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.