Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

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Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Apr 01, 2009 10:09 am

Since I have been spending a lot of time trawling through 1800's sources on whiskey in Google Books, I would be remiss not to mention the many materials I found which either were frankly critical of whiskey or at best noncommital. I can rarely if ever recall reading a statement in a newspaper, book, pamphlet or speech that had anything positive to say about it. In general, this was true of all alcohol but obloquy was reserved especially for whiskey. There seemed to be an attitude about whiskey that can be summed up by saying that it was all or nothing: the people who drank it were viewed as drunkards or on the way to being so, and people who didn't were preserving life, health and sanity from a terrible danger. The only glimmer I found of alcohol's possible benefit was a limited recognition of its medical value, and even this diminishes as the 19th century wore on. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the well-known early 1800's physician, was a staunch opponent of liquor and many of his colleagues were no less critical.

This attitude seems broadly to have had two sources: first, temperance attitudes grounded in religious beliefs, especially (from what I can glean) of various Protestant denominations and evangelical sects; second, a non-religious, "progressive" (for lack of a better term) stance which viewed alcohol as dangerous to health, family life and public order.

I have to assume that the reality was more complex, that, then, as now, there were people, I would like to think the great majority, who used alcohol sanely and regarded it as an enhancer to civilized life. But this perspective seems absent from the admittedly non-methodical reading I have been doing. This seems the case leading right up to the creation of National Prohibition in 1919.

Thus, in some 1800's histories of Kentucky, there seemed only the barest if any reference to bourbon. Occasionally one could tell that the writer was not opposed to the rational use of spirits but did not feel able to expound on this aspect of State history. Usually, references to whiskey are limited to a recitation of production figures, and in some accounts as I say, even relating to Bourbon County, no reference is made to whiskey at all. A number of travellers' accounts (often visiting Britons), sometimes mention whiskey as a social habit but usually in critical or desultory terms. The depredations visited on Indians through the sale of alcohol to them are sometimes noted with understandable dudgeon, and this probably helped to color the view of whiskey in general.

The leading lights of society at the time - the diverse spheres of influence guiding society's course, in other words - seemed resolutely opposed to drinking and yet we know that a huge counter-current existed in the form of the large public consumption of beverage alcohol. Even though per capita use peaked in the early 1800's (the well-known book The Alcoholic Republic is superb on this aspect), alcohol's attractions never ceased especially but not only in the larger towns and cities.

The social history of the responsible use of alcohol seems largely absent in the "official" 1800's literature, the one that is whose task was to chronicle daily events, give public instruction, write recent history and otherwise describe what society was doing and what it ought to do. I find this extraordinary because as I say the anti-alcohol animus came not just from a certain religious base but also from the scientific, medical, "progressive" side of society. I wonder if perhaps this can be explained by the fact that alcohol and therefore alcohol education were poorly understood at the time. Society, becoming ever distanced from its rural, pre-industrial past, was still grappling with whether and how to include alcohol in its practices and mores.

While this was not a world-wide phenomenon, it did also reflect similar attitudes in parts of Europe then especially northern Europe including Britain. I believe that the common link was the culture of drinking spirits. Spirits had only a limited use in Southern Europe, for example. But in the Scandinavian countries, parts of Britain, Russia and America there was a parallel official concern about the abuse of alcohol and periodic attempts were made to censure or ban it. The U.S.' Maine Law, an early Prohibition effort, found an echo soon in many parts of Europe including Scandinavia. I assume that there was good reason for this concern, in that the costs of alcohol abuse were often evident and undeniable. But I find it remarkable that no sustained effort, from what I can see, was made to teach people who were resolved to drink to do so responsibly. Have one whiskey instead of half a bottle, for example. Lace it with water, sip not gulp it. Maybe have a beer instead of a whiskey. Think about how much you are consuming. And so on. You never see this kind of advice (or I didn't) in the period literature and again it seemed alcohol was viewed as a mortal danger likely to condemn to perdition anyone caught in its grasp. I accept of course that there was a tendency (and still is) in the countries mentioned, really in all countries, to abuse alcohol. It is a serious issue and needs to be taken seriously. We see this issue getting current coverage in the U.K. for example with the suggestion to impose a minimum, higher price for alcohol units sold in bars and restaurants. However, the idea of sustained, early alcohol education involving for example the public educational system seems, now as in the 1800's, not to be seen as a solution.

The flip side of what I state above is that there is almost no record of a "connoisseur's" attitude to whiskey in 1800's literature. I don't think I overstate the position to say that one interested in the different tastes of whiskey or other liquors would, under the official public view, have been regarded as someone engaged in a reprehensible, dangerous and anti-social pursuit. Rarely if ever were different brands compared, vintages assessed, opinions given. Clearly, it was regarded as irresponsible or at least not meet to write about such things publicly. An alternate literature might exist in the form of company records, diaries, private papers and other such sources of popular and social history, but society's official record seems a one-way street. It is unimaginable, for example, that anything like Michael Jackson's writings on whisky could have emerged in America in the 1800's leading up to Prohibition. True, Alfred Barnard in the U.K., in his late 1800's work on whisky (he did one on beer and breweries too), did reflect something of a modern approach to the subject - in fact he was an acknowledged influence on Jackson - but this was an exception and nothing like this occurred to my knowledge in America.

Gary Gillman
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Apr 03, 2009 9:34 am

To give some point to my remarks above, here is a typical discussion, circa-1840, of what the author considers is the illusion of moderate drinking (at p. 174):

http://books.google.com/books?id=ou4PAA ... #PPA174,M1

If you search in the book the word "moderate", about a dozen similar or related references come up. Some are based on religious principles, some on asserted scientific or medical grounds.

If this book was to any degree representative of the growing temperance movement in the 19th century, and I think it was, one can see how there was little or no room for what today we would call alcohol education. (And I do not mean to suggest that alcohol education cannot entail for some the complete avoidance of any alcohol, it certainly can, but I mean it more in the sense of teaching responsible use for those wishing to drink alcohol).

Gary
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby bunghole » Fri Apr 03, 2009 2:16 pm

Seems like most folks won't touch this one, Gary!

I started to reply yesterday, but backed away not wanting to stir up a hornet's nest.

I can tell you, as a Christian living in the 'Bible Belt' of the southern U.S.A. that any and all drinking = alcoholism. There is total intolerance towards any alcoholic intake of any kind no matter how moderate. Every bottle is a bottle of Satan.

I attend church every Sunday (sometimes on 'TV'). I worship, and I am devout. I read the Bible every day, and have daily devotionals and prayer. Yet, I still manage to enjoy my tobacco and bourbon in a reasonable way.

It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but rather what comes out of him. That is why I try to drink less; read more, and make fewer posts.

Saint Linn - :angel7:
"A Kind Word Never Broke A Tooth."
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Apr 03, 2009 2:29 pm

In this 1880's tract, luridly called The Poison Problem, the author refers to "primers" issued by the State of New York on alcoholic beverages as an example of some legislatively imposed instruction on the nature and dangers of alcoholic drink. (See pg. 107). So something of this nature did exist. However, the author sees such instruction as complementary to a total proscription of alcohol, not a substitute for it! He anticipates (but perhaps underestimated) many of the problems national prohibtion, or what he calls "plenary proscription", would create such as underground drinking centers and criminal activity to further drinking, but considers that the benefits to be attained by banning drink outweigh the disadvantages. With National Prohibition little more than a generation ahead of when this book was written, one can really feel the groundswell developing from this kind of publication. One thing he got right was his prediction that the prescription of beverage alcohol for medical purposes will disappear as surely "as that the Carpathian peasants will cease to exorcise devils by burning cow-dung". (See pg. 11 and the antipathy to "brandy-doctors" he shares with Benjamin Rush). He urges readers to "promote the advent of that time" by patronizing "reform physicians". As the century wore on, the tone gets more shrill. Earlier it is didactic, prescriptive, ministering. Later, it takes upon itself some of the elements of a crusade. Another example of this was Carrie Nation's activities which would have started around the time of this book or somewhat later.

http://books.google.com/books?id=ENgXAA ... #PPA107,M1

Gary
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Apr 03, 2009 2:35 pm

Linn, I am a bourbon fan and personally could never subscribe to the absolutist stance of books like these. I believe in reasonable use and restrictions too. I am sure many people did in the 19th century: their voice didn't seem as prominent though as the Prohibition boosters. To give you an example, in the Poison book, the argument is reviewed that abolishing the alcohol businesses would do much economic harm. While true, other, more effective, arguments could have been made, e.g., the case for reasonable alcohol control and education. It wasn't done though, or relatively little of it seemingly.

I am setting out these materials for their historical interest and really not to create any kind of debate. I simply want to show some of the detail of the flip side of the reading I did earlier, to explain something of the stance of the absolutists and how and why they thought as they did. I think that their attitude came from a number of places and that a lot of the scientific and medical "learning" expressed in these books was exaggerated if not clearly wrong on occasion. And I know that many people of faith do not have a negative attitude to alcohol. Personally too I view the issue as one of individual freedom, a value cherished in our way of life (or it is supposed to be). I think the 1800's campaigners for Prohibition forgot that side of the equation. They sought the greater good, as they saw it, by being t-total prohibitionists. In their fervour they overlooked other values that are no less important than the goals they sought to realise and, in a conflict, should have priority of application.

In general, reading these materials, I came away with the feeling that society was more elitist then, more influenced by the views of a select group of societal leaders than today. Those leaders were not just governmental but came from educational institutions, the professions (especially medicine), some parts of the church, and certainly the press. E.g., the editorials of the time express a certainty and authority we just don't find today in the same sources. I think we are more free, today, in many ways than in the 1800's (but less free in other ways).

When you combine the 1800's zeitgeist with a much less complete understanding of the alcohol issue than exists today, the answer that emerged was, total Prohibition.

Gary
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby TNbourbon » Fri Apr 03, 2009 11:44 pm

Gary, if you have not already read it (and I'd be surprised if you have not), please see Gerard Carson's 1963 book, "The Social History of Bourbon". He begins with an exigesis of alcohol in early-American life, relating a young tobacco farmer's description of 1740s Maryland life to an English friend, for example, thus:
"Our fires are wood, Our Houses as good;
"Our diet is Hawg & Hominie
"Drink juice of the Apple, Tobacco's our staple,
"Gloria tibi Domine."

Carson makes it clear that the 'juice of the Apple' is applejack, widely known and enjoyed in Colonial times. He continues with a good many more anecdotes over a good many more chapters in describing exactly the attitudes -- both positive and negative -- you seem to seek in your online reading.
(Should you not have access to this book, you are welcome to borrow my copy.)
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby gillmang » Sat Apr 04, 2009 8:38 am

Tim, many thanks, I do have the Carson book but hadn't read it in a while and your extract is a salutary reminder of the excellence of that book.

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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby delaware_phoenix » Sun Apr 25, 2010 10:23 pm

(I have to admit concern for bumping another thread. But it is an interesting topic.)

I'll have to find the link to the document, but NY recently published a "History of Alcohol Laws in NY" document as part of it's efforts to "update" the state's liquor laws. It covers regulation going back to Dutch New Amsterdam. The historical documentation is probably the best part of this document. But it's too late for me to hunt for it now.

Forbes' History of Distillation mentions the prohibitions against drinking that the governing bodies have passed and it goes all the way to the dawn of spirits. I know you've asked why didn't anyone review brands, and I think it wasn't considered proper might be one reason.

We forget today how physically demanding work was for the majority of people. The coopers, miners, wrights, masons, farmers, etc all had very difficult jobs, all of them much more dangerous than anything today. By the end of their workday I can only imagine how painful they were. And there were no sick days, no paid vacations, no old age pension waiting for you. But there was whiskey. And whiskey made you feel better for a while.
Cheryl Lins - Proprietor and distiller, Delaware Phoenix Distillery, Walton, NY
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Apr 26, 2010 8:59 am

Never apologize for commenting on an interesting topic. I do not see why old topics should not be revisited from time to time and if there is something to add, please feel free to do so.
Mike Veach
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby sailor22 » Mon Apr 26, 2010 10:38 am

Perhaps it should be considered that during that period Whiskey was indeed far more commonly abused rather than appreciated in an epicurean way. Most references I have seen (I'm obviously not an academic) are referencing effect rather than taste.

I'm not surprised there wasn't an educational effort for moderation. Are there many examples of the government or religious based ngo's from that period undertaking educational programs on a large scale? Regarding sanitation perhaps -- what else?

Have you ever met anyone who you thought drank too much who agreed with you? Had any luck convincing them to have one or two fewer drinks in a given period? Even today AA has found it's impossible to teach moderation opting instead to use an on/off switch model. Sort of a self imposed prohibition.
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Apr 26, 2010 10:52 am

There were a few people that appreciated whiskey on an epicurean level, but the majority of the people of the 19th century enjoyed whiskey on a more basic level. As it was said, people led harder lives and the entertainments and amusements of today did not exist. The trip to the bar after a hard day's work was more than just a social thing, but also a theraputic process where a few glasses of whiskey would help ease the pains of a day of hard labor.

Still, there were places like the Pendennis Club, where a glass of bourbon and a cigar could be enjoyed as an after dinner ritual or even as something to be enjoyed in itself.
Mike Veach
"Our people live almost exclusively on whiskey" - E H Taylor, Jr. 25 April 1873
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Re: Whiskey as Viewed in Society in the 1800's

Unread postby delaware_phoenix » Mon Apr 26, 2010 5:52 pm

Here's the link to the NY ABC Revision document. The 12-15-09 report is the main one that has the history for NY. There is some interesting reading (at least I remember it that way), but much is also just beaurocratic double-speak.

The Temperance and Prohibitionist books and documents often have all the statistics you could ever want about how much people drank and what they drank. Did they really drink much more than say the generation in the 1950's (such as my parents; whom I never thought of as drinking "too much" because Dad worked, Mom raised the family, I never saw them in a stupor, and they enjoyed their lives so who am I to say they did something wrong).

From the little I;ve read, it seems that the Prohibitionists really thought that with the abolition of alcohol, like with the abolition of slavery, people would be free and poverty and disease would be wiped out. Actually, that probably would have been great if that had happened.
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