A Heavy Drinking Age – Spirits and the Shakers

Spirits, or distilled liquor, were consumed so enthusiastically during the 1790’s (and before and after) that tourists and important men alike began to decry the habit. The U. S. was a nation of drunkards. Even George Washington, a whiskey distiller himself, referred to the heavy drinking as the ruin of half the workman.

Where did we get into such a pickle? Well, part of it was cultural. Cotton Mather (he of Puritan fame) declared “Drink itself to be a creature of God.”

Water tended to be dangerous. It could be contaminated or just plain unappetizing. In Natchez water from the Mississippi River had to be set aside so the sediment could settle. (Yum!) Milk was unpasturized and if the cow ate jimson weed it was poisoness. Alcoholic beverages, and I include hard cider, were safe. Also, corn and rye could be transported from the western frontier (like Pittsbugh in 1793) to the east in the form of whiskey and sold for four or more times the price for the grain itself. And without much more cost in transportation.

In times where the food supply could be erratic. alcoholic beverages accounted for a significant proportion of the day’s calories. In the early days of the eighteenth centure, the favorite tipple was rum; sweet and alcoholic. But after the Revolution, it was declared unpatriotic and people switched to whiskey. Rum was made from molasses and while distilled in Maine and Massachusetts at first, began to be distilled in the West Indies. Whiskey, on the other hand, was All-American; the grain grown in the US and distilled here as well.

Everyone drank. Ben Franklin is quoted as saying If God wanted men to drink water He would not have given him an elbow to bend the wine glass. Toddlers were put to sleep with whiskey or given the sugary residue in the bottom of the glass. (This makes my hair stand on end!) But of course there was a double standard. Women were not to been seen intoxicated.

Some primary sources quote men like John Adams complaining about the length it took to get something built. One day’s work earned a man enough to stay drunk all week. So they worked one day out of seven.

As might be expected, early opposition to drink came from the Quakers, most particulary from Anthony Benezet who attacked slavery and rum at the same time. Quakers had already begun to practice restraint before him and by 1777 they were ordered to no longer sell distilled spirits nor to distill them. The Methodists saw drinking as a barrier to purifying the church and society so they joined the Quakers. The Shakers, as a splinter group, also practised retraint and drank mainly water (that they trusted). The Shakers were famous for their cider which went from ‘kind’ to hard’ very rapidly in an age before refrigeration.

The chorus against such heavy drinking began to grown, spurred by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor who concentrated upon the health benefits of abstinence. Another doctor, a Dr. Thomas Calawalder, had identified rum as the cause of an illness called the Dry Gripes. The rum that was aged in lead casks caused lead poisoning. Interestingly enough, the doctors recommended drinking cider (which is still alcoholic) and beer (which is more complicated to make than you might think.

For more information, both depressing and fascinating, read “Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition” by W. J. Rorabaugh.


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