Our Soggy Founders


This morning Radley Balko noted a Gallup poll that found a larger percentage of Americans are drinking nowadays that in any year since 1985. In truth, though, the drinking rate has not changed very much since Gallup began asking about alcohol consumption in 1939. The rate that year was 58 percent, compared to 67 percent this year (which is also the level reported right after World War II). "Despite some yearly fluctuations," the polling organization reports, "the percentage of Americans who say they drink alcohol has been remarkably stable over Gallup's 71 years of tracking it." The rate dipped into the 50s in just four of those years (1938, 1958, 1989, and 1997); otherwise it has ranged between 60 percent and 71 percent (a peak hit in 1976 and maintained through 1978).

A more interesting data series is per capita alcohol consumption, which covers a longer period and indicates how heavily people were drinking. In their indispensable 1982 book Drinking in America, Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin report that "the period from the 1790s to the early 1830s was probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation's history." They estimate that per capita alcohol consumption among people 15 or older rose from 5.8 gallons in 1790 to 7.1 gallons in 1810 and remained at that level until 1830 at least. (These numbers convert various alcoholic beverages to gallons of pure ethanol.) By contrast, per capita consumption was about 2.1 gallons in 1850 and about 2.3 in 2007.

Despite what today looks like heavy drinking, Lender and Martin write, "America's colonists were not problem drinkers—at least not if social policy directed at alcohol abuse is any indication….The provincials heard little public outcry against alcoholism….A general lack of anxiety over alcohol problems was one of the most significant features of drinking in the colonial era." That changed after the American Revolution, when social and economic changes simultaneously loosened the communal constraints that had deterred drunken misbehavior, created anxieties that encouraged people to drink more, and made drinking throughout the day (especially at work) more problematic.

Notably, the dramatic decline in drinking from the early 1800s to the middle of that century occurred without legal coercion. Maine, the first state to ban alcoholic beverages, did not do so until 1851. Furthermore, per capita consumption was already declining before National Alcohol Prohibition took effect in 1920, and it climbed only gradually after the 18th Amendment was repealed at the end of 1933, hitting its current level in the mid-1940s before falling again, rising back to 2.3 or so gallons in the mid 1960s, and continuing up to a peak of nearly 2.8 gallons in 1980 and 1981.

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  1. I wonder what role other available beverages played.

    The old beer is safer than water notion.

  2. This morning Radley Balko noted a Gallup poll that found a larger percentage of Americans are drinking nowadays that in any year since 1985. In truth, though, the drinking rate has not changed very much since Gallup began asking about alcohol consumption in 1939.

    Gallup is now following their cues from the East Anglia School of Shoddy Statistics, Jacob.

  3. the period from the 1790s to the early 1830s was probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation’s history

    No wonder. In addition to hmm’s point above, there was no machinery, and nothing really traveled faster than 12 miles per hour. People were hammered all day because they could be, and it probably made pioneer life bearable.

    1. Not to mention the women.

      1. It would be horrible having to be a woman back then dealing with men–they definitely needed a drink or seven.

    2. Also, I wonder how alcohol consumption was calculated–was it how much alcohol was bought (consumed) or how much was drunk (consumed)? There were many uses for alcohol back in the day for medicine, mechanical lubricants, cleaning, etc.

      Also, there is no greater leisure activity than day drinking.

      1. “mechanical lubricants”

        Yeah, that’s the ticket!

        1. Robot Astroglide?

          1. Chafing can lead to sparks. Fire hazard.

            1. Well, you definitely shouldn’t be lubricating with alcohol then.

              1. Actually, I think pre-petroleum industry most lubricants were animal or vegetable oils.

                In the eighteen-twenties people were bitching about being oppressed by Big Whale. I’m sure that lead to a lot of drinking.

                1. Whale oil is still used today.

                2. That was pretty funny.

    3. The rise of the industrial state is one of the things that ended our liquor habit and started our coffee habit. You can’t run a big machine drunk, be that a tractor or a industrial mill or loom, drunk.

      1. You can’t run a big machine drunk

        Automobiles exempted, of course.

      2. You haven’t met a true mick.

        1. A factory foreman in Russia is taking a survey of the workers in his plant about their alcohol use. He walks up to the first guy and asks “Could you operate your machine on two shots of Vodka?” The worker looks thoughtful for a moment and nods, “Da.” The foreman asks “What about four?” The man again looks thoughtful, then nods, “Da.” The foreman makes a note of it and asks, “Well how about ten?” The worker looks at him and answers “Well I’m here, aren’t I?”

          Not the funniest, but apropos I thought.

          1. You have no idea how apropos that is.

      3. “You can’t run a big machine drunk…”

        I’ve met some russians who would disagree. A friend brought me to meet them because he wanted to prove americans could drink just as well as they could. I kept up for 10 beers, then bowed out, suggesting we try this again on a weekend.

        me: “can’t get any drunker. have a paper due in a few hours that I still need to write.”

        russian: “I go work in few hours. I still drink.”

        me: “like anyone’s got to be sober to go to work.”

        russian: “I drive forklift full of toxic chemical”

        1. “You can’t run a big machine drunk…”

          Back in the days when I was a laborer (70’s), I worked in a factory that made industrial floor sweepers. We used to go to a local bar for lunch. I went there for the hamburgers, but a few of the boys went there to throw back doublr screwdrivers. It was common for them to drink four of them in 1/2 hour and then head back to the punch presses and grinders.

          1. I had a chance to observe structural ironworkers at work in the 70s.

            Lunch for a lot of them was six beers (drafts in a pub – 10 oz glasses IIANM – slightly less than a 12 oz stubby anyway).

            And that was only because that was all they could manage in the half-hour (travel time included) they had for lunch with the two drinks per person on the table limit imposed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

            1. yeah but ironworkers need the alcohol to give them that steady hand with the torch.

        2. Noooo, never dare a Russian to drink! They consider beer a soda, something to accompany vodka.
          Even the women would handle 10 beers, or their ethanol equivalent.

      4. Story time!

        When in civil service I worked with an Irish guy who had been there for 30ish years. He had no license and refused to get one because the way the city code was written it would require him to take a drug/alcohol test randomly. His name was Kenny, but he went by Mick. He was a classic Irish drunk, he truly mastered the parody of his heritage. He could function at the highest of levels completely fucking blitzed. I was as impressed as I was worried.

        Plus he was the meanest old motherfucker you could ever meet. He worked in the yard where police would fuel their cars. One cop almost hit him pulling into the yard, they usually drove like tards, and he started a fight with the 20 year old cop. He was at least 65 when he did this.

        I loved that mean old bastard.

    4. People weren’t getting hammered. They drank alcoholic beverages because drinking the water could kill you.

      1. Or you could say it the opposite way , those who drank water died and so this increased the percentage of those who were alcohol drinkers

    5. The lack of transportation also encouraged the production of hard liquor. If you had a ton of rye and corn but couldn’t ship it more than a few miles before it went bad, your alternative was to turn it into booze that would last a lot longer (not to mention take up a lot less room in a wagon or boxcar).

      1. Ummm, dried grains store extremely well. The point of turning them into liquor was both to boost their value and to reduce the shipping costs by reducing weight and volume (shipping could be damned expensive back then, due to animal power and bad or non-existent roads).

        1. My bad on the grains going bad part. Given the amount of malt in my house right now you’d think I’d know better than to make that mistake. Of course, that’s what I get for posting before I’ve had my first breakfast stout.

          1. One of my malt containers is empty. I had to *shudder* buy a single brews worth of base malt this last week. Being out of Marris Otter, I decided to go old-school and use American 2-row for a nut brown and wasnt going to buy a full bag of it.

        2. Shipping costs only works for high proof liquors.

          I get 5 gallons of 10 proof beer from 10# of grain. So 10#->40#.

          The break-even weight point is at 40 proof. And liquid is harder to transport than grain. Sure for 80-100+ proof liquors, it probably makes sense for shipping reasons. But I dont think its THAT large a factor.

          1. I would think that when shipping was a big issue you would ship distilled spirits in the highest proof possible. There’s sure to be water to cut it with wherever it’s going.

            It still happens today with some things. Orange juice concentrate is shipped from Brazil to processing plants in the US where it is diluted and the finished product shipped the shorter distance to retailers. Pisses Florida producers off no end.

  4. Off-topic but fits with prohibition.

    1. And thus, we finally know Warty’s true identity.

  5. So, let’s see here, 2.5 gallons of alcohol per year translates to:

    (1) 5 gallons of 100 proof booze (50% alcohol), or just 25 fifths.

    (2) 50 gallons of 10 proof beer (5% alcohol), or just over 22 cases of beer.

    Dang. I am underperforming.

    1. To the bar!!!

    2. Or the garage, shed, basement…

    3. That’s only a beer and a half every day. Extremely doable.

      1. I average about 2 a day, so 22 cases a year is no problem.

        1. Uh, 2 beers, not 2 cases. Of course, when I was in the .mil, a 12 pack a night was not unusual.

      2. If you want to get to the 7.1 gallons of the early 1800’s, that’s about 5 Light beers (12oz each) every day. That’s a pretty good clip I’d say, especially when you factor all of the non-drinkers or light drinkers into the equation. They were representing. The Czech’s only drink about 1.25 a day and they have the highest consumption rate in the world.

        1. During revolutionary times, the primary alcholic beverage was apple cider. It was common to drink cider with every meal. They also made lots of fruit wines with native berries and imported sugar. Beer was not a big thing until the Germans arrived during the industrial revolution. Then it became the most common drink in the big cities.

        2. that’s beacuase beer is cheaper than water in Prague.

    4. I make more than 50 gallons of beer per year. Lots of it gets shared, but with what I buy and wine and bourbon, Im probably pulling the average up a bit.

      1. I make way more alcohol than I drink. I drink a scotch on occasion and wine with dinner sometimes. I rarely drink beer. While I’m not pulling the average up I am facilitating some of those that are.

        1. You’re in the same boat as another poster here, who I shall not name. He made a deal with the devil with respect to home brewing and you could say it is paying off.

      2. I cut way back last year — only 14 carboys of wine and mead.

        1. Thats right about my average – 70 or so gallons a year.

          Im at 40 already this year, with at least 30 more planned. Ive never pushed the 100 gallon legal limit, but might get close this year.

          1. With a wife in the house I can go to 200. I made up to about 170 one year.

    5. Last night, I had a double-martini, chased later with a beer, which got me nagged with “why don’t you have more to drink?”

      So, I did. Self-medication FTW.

    6. That works out to less than a drink per day per person. Does this average include women, children, and infants? And how did they get this figure? From people self-reporting numbers and thus lying a lot, or from totaling the reported alcohol production of various manufacturers, thus missing homebrewers and smaller outfits who declined to give away trade secrets?

      The numbers seem way low.

      1. OK, early morning math fail (six hours earlier than the DC time stamp here in Hawaii — a drink and a half a day it is.

        Still seems low for an average.

    7. The founding fathers drank cider. Beer didn’t make an appearanc until the industrial revolution brought the Germans to the US.

      1. Other than, you know, Franklin and etc making beer.

        Cider was more popular but there was beer pre-IR. Mostly because there were germans pre-IR. Also, the Brits liked beer.

        1. Sorry for the sloppy post.

          Anyone that had an apple tree had cider. Malting grain and making beer was not as common among casual drinkers. It wasn’t until beer became easy to mass produce that it surpassed cider as the drink of hte commoners.

          1. And the beer that was popular among the commoners was the Berliner Weisse style.

  6. “It’s right cold up here in this wagon alone, Mordechai.”
    “…I say, it’s?”
    “I heared ye. Reloadin’.”

  7. Craze is a great history on drinking, prohibitionism (and the mindset behind it) and the 18th century. It’s about Britain, but for obvious reasons, it’s quite relevant now.

    1. “…relevant here and now.”

  8. for a magazine called Reason you sure do like to drink

    1. Thats not even fair.

  9. I should hope people are drinking more… we have more (and cheaper) access to a diverse array of incredible beer, wine and spirits than anybody in history!

    1. Plus a Liquor Fairy to deliver to our homes for free.

      Or maybe thats just me.

      Sucks to be you if you dont have a Liquor Fairy.

      1. Reasons the Liquor Fairy is better than Santa Clause:

        1. Liquor – duh.
        2. No list, she doesnt care if you’ve been good or bad. Heck, bad may get you more liquor.
        3. Chimneys arent involved.
        4. No set time of year.
        5. She doesnt hide her home in remote locations so you can get booze between deliveries.
        6. Unlike Santa, she isnt mythical.

        1. Claus even. There are probably a billion reasons she is better than that movie.

        2. 7. No elves union.

          1. Actually, I think there is.

  10. “Our Soggy Founders”

    Wait a minute, the statistics you quote say that alcohol consumption went up *after* 1790* – meaning that the Constitution had already been ratified.* So it was those entrusted with *administering* the Constitution who were drinking more heavily than those who *adopted* the Constitution.

    This might explain how certain ‘misconstructions’ crept into the interpretation of our country’s foundational legal document – like the broad view of the ‘necessary and proper’ clause, the Alien and Sedition Act, etc.

    *The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, at the beginning of the period in question, so they hadn’t had time to greatly increase their boozing. As to the other amendments – the quality varied.

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