first cyclical upswing in drinking. They consumed large quantities of alcohol, mostly cider and rum. Some, like John Adams, began each day with a tankard of cider. Many took a mixture of rum, sugar, and water as a beverage with every meal. Men drank far more than women. Children received watered versions of this compound. Most people believed that alcohol increased strength and improved health. The only upper limit on consumption was availability. Both farm owners and urban employers gave hired hands rum-and-water beverages with meals and during morning and afternoon work breaks.

Taverns played an important role in American life. Originally licensed primarily to serve travelers, public houses were also community centers where local men drank socially, shared news, debated politics, and even attended court sessions. Each customer was expected to buy a round, which was called "treating," and bowls of alcoholic drink were freely passed around. No one knew about germs.

Whiskey Leads to Temperance

The Revolution brought change. When the British cut off rum and molasses imports, Americans began to distill whiskey from Indian corn using grain-distilling technology brought by recently arrived Scots-Irish immigrants. Rum, like tea, was imported and unpatriotic, while whiskey was celebrated as the new national beverage. After 1800, Americans settled the Midwest Corn Belt, the price of corn dropped, and whiskey cost 25 cents per gallon, which was cheaper than rum, cider, beer, milk, tea, or coffee. Whiskey consumption soared, and by the 1820s, the peak of the first cycle, Americans drank about three times as much alcohol as today. The typical adult white male consumed a half pint of whiskey a day. Most liquor was taken at home as a beverage with meals rather than for recreation.

High consumption led to binge drinking, increased public drunkenness, alcohol-related crime and poverty, wife beating, and child abuse. During the 1820s, a backlash developed, as Evangelical Protestants launched the temperance movement. They denounced the "Demon Rum" and demanded that church members stop drinking. At the same time, industry flourished in the Northeast, and industrialists did not want drunken workers either to injure themselves or to wreck expensive machinery. Employers stopped providing whiskey to workers during breaks and used religious ties to hire and promote abstainers. Nonalcoholic forms of leisure emerged with the development of parks, organized sports, libraries, museums, public lectures, soda fountains, and ice-cream parlors.

By 1850, consumption had fallen by half or more, as half the population had quit. Farmers even cut down apple trees and renounced cider. In the North's rural areas and small towns, anyone who wanted respectability had to abstain, but city dwellers resisted the antiliquor campaign.

Saloons Thrive, Immigrants Arrive

Even as drinking declined during the downswing that marked the end of the first cycle, wealthy urban men enjoyed palatial, marble-floored saloons furnished with long, carved mahogany bars, polished brass rails, impressive oil paintings (sometimes of nude women), cut-glass decanters, and boxes of expensive cigars. These establishments offered fancy mixed drinks, including the popular new cocktail, composed of whiskey, water, sugar, lemon, and bitters. Ice might be available. The gin-based martini emerged, and the first bartenders' recipe manuals were published.

After 1840, millions of Irish and German immigrants poured into America's northern cities and laid the groundwork for a later, second cycle of rising consumption. Unaffected by the temperance movement, the Irish brought a taste for whiskey, and the Germans a love of beer. The Irish quickly established saloons, which soon became the center for working-class male social life. Respectable women generally stayed away. Saloons offered friendship, entertainment, loans, information about jobs, and escape from dreary tenement apartments. They also provided the muscle and votes for city political machines. Home to many gangs, saloons often included back rooms for gambling and prostitution.

Meanwhile, immigrant Germans introduced their own style of brewing and opened suburban beer gardens where families gathered to picnic, sing, play sports, and drink beer. Immigrant drinking, including parents giving alcohol to children and serving alcohol on Sundays, angered Evangelical Protestants, who responded by trying to ban alcohol. In the 1840s, many towns and counties in the North adopted Prohibition, but local measures proved ineffective, because drinkers obtained liquor in adjacent areas. In 1851, Maine became the first state to adopt Prohibition, and while a number of states followed in the 1850s, none of these states stayed permanently "dry."

Regional and Racial Differences

By the mid-1800s, significant regional differences in drinking could be found. The Northeast, where the Evangelical Protestant revivals had been strongest, had the highest proportion of abstainers and the lowest consumption of alcohol. The Midwest gradually adopted the same antiliquor pattern. In contrast, the West, home to many single men, had the highest consumption. Rowdy male drinking had prevailed on the frontier from the earliest days to the infamous, violence-prone saloons along the cattle trails after the Civil War. Until the very late 1800s, the West, with the exception of Mormon-dominated Utah, showed little restraint.

On the other hand, the hard-drinking South turned against alcohol after the Civil War ended in 1865. In earlier years, southern Baptists, in particular, had rarely attacked alcohol, perhaps because so many temperance leaders were Yankees who also opposed slavery. By 1900, antiliquor forces largely controlled the rural South, where they either established local option Prohibition or adopted a policy of charging high fees for liquor licenses, which limited the number of outlets. Since 1900, the South has been the region of the country both with the lowest per capita consumption of alcohol and with the highest production of moonshine (illegal, untaxed liquor).

African Americans have always been light drinkers. Slaves were legally prohibited from drinking, although planters often provided liquor for a week's merriment between Christmas and New Year's. Even after slavery ended, many blacks continued to abstain. Poverty discouraged use, and so did the black church. Today, African American consumption is low, and a high proportion of black women are abstainers. Mexican Americans and Asian Americans also have been light drinkers. Native Americans have a high proportion of both abstainers and problem drinkers.

Women Oppose Liquor

From the beginning of the antiliquor crusade in the early 1800s, women played a major role. In 1873, women staged "pray-ins" to force saloons to close, and after 1875 the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an organization that eventually grew to be the nation's largest, with more than a million members, worked to ban alcohol anywhere and everywhere. In the early 1900s, Carrie Nation used an axe to smash several saloons in a direct-action campaign. Given the power of the WCTU and its allies, respectable women avoided alcohol. Schoolteachers were fired for taking a drink. Women, however, could sneak drinks at home, although female consumption overall was probably less than half that for males. Many women did use patent medicines, including Lydia Pinkham's Elixir for Female Complaints, which turned out to be highly alcoholic.

During the Civil War, the federal government imposed a high tax on distilled liquor, and after the war Americans gradually switched from expensive whiskey to cheaper beer. By 1890, beer predominated. European immigration and urbanization were accompanied by a second cycle of increasing alcohol consumption that peaked around 1900–1915. Saloons became "tied" houses; that is, brewers who provided financing dictated that a saloon could sell only one brand of beer. Working-class saloons regularly offered a "free lunch" with the purchase of a glass of beer for 5 cents. The lunch might be pickles, pretzels, and other salty foods designed to encourage drinking, or it might be more substantial fare, such as roast beef, potato salad, and raw oysters. Many poorly paid women workers ate the free lunches, although they usually entered through the rear and sat together in a back room in order to avoid scandal.

After 1870, there was also a modest increase in wine drinking. Although Thomas Jefferson and others had experimented with wine grapes in the early 1800s, few Americans drank wine at that time. By the 1840s, most Protestant churches had turned against wine, including communion wine. They argued that the wine of the Bible did not contain alcohol. Communion meant grape juice. With the acquisition of California in 1848, the United States gained a significant wine-growing area. Italian and French immigrants established vineyards that encouraged ordinary Californians to drink wine. In the rest of the country, only the wealthy could afford expensive, imported European wine, which cost more than whiskey. Most saloons sold wine, but it was often whiskey cut with water and food coloring.

National Prohibition Is Adopted

After 1900, antiliquor forces, led by the politically influential Anti-Saloon League, pushed for national Prohibition as a way to purge the country of alcohol. The hard-liquor industry, which had been discredited by cheating on taxes in the Whiskey Ring in 1875, was unable to mount effective opposition. Brewers, however, along with their powerful urban saloon allies, blocked Prohibition until the United States entered World War I against Germany. Then the brewers lost their influence amid anti-German hysteria. First adopted as a wartime emergency measure in 1917, Prohibition was added to the U.S. Constitution with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920. The ban was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

Prohibition ended the second cycle with a new low, as the per capita consumption of alcohol probably dropped in half. Drinking styles also changed. In many places, beer disappeared. Bootleggers preferred hard liquor because it was less bulky and easier to hide. Hard liquor was imported from Canada or Europe or distilled illegally in ways that could be dangerous. Even when not deadly, bathtub gin tasted foul. It was usually mixed with fruit juice or soft drinks. Saloons gave way to speakeasies, which paid off the police. To gain entry, customers had to know the password or sign. Patrons drank alcohol in coffee cups, so evidence could be gulped down quickly in case of a raid, and women were welcome since it reduced male rowdiness and helped camouflage the speakeasy. Americans who preferred privacy drank in hotel rooms, where bellhops provided liquor. Social drinking at home became more fashionable, too, since police rarely raided private residences.

New Drinking Styles After Repeal

The nation's drinking habits had changed; when repeal came in 1933, the old-time saloon did not return. Many states opted for sale of hard liquor in state stores for home use only, but even in states like New York, Illinois, and California, which issued many licenses for on-premise consumption, the all-male saloon gave way to bars that catered to both men and women. State and local regulation was robust. Every state imposed a minimum age for drinking; usually it was twenty-one. Most states monitored advertising, set prices, fixed hours, collected high license fees, limited the number of licenses, and controlled the kind of entertainment that took place where alcohol was sold.

During the 1930s, most traditionally dry religious groups gave up the effort to ban drinking. The alcohol industry, however, feared the antiliquor forces and purchased goodwill by funding research about drinking. Scientific interest in alcohol grew with the emergence of the concept of alcoholism as a disease. In a related development, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1935. This self-help group's Twelve Step method to gain and maintain sobriety became a model for many organizations fighting various addictions. AA also offered important fellowship to its members that substituted for saloon camaraderie.

In the 1930s, alcohol consumption remained low, partly because many Americans who came of age during the 1920s never took up drinking and partly because the poor economy during the Depression discouraged consumption. Beer remained the cheapest and most popular beverage. An increasing quantity of beer was sold in bottles or cans at grocery stores for home consumption. American whiskey had to compete with Canadian and Scotch whiskies, which were quickly available while the domestic product was being aged. Vintners took many years to replant the acres lost during Prohibition.

Drinking Increases After World War II

A third cyclical upswing began when alcohol consumption rose during World War II, and it might have increased even more if there had not been wartime shortages caused by the use of alcohol for industrial and military purposes. After the war, veterans and their wives became a hard-drinking generation. The film Days of Wine and Roses (1962) portrays this era. Restaurants increasingly sought full bar licenses, and cities and states gradually loosened restrictions. The last three dry states—Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi—ended Prohibition by the late 1960s, although rural counties in many states still remain "dry" as a local option.

During the 1950s, Anheuser-Busch reached men by sponsoring sports on television and became the leading brewer, but per capita beer consumption began to rise only as the baby boomers born after World War II attained drinking age in the late 1960s. Hard liquor stayed off television, and wine advertisements appeared there only in the late 1960s. Per capita wine consumption rose during the 1970s. Lightly taxed wine was cheaper than hard liquor, taking wine with meals or with marijuana gained popularity, and sweet wine coolers were introduced.

After 1945, whiskey consumption fell, and while Scotch rose at first, after the mid-1960s all darker liquors declined, while fruit-flavored vodka, gin, or light rumbased mixed drinks such as daiquiris grew in popularity. So did tequila-based margaritas, honored by Jimmy Buffett's song "Margaritaville" (1977). By the 1970s, both restaurants and home consumers favored premixed cocktails that guaranteed consistency. The 1970s brought increasing numbers of singles bars for both straights and gays, until AIDS and other diseases challenged the practice of liquor-induced easy sex. Men had long plied women with alcohol as a means to reduce female sexual inhibitions.

Alcohol Declines After 1981

The third alcohol consumption cycle peaked in 1981. From 1981 to 1999, per capita hard-liquor sales plummeted about 40 percent, although some of this decline was due to the fact that statisticians counted lighter premixed beverages that replaced hard liquor as wine. Per capita wine consumption rose until 1986, and then declined about 20 percent by 1999. Per capita beer consumption also dropped, but only about 10 percent from the 1981 peak. In the 1990s, major beer brands lost market share to imports and microbrews, and brew pubs became popular in many cities.

The drop in alcohol consumption since 1981 has several explanations. Throughout American history, drinking has gone in cycles, and the country's most recent cycle has now entered into decline. Demographics have played a role. Both baby boomers and their parents were hard drinkers, but many boomers preferred beer and, to a lesser extent, wine to their parents' stronger mixed drinks made with hard liquor. Then, too, boomers by the 1980s were mostly in their thirties, an age when alcohol consumption begins to decline. The generation that came of age in the 1990s drank less, in part because it included fewer whites, who have been the nation's heaviest drinkers. Most recent immigrants have been from countries with light-drinking traditions, such as Mexico, the Philippines, and China.

New Attitudes Toward Alcohol

Attitudes have also changed. By the 1970s, there was growing public concern about the role of alcohol in automobile accidents. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), founded in 1980, successfully lobbied for tougher state and federal laws. States reduced the amount of blood alcohol that a driver could legally have from .15 to .08. For some small-bodied adults, two drinks might exceed the lower limit. Many states raised taxes on alcohol. Congress coerced the states to set the drinking age at twenty-one, and steps were taken to discourage underage drinking. Many states passed "zero tolerance" laws that imposed harsh penalties, including mandatory jail time, on underage drinkers.

In addition, colleges restricted traditional fraternity drinking parties, and date rape, often involving alcohol, became an issue. Bars were sued for allowing drunken customers to drive home, and insurers began to require bars to confiscate car keys from suspected drunks. The idea of the abstinent "designated driver" took root, and many bars in restaurants reported that alcohol sales dropped by more than half. Per capita alcohol consumption has declined the most in formerly hard-drinking states such as New York and California.

Health issues also became important. Although some studies show that a small daily amount of alcohol, especially red wine, might benefit the heart, most recent scientific investigations have focused on alcohol's negative aspects. Research in the 1980s suggested that a surprisingly small number of drinks could be harmful to a fetus, and pregnant women were advised to abstain. Bars and bottles began to carry warning labels. At the same time, the use of prescription drugs has exploded, and many drugs are incompatible with drinking.

Between the 1980s and early 2000s, schools developed major programs against tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Smoking and drinking have declined together. Both are no longer fashionable, as can be seen from their negative portrayal in popular television shows or movies. Espresso, cell phones, and the Internet have redefined a hectic business world without three-martini lunches. At the same time, Americans have increasingly embraced leisure in more physically active ways. Jogging, active sports, fitness clubs, backpacking, and dieting have all gained in popularity. Sweating has supplanted drinking, at least for the moment.

See also: Bars, Coffee Houses and Café Society, Diners, Dining Out, Prohibition and Temperance


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