New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during prohibition (c1921).

Cheers and Jeers

Alcohol in America (rebroadcast)

A new year has dawned, and we’re willing to bet that Americans across the nation are fighting off hangovers after ringing it in with a drink—or three. On this episode of BackStory, we’re raising our glasses to the long history of alcohol in America. The hosts will consider how and why the consumption and production of alcohol have ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. We’ll learn how rum became the drink of choice among revolutionary troops, explore why Native Americans were rejecting alcohol two centuries before the rest of the country, and follow the long march toward Prohibition.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

NEWS ANNOUNCERS: The decisive vote of the 36th state against prohibition is happy news for the grain raisers of the United States, and for many others…

PETER: In December of 1933, the nation abandoned the great social experiment called Prohibition. In hindsight, it seems like a colossal failure, but back then, that wasn’t so clear.

JAMES MORONE: Al Capone’s out there. Crime is out there. Murder is out there. At the same time, you’ve got a lot Americans, a majority probably, taking great pride in what the federal government is trying to do, and seeing it as noble.

PETER: But how did the government come to outlaw booze in the first place? This was a nation founded by people who drank hard cider for breakfast. Even the Continental Army was drunk much of the time.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: And in fact, Washington was incredibly concerned that soldiers are not getting enough to drink.

PETER: The history of alcohol in America today on BackStory. Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.


ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey, there, Brian.








MALE SPEAKER: Plastered.



MALE SPEAKER: Schnockered is one.

MALE SPEAKER: Fustigated?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Spifflicated?

ED: Liquored up.

PETER: Crocked.

BRIAN: Not quite myself.

ED: That’s all? If we’re going to do this, we might as well get three sheets to the wind, baby.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Three sheets to the wind. [SINGING] Three sheets to the wind.

MALE SPEAKER: Absolutely soused.

PETER: Yes, today on our show, we’re talking about one of America’s very favorite pastimes: drinking. And if you’re looking for some fresh ways to describe a spot of New Year’s tipsiness, well, we’re here to help. Or rather, Ben Franklin is. When it comes to dreaming up synonyms for drunk, he’s still the guy to beat.

BEN FRANKLIN: Addled, afflicted, bewitched, been at Barbados, cramped…

PETER: In 1776, Franklin published The Drinker’s Dictionary, a kind of a single-subject thesaurus with more than 200 variations on the theme.

BEN FRANKLIN: He’s quarrelsome, like a rat in trouble. He’s fishy, fuddled, sore-footed, as good conditioned as a puppy, got a brass eye, got on his little hat, in the suds…

ED: Now, we don’t have to point out that drunkenness also has a very dark side, and that also has deep roots in American history. So today on our show, we’re going to figure out why America’s relationship with alcohol seems so schizophrenic. On one hand, we seem all excess. On another, all about abstinence. We’re going to try to figure out how those two things relate.

BRIAN: Hey, Peter. You know all those synonyms that Franklin rattled off? I mean, somebody who could come up with that many names for being drunk, he had to be awash in alcohol. How much did people drink back then?

PETER: Well, a whole lot, Brian. It was common for everybody—men, women, children, too—to start their day with a class of hard cider. By 1770, the average white woman here in Virginia was drinking a pint of the stuff each day. The average white male was drinking the equivalent of seven shots of hard alcohol each day.

I sat down with historian Sarah Hand Meacham, who’s written about alcohol in the Colonial Chesapeake. And I asked her, why did people back then drink so much?

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: There’s really nothing else to drink. The water is filled with insects, blood from—

PETER: Nice.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: —killing animals. [LAUGHS]. I can’t think of a better way to say it.

PETER: OK, OK. How about milk?

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: Well, the cows weren’t bred the way they are today. They didn’t have as much milk. And cows sometimes grazed on Jimson weed, which gave people milk sickness, a serious illness.

PETER: Energy drinks? [LAUGHS]. Something like this. Seriously. Fruit drinks, come on.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: No, there are naturally-occurring airborne yeasts that make any open fruit juice turn alcoholic. So there’s really very little to drink other than alcohol.

PETER: So where did they get their alcohol?

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: They are mostly making it. And one of the surprising things, something people don’t always realize, is that it was mostly women’s work to make it. Back in England, where most of the colonists were coming from in this region, at least the free colonists, they were drinking ale and beer. And back then, ale didn’t have hops, and beer did have hops, but all made from wheat.

Wheat was just too much trouble to grow in the Virginia region, where you could make so much profit from tobacco. And so what they do is they revert back to older ways of having women make cider.

PETER: So, Sarah, you’re describing a culture in which everybody, all the time, is drinking. They’re drinking in the fields. They’re drinking first thing in the morning. It’s not just cider. It’s any old thing that they’ve fermented.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: They are. Mm-hm.

PETER: So there must’ve been a lot of drunkenness, it stands to reason. People are imbibing so much. So is there a drinking problem, or why don’t people see it?

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: There do not seem to have been any concerns about drunkenness in the 18th century, in 18th century America. Generally speaking, people drank differently in the 18th century. They’re drinking it throughout the day, so it’s a little bit different, and they’re very accustomed to it.

And there really don’t seem to have been concerns about drunkenness. It’s true that they do describe people occasionally as drunk for court cases, where somebody will be at court, and the justices will throw someone out for being so drunk, that he called the justices, “you rotten, vile dogs.”

PETER: Just telling the truth, right?

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: [LAUGHS]. But they don’t do anything to them. They just say, “go sober up and come back.”

PETER: Now we period specialists tend to think that the American Revolution changes everything. It’s a new world.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: It did change everything.

PETER: Yeah. Would it be a new and more sober world? Or what changed in the world of alcohol?

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: Ah. It’s going to be a more sober world for some people, and a less sober world for others.

PETER: Whoa.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: So part of what happens during the American Revolution is that in 1781, George Washington decided to change the daily rations. Up until then, the Continental Army had gotten their supplies the same way that English armies traditionally had. They went from place to place, and the local housewives came out. They set up stalls. And they sold food and liquor to the Army.

But this creates all sorts of problems. People fall in love. People get active in other ways. And a lot of children were produced.




SARAH HAND MEACHAM: And so what happens is that George Washing gets, I think understandably, very frustrated, where he has all of these sort of women trailing along with the men. He has all these children trailing along. They’re eating food that could be for the soldiers. And Washington’s trying to figure out ways to make a more professional army.

PETER: But it’s not the drunkenness of the soldiers so much as their sex lives that seems to be bothering George Washington.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: That’s true. Washington is not particularly concerned about their drunkenness. And in fact, Washington was incredibly concerned that soldiers were not getting enough to drink. The soldiers are supposed to get the equivalent of at least three shots of rum per day or a pint of cider per day.

PETER: One pint of cider is just half of what a woman Chesapeake woman would have drunk.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: That’s right. It’s not nearly enough for a fighting man. And in fact, men fighting the American Revolution are supposed to get extra rations of alcohol if they actually fight that day—right before battle, so that they’re really geared up.

But if it rains, they get double rations. The problem is that Washington can’t provide all this alcohol that on paper, the men are supposed to get. And so he makes a switch in 1781. He says, from now on, we’re going to have rum provided on year-long contracts. So instead of having all these women set up stalls, and have the men go and get their own alcohol, we’re going to have army-supplied rum to the fighting men.

PETER: So this is a key moment in—

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: This is a key moment.

PETER: —in the transition toward a more industrialized market based on alcohol culture.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: It is. And I think it also helps teach American men, these new creatures, American men, that American men drink distilled liquor made by other American men. It really leads to the masculinization of alcohol. But at the same time, there’s another shift, which is the emphasis on tea-drinking.

And once we get the rise of tea and the availability of tea in America, particularly sort of trickling down in the 1760s, 1770s—

PETER: I like that image, the dripping.

SARAH HAND MEACHAM: [LAUGHS]. The trickling. Part of what happens is that finally, Americans have something else to drink. Right? The tea is safe. Tea has water that is boiled. It is flavored with the tea leaves. And so now, people who have time to make a cup of tea have something to drink that isn’t alcohol. And that’s when we begin to get the inkling that there might be something wrong with drinking alcohol all the time. That there might be something wrong with being drunk.

PETER: That’s Sarah Hand Meacham. She’s a Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University, and her book is called Every Home A Distillery, Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake.

BRIAN: hosts, the story that Sarah tells us takes us through the end of the American Revolution. I’m looking at a bunch of numbers here, and they tell us at that point in 1790, the average American drank 5.8 gallons of pure alcohol per year. So Ed, bring us into the 19th century. What happens next?

ED: Well, you know, as robust a tradition we have of drinking in Colonial America, the 19th century really takes it to a new level. It turns out that whiskey is a great thing to produce from all that corn they can grow on the new farms of the West. And that whiskey not only saturates the West, but it flows back to the East, where people are buying it in the cities and towns of the East.

And as a result, we see, in the very beginning of the 19th century, a huge spike in drinking. And so by the 1830s, the average American is drinking seven gallons of pure alcohol every year.

BRIAN: Oh, come on.

ED: A big increase. Yeah, that’s even more than back in the late 18th century.

BRIAN: Seven gallons? You know, Ed, I’m looking at this chart of alcohol consumption. It seems to bear out exactly what you’re saying, at least up to the 1830s. But then there’s this incredible drop-off. In 1840, alcohol consumption is less than half of what it was 10 years earlier. So yet again, I got to know what’s going on.

ED: It’s the age of extremes there in the 19th century, Brian. No sooner does the market bring all this cheap whiskey into America’s homes and communities than people begin to worry about what it’s doing. It wreaks havoc in many ways, as you can imagine.

It’s not unlike, really, the sudden appearance of crack or other drugs that really distorts social life. When Peter was talking about people drinking cider, people talking about drinking all day long, they were really living and working together. But in the 19th century, you begin to see the genders separated. You begin to see work and leisure separated. And you begin to see a lot of binge drinking.

And so women are looking at this, and just distraught about what this sea of alcohol is doing to the families and communities in which they live. Fortunately, they have a new tool at their command. They’re in the evangelical churches that believe that you can reform the world around you, as well as prepare yourself for the world to come.

People can see that the conversion experience can lead people from being drunkards to being teetotalers overnight. And they think if this works so powerfully inside the church, what might it do in society as a whole? They begin to create new reform organizations that will take that same evangelical zeal of reaching out to make new recruits from abstinence from alcohol.

This is something new in the 19th century. Not merely moderating your intake, but stopping altogether. Once this takes root, people see: as powerful as the churches are, and as powerful to reform organizations are, if we could enlist the state, we could have even greater progress in bringing alcohol to heel.

So in Maine in 1851, they banned alcohol altogether. And by 1855, 12 more states have enacted similar laws. It’s impossible to enforce Prohibition in the 19th century. They don’t really have the machinery of the state to do that.

And the Civil War, as you can imagine, just disrupts all of this. The amount of suffering and the amount of alcohol, the number of men who are all together, really just kind of turns that whole impulse on its head. And a lot of laws ultimately get repealed. But the idea that the state can help people avoid the evils of booze, that sticks around.


PETER: What, you might ask, makes booze a subject worthy for the Backstory hosts? Well, how’s this for an answer?

JAMES MORONE: If you had to pick the reform that Americans have taken most seriously over a longer period of time, it would have to be stopping drinking. More than civil rights, more than abolition—If you just look at the sheer number of people who took this reform seriously, this is our number one across American history.

BRIAN: This is Jim Morone. Several years back, he published a book called Hellfire Nation. It traces the way ideas about sin have shaped reform movements. We asked Jim to pick up the story of temperance where Ed left off, with Victorian women who got together to fight the ravages of alcohol on home life. Jim said that in the middle of the 19th century, there was another factor in play.

JAMES MORONE: I think the other part of it is—remember what else is happening in the society. This is becoming an era of very high immigration. Immigrants drank. And this was a way of—another way. There are many ways in American history. We know, we can see here today. But this is a fantastic way for people to raise themselves up above these very dubious immigrants from questionable places with poor values.

This was a way of saying American values are truly special. We really are a city on a hill, and we can organize ourselves around these things that really make us good, and distinguish those people in the cities.

PETER: So Jim, you’ve talked about ethnicity as a divide that can emerge in debates about drinking. How about race? How does race figure in the Temperance Movement?

JAMES MORONE: Race is the other really big one. And I think it’s the most overlooked piece of this. And it takes place in the South. The great metaphor, the great trope, turn of the century, is of course the rape narrative. That black men rape white women. And that’s why Jim Crow has to go into effect, has to go into place, to control this group that’s not ready for the kinds of freedoms that America affords males.

Now, there was a basic problem with this, that the black people most people knew didn’t play the part of this rapacious, fearsome black male that’s such an important part of the stereotype. And the missing piece was liquor. If you read the literature coming out of the late 19th century—

BRIAN: Very interesting. Yeah.

JAMES MORONE: —South, over and over again, you see there is descriptions, the black man drinks alcohol. And that is makes him a fiend. In fact, there was a lot of talk about outlawing pictures of women on alcohol bottles because it was said that the black men would see the white woman on the picture, and would go rape the nearest white woman.

It was said that, why was there so much lynching in the South in the 1890s? Alcohol. So there was this great argument that black men under the influence of alcohol, they weren’t like the black guys you knew who were really quite deferential.

BRIAN: And they weren’t worried about the lynch mob being liquored up.

PETER: No, right. [LAUGHS].

BRIAN: They worried about the black man being liquored up.

JAMES MORONE: Very much. Very, very much. But what finally brings this to a head is the Atlanta race riot. This terrible race riot in September 1906. The Atlanta newspapers get guys all jimmied up. Some woman had been assaulted for the third time by a black guy, an unknown black assailant. Probably liquored up. This is in the newspaper articles, if you go back and look at them. And the claim on the sub-headline is, what’s wrong with our men? Can they no longer protect Southern white women?


There is a horrible race riot. Young men ran through the streets, took black men off trains, out of businesses, beat them up, killed an unknown number.

The elites, the progressive elites, now, step in and say, you know, it’s not just the black guys who drink. It’s the white guys. It’s the lower class whites who drink too. The Atlanta race riot pushed everybody over the top and said, we just have to forbid all alcohol in Georgia.

Georgia goes first. And one after another, the Southern states go dry. And they go dry in arguments about race, right as Jim Crow goes into place between 1895 and 1905.

BRIAN: Let me stop you there, because almost everything that the three of us have talked about up till now is a very local story, maybe state level at the most. Yet in the early 20th century, we get a national amendment. We get national Prohibition. Explain to our listeners how we can get from such a historically localistic story to such a powerful use of the national government?

JAMES MORONE: Isn’t that fantastic story? And you can see it happening. If you watch what states go dry. First the whole South goes dry: race. Then the West goes dry, and it’s part the Women’s Movement, and part a way of distinguishing the West from those horrible immigrants in the East.

But there’s a number of problems. One piece is that it was hard to stay dry if there were other states that were wet. So if you, Georgia, went dry, for example, it was very hard to stop the guy up on the hill from ordering a keg of whiskey from Ohio, because interstate commerce is part of the Constitution. So it was impossible to be truly dry under our constitution.

But I think all of that would not have been enough to get us, I don’t think, to probation if one last thing hadn’t fallen into place: World War I. World War I was the Prohibitionist’s dream. Because all of a sudden, there was this great noble cause that the United States had plunged into. Our armies were different, remember. They were going to be the great Christian armies.

There’s a fascinating—if you ever want to do some fascinating reading, look at the graduation addresses in 1917 and 1918, as the college presidents and the speakers look at the boys who are going to be the officers in the American army. At Brown, the president turned to the audience and says, the same thing they said at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, “Can we do less? Can we do less than these boys that we’re sending over to be a Christian army?”

And as one of the presidents put it, “patriotism must mean Prohibition.” Now the forces of the West, who lived in the Northeast, had a huge burden. They had to not only defend drinking and immigrants, they had to say why they were resisting the great Christian army. And it was in war fervor, and in this sort of fervor of being the great Christian nation, that Prohibition goes over the top, and actually becomes the law.

PETER: Well, Jim, the caricature of Prohibition, particularly during its national phase, that it was an absurd attempt of rural people to impose their values on the country, and it was a colossal failure, leading to the gangsters, and all of the crime of the Depression years, and so forth. Giving us a balanced view, getting beyond the black and white, as you say, how would you evaluate, in a more sympathetic way, the experiment with Prohibition?

JAMES MORONE: The media lived in the big Eastern cities. And they were so sarcastic. You’ve described it well. I think it was one of the New York papers who would do the little trick of sending reporters to big cities with a stopwatch, and asking them to time themselves how long it took them to get out in a strange city off the train and in a saloon drinking.



And basically, the message was, if you couldn’t do it in 10 minutes, you were an idiot. And usually, it was a lot less than 10 minutes. So from that, we get an image that’s not false. Cities were awash with both alcohol, and because it was a banned substance, crime.

In rural America, however, this is a great reform. It’s our reform, is the way rural people saw it. And they believed in this reform enormously. For the first time, they really felt the touch of federal government as a kind of spiritual cause. People like to say that the New Deal is the father of big government. That’s nonsense. The father of the government is Prohibition. And it won over people in the heartland from coast to coast, who really believed, this was the government trying to do something really quite noble.


We now believe that we got back to the rate of drinking that existed in America in 1915—really before World War I begins—we got back to that rate of drinking in 1971. So in that sense, people would say, yeah, not only was Prohibition successful in stopping people from drinking, people actually found it pretty good. It’s a tale of two Americas, as so many stories are, isn’t it?

PETER: But Jim, taking the long view, we certainly drink a lot less than Americans did during the early republic. And you could say that Prohibition initiated a period of concern about public health in the broadest sense of the term. And the changes have been enduring ones.


BRIAN: And that the national government remained quite active in those issues from that point on.

JAMES MORONE: Well, all those things you just said are absolutely right on. And to add to Brian’s last point, one thing that was very interesting during all this was that we had to decide what the Constitution said about the federal government going in there and getting this involved in people’s lives.

Fourth Amendment law, Fourth Amendment says that people must be secure in their personal property and themselves, that the government cannot do search and seizure. Fourth Amendment law gets rewritten around Prohibition. May you wiretap someone’s house? Is that the same thing as breaking in and rifling through their papers?

You see a known bootlegger driving back to Detroit from Windsor, Ontario. You’re a cop. You turn around, and you give chase, you stop him, you rip his seats out, what’s there? Of course, cases of booze. Well, was that a legal stop or not? Cars were relatively new.

So all the rules and regulations that we now use in our drug wars went into effect during Prohibition. So the echo of Prohibition lives on.

PETER: Yeah, for better or worse. Thank you so much for joining us.

JAMES MORONE: Oh, Brian and Peter, lots of fun. And thank you for having me on.

PETER: That’s Jim Morone. He’s a Political Science Professor at Brown University. You can listen to a longer version of our conversation on our website,


MAN: [SINGING] Bad, bad whiskey. Bad, bad whiskey. Bad, bad whiskey made me lose my happy home. When I left home this morning, I promised I would think. To stay real straight and sober, I swore I wouldn’t drink.

PETER: White Clay, Nebraska has a population of 12 people and sold nearly 4 million cans of beer last year. The tiny town is two hours from the nearest city, but a two minute walk from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Until 2013, the Oglala Sioux tribe had banned alcohol at Pine Ridge, where the vast majority of families struggle with alcoholism. But they couldn’t keep residents from walking across the border to one of White Clay’s four liquor stores. And many did.

BRIAN: In 2012, the tribes sued White Clay’s liquor stores and several major brewing companies. The tribe accused the companies of encouraging criminal drinking by selling alcohol to people who lived on a dry reservation. A federal judge dismissed the tribe’s case.

ED: Now, the story of an Indian Community resisting the pressures of the alcohol trade has deep roots. Those roots go all the way back to the end of the 16th century. That’s when British colonists decided that the best way to make Indians into good colonial subjects was to, as strange as it seems, sell them alcohol.

Now at face value, this is a pretty strange idea. So I sat down with Peter Mancall, a historian at the University of Southern California, to try to figure out what those early British colonists could possibly have been thinking.

PETER MANCALL: So there are a number of things that they want from Native peoples. I mean, they want them to convert to Christianity. And they want to sell them things and buy things. But they really emphasize time and again that one of the things that’s wrong with Native peoples is they have this sort of collectivist ethos, that they’re not sort of individual market-oriented people.

And so how do you make them market-oriented? And the answer they came to is, well, we have to sell them goods that they will want. And in some sense, the two ideal commodities to introduce them to Indian country were gunpowder and alcohol. And they were ideal, because as long as natives did not make them themselves, they would continually come back to colonists to buy them.

And in that act of coming back to colonists, in addition to generating profits for the sellers, they are also then beginning to participate in the kinds of market behavior that was one of the core pillars of civilization. There’s this moment when Sir William Johnson, who’s the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Colonies, a guy who lives out in Mohawk country, who really knows as much about the Native peoples as any colonist, when sort of writing about, should we get rid of the alcohol trade that is spreading to British officials, should we get rid of it, he’s sort of torn. Because he sees the devastation of it.

And at the same time, he says well basically, if we stop selling Indians alcohol, then what are we going to sell them? Because they really don’t need that many shirts, or that many pairs of leggings, or that many coats. And so if we don’t have alcohol to sell them, it will reduce the incentive for them to participate in the larger market economy. Then his words, they’ll become indolent. That is, they’ll become lazy, and that will be an impediment to their larger mission of civilization.

ED: So what could go possibly wrong with selling people alcohol and gunpowder, right? [LAUGHS].

PETER MANCALL: Well, you got right to the punch line. Exactly. What could possibly go wrong?

ED: You could probably guess what went wrong. Alcohol-fueled violence in Indian country. Violence that mostly hurt other Indians. It impoverished tribes who traded their goods for rum, rather than for tools or clothing. And it bolstered white stereotypes of Indians as drunken, undisciplined savages.


Now, not all white colonists were in favor of the alcohol trade. Some local officials worried that it would make Indians more violent in general. A lot of missionaries urged colonial authorities to ban it altogether. Indian converts to Christianity supported these efforts. But Peter Mancall told me that the most effective push for Indian temperance came from indigenous revival movements.

PETER MANCALL: Really, starting in the 18th century, a number of native religious leaders came to really question the long-term relations that Native peoples were having with European colonists. And by the time we get to the mid 18th century, some of those leaders, like the Delaware prophet, Neolin, had really begun to articulate a sense that life had really deteriorated for Native people since colonization, and they had to move towards a new relationship with each other and a new relationship with the world of the spirits.

And so, we begin to see these Nativist movements, in which religious leaders are instructing members of their communities to sort of put to the side everything that colonists had brought them. Get rid of domesticated livestock. Let’s go back to if we’re going to eat meat, let’s get it from the hunt. Get rid of European style clothing. Get rid of anything about Europeans. Get rid of, in fact, Christianity. And then, also get rid of alcohol.

ED: So alcohol is embedded in this larger—

PETER MANCALL: Exactly. Alcohol is embedded in this larger effort to sort of reclaim their universe.

ED: So what did whites think of this? Did they support these movements? Did they think it was still going to take state action, or some religious action by white Americans? Or did they applaud this?

PETER MANCALL: Well, you know, that’s a great question. Because you would think that Euro-Americans who see the consequences of destructive drinking would embrace these sort of Nativist movements. Would say anything that can diminish the sales of alcohol among Indians is a good thing.

But European Americans, for a long time, were very suspicious of Native revivalist movements and moments. We see that most dramatically on the Northern plains at the end of 19th century with the United States government response to the Ghost Dance. I mean, the Ghost Dance is a religious revival movement in which people prayed for a world in which the influences of Europeans would disappear, and the ancestors would come back, and harmony would reign.

And then through a series of destructive pathological misunderstandings, the United States government decides that it is going to crack down on this religious observance and attack them. And so, I think in some sense from the colonial period into the 19th century—and then you could have a debate, I suppose, at the 20th century, Euro-Americans have never been especially comfortable with Native American Religious movements, even though sometimes those movements, the Native movements, have the same ends, temperance, as the Euro-American movements.

ED: That was Peter Mancall, Professor of History at the University of Southern California. His book is called Deadly Medicine, Indians and Alcohol in Early America.


PETER: Many of you have left comments on this topic on Facebook and our website. We’ve invited a few of those people to join us on air. We got a call from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we’ve got Patty on the line. Patty?

PATTY: Yes, sir.

PETER: Hey, welcome to show.

PATTY: Thank you.

PETER: We’re talking about alcohol.

PATTY: Well, it’s a favorite topic of the Irish.

PETER: It sounds Irish, doesn’t it? Paddy?

PATTY: With two D’s. I am fourth generation Irish in America. But I married a man of Irish extraction. And I was interested to see, since he’s from the East coast, the persistence of alcohol in Irish American culture—of course, it’s famous in Irish culture. But it’s part of Irish-American culture as well. And I wonder how much that had to do with the rejection of immigrants in the 19th century when the teetotalers’ programs were just getting started, and then in come all these immigrants, have drink as part of their culture. It’s deeply woven into the literature, the music, the jokes.

PETER: Yeah, so you’re suggesting in a way that Irish people in America have used alcohol as a form of cultural expression, sort of snubbing their noses at those WASP-y Yankees, those disapproving teetotaler types?

PATTY: Yeah. They were unashamedly drinkers.

BRIAN: Patty, I can’t answer your question directly about the Irish. But it is clear that some of these WASP elites embraced temperance and embraced Prohibition as a way of distinguishing themselves from immigrant groups, including the Irish. So I think you have a really interesting thesis, that even after the Irish became acculturated, they hung on to some of the cultural meanings in terms of distinguishing themselves from the so-called enemy.

PETER: But there’s also the phenomenon of the Lace Curtain Irish, as they’re called. That is, the very hyper-respectable Irish—out-Yankee the Yankee in terms of their sobriety, and so forth.

PATTY: Right. That’s my husband’s family.


PETER: Boring.

PATTY: But alcoholism does run along with the charm and the talk.

PETER: You have conflicted feelings about it, is what you’re saying right now. That is, it’s been a problem for Irish people.

PATTY: It’s known as the Irish curse. In my family, in my husband’s family, in my in-law’s families, every family has at least one alcoholic. My parents, actually, they were not alcoholic, and they never had a drinking problem. But there have been alcoholics in both sides of their family. So they raised us with the AA Blue Book. I mean, they brought it in the house when I was 10, and they explained to us, et cetera. But it’s still part of the culture.

BRIAN: But you know, Patty, I want comment on something that is reflected in your call itself. Which is because your name is Patty, and because you’re an Irish American, you can talk very openly about certain things that in the mouths of others would be seen as stereotypes.

And I think there’s a bit of an answer to your question in this observation, which is whether or not the Irish drink more or not, the Irish themselves are able to talk about this openly in ways that certainly would give the impression that Irish drink more, whether you happen to be right or not.

ED: When we were in Ireland a couple years ago, I noticed the emphasis on a lot of billboards and radio shows about drunken driving. And the newspapers were actually filled with a very frank discussion of just what you’re talking about, that this is so identified with the right of passage that it really has become—they were saying in their editorials—pathological for Ireland. And the drunken driving part seemed to be sort of a crisis proportion.

So I think it’s a fine line, for lots of different cultures, things that are identifiable as the core of the culture, and set them apart, which everybody’s looking for. Something that distinguishes them can also become the thing that stereotypes them. And it’s always a struggle, I think.

PETER: I’ve read recently that the number of pubs in Ireland has declined by about 50%. That the pubs are closing down, and that the old ways of drinking, the folk ways in which alcohol was a normal part of a village culture and village celebrations—I mean, Irish people are becoming modern people, just as Irish American people became modern long before the Irish people did. That is, they—

PATTY: True. But they retained the drink as part of the culture, whether you drank it at the pub, or drank it at home, or at your friend’s home, they retained the alcohol.

PETER: Well, I think we’ve all retained the alcohol to some extent. Well, some of us can’t retain it. It’s a challenge.

PATTY: Well, the Irish are very good at it. [LAUGHS].

PETER: Well, some of them are. [LAUGHS]. So Patty, it’s been great talking to you.

PATTY: Thank you.

PETER: Thanks for calling. Bye bye.

BRIAN: Thanks for calling.

PETER: Another call. And this one is from Albany, New York. We’ve got Joy. Joy, welcome to BackStory.

JOY: Thank you.

PETER: What’s on your mind?

JOY: I’d like to talk a little bit about that dichotomy between how we expect our teens to behave in terms of the alcohol consumption, and what we allow for ourselves, and whether or not it’s really fair to expect more of our teens than the behavior we actually model for them.

PETER: Whoa. That’s a heavy question.

BRIAN: May I ask how old you are, Joy?

JOY: I’m 24.

BRIAN: I’m sorry. We’ve got a minimum age here for the Backstory hosts.

PETER: Yeah, you’re practically a teenager as far as we’re concerned. So you’re talking about double standards?

JOY: Yes. I think that we expect our teens to be moderate alcohol consumers and not drink and drive, and we as adults don’t necessarily model that behavior, and when an adult does caught drinking and driving, there’s no guarantee that there will be an actual punishment.

BRIAN: Well, I guess my answer would be—it seems that Joy is getting at the hypocrisy that’s surrounds adult drinking. And without sounding like a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, as the father of three teenage kids, I would—the higher the drinking age, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

But I do agree with Joy that there’s a lot of hypocrisy entailed in the way we treat adult drinkers, especially those who drive. And I, for one, would really like to see the police enforce this more seriously. And the courts, of course, often have their hands tied on this for some reason, which I can’t figure out.

PETER: Well, guys, let’s do some history here. This is BackStory, right? What about drinking ages through history? And the whole notion of Joy’s question is about how we manage teenage drinking. When does that become a problem? When do adults begin worrying about teenagers acting out, and link it to alcohol consumption?

JOY: Are you asking me, or are you asking someone else?

PETER: I’m asking them. They’re supposed to know something, Joy. [LAUGHING]

ED: But maybe you know.

JOY: Like, my understanding is that youth alcohol use really wasn’t an issue until the 20th century, and really, actually, the post-World War II period. First of all, in terms of the 19th century, children and teens were seen as the victims of parental alcohol abuse, particularly paternal alcohol abuse—

PETER: Yeah, good point. Good point.

ED: I think that’s right. And in some ways, the problem of teenage drinking begins when we have teenagers, which is also 20th century invention. Before that, there was just a gradation between children and adults. And when they became a distinct category, sharply defined, then it looked like a problem to be solved.

BRIAN: And why it’s a 20th century issue, number one, I think, is the car, and the combination of drinking and driving, and the inherent necessity of state regulation, certainly, of cars. The state had regulated alcohol for a long time, but not necessarily in regard to kids.

Secondly, it’s after World War II, and especially the 1960s, that large corporations start targeting kids for major marketing campaigns. And they do that because, for the first time, kids, middle class kids, begin to have a lot of spare change. They can get their hands on this alcohol pretty easily.

PETER: And I think getting back to Ed’s point about the invention of the teen years, there’s a tremendous discrepancy now between arriving at an age in which you’re capable of driving cars and going to parties and drinking a lot, and being responsible. Because we’ve protracted adolescence well into the 20’s, if not the 30’s for our kids. I’m not calling you, Joy. You’re not an adolescent still, are you?

JOY: [LAUGHS]. No, but it’s a really interesting thing, because I look at my peers sometimes that are still drunk dialing, and I’m like, you’re 24.

PETER: Yes. And that’s the real problem, is how do you define a precise age at which it makes sense to, in effect, license a whole population to go out and have a good time.

ED: Well, we can legislate that people can be drafted and that they can vote. So it’s kind of funny that you can go off and die, but you can’t have a drink.

PETER: I agree. I agree.

BRIAN: You know, maybe age is not the right way to do this. There’s certainly lots of ways to predict who is going to be a responsible drinker.

PETER: What, DNA testing, or what?

BRIAN: Not DNA testing. The insurance companies know all of this. They know about differences between men and women. They know about differences between people based on their grade point average. Those might end up being—

PETER: That sounds like profiling to me, Brian.

BRIAN: Those might end up being much better predictors than age. But Peter, I think you really put your finger on it. Age seems neutral. We’re not—

PETER: We’re not discriminating.

BRIAN: We’re not picking on male athletes with GPAs below 2.0, for instance. On the other hand, to address Joy’s very real issue, why discriminate against the responsible 20-year-old, may not make sense in this day and age.

PETER: OK. Joy. Well, we wish you joy.


JOY: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

PETER: Great. Thanks for calling.

ED: Thank you so much.

JOY: OK, bye bye.


BRIAN: Bye bye.


PETER: We’ve got a call from William in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Welcome to BackStory.

WILLIAM: Thank you very much. I just wanted to ask you about the brewing topic, specifically the small craft brewing. And if you’re aware of any history associated with that, and where you see the future of the small craft and microbreweries—where it’s going. Do you think it’s a fad?

PETER: William, I’ll just pass it to Brian. But first just say that if craft brew takes off, it’s a return to the good old days.

BRIAN: Yeah, Peter, everybody was a craft brewer in your day. I’m surprised you’re passing it along so quickly.

PETER: It was in-house

ED: Before we skip over to Brian, I think I need to talk about the golden age of when we destroyed that in the 19th century and the 20th century with mass production. And so, what began in the 19th century was really being able to produce large amounts to ship, when you had ice and standardization, and being able to have water supplies that are consistent, and being able to get all the raw materials by train, and so forth. That begins in the 19th century. Really accelerates in the 20th century, and almost comes to like, an extreme form after World War II. Is that right? Before it comes back into craft?

BRIAN: That’s right. It’s really during the Great Depression, and then increasing during the war, World War II, that a lot of the regional brewers are wiped out. The major development there, William, is Prohibition. And then, of course, there’s the Great Depression. And a lot of those regional and smaller brewers—they didn’t call them craft brewers. They’re just brewers for the local area. They just didn’t make it through those 13 years of Prohibition, and then long economic downturn afterwards.

So what we have after World War II is really a national brewers and national distribution. They start using throwaway cans. They start putting chemicals in beer and packaging it in a way that it no longer has to be shipped on ice. And this is part of the story of a national market, national advertising. Everything’s going great. We got Anheuser-Busch. We’ve got Miller.

And then something happens in the ’60s and the ’70s, and that is the counterculture. It’s a return to the local. And along with that, we have brewers, who I guess you would label as craft brewers, begin to emerge with a real critique of these large national standardized breweries.

PETER: Yeah. You know what’s really driving this, Brian, is the new inequality in that people can afford to pay twice as much for a craft brew. OK. William, so what’s your stake in all this aside from the stake of a consumer and drinking good beer?

WILLIAM: I’m originally from Michigan, and now live in and Pennsylvania. And I graduated from Western Michigan University, and there was a brewery near my apartment which served as my study hall also, I guess you could say.


But we could only get, when I was going through college, that local brewery, that small craft beer, in that area. And now I’m starting to notice some of that beer is being marketed here in Eastern Pennsylvania.

BRIAN: You mean your Michigan beer is showing up in Pennsylvania?

WILLIAM: Which is fine with me. I’m not complaining. But I’ve heard it brought up before though that how big is too big to consider it still a small craft before it starts going mainstream, and then becomes another, well, you can get that anywhere.

PETER: Well, you know, it is going mainstream. And all these microbreweries have been brought up. They continue to brew. They continue to do it the way they do it, but they’re now owned by Budweiser, or some other company.

BRIAN: Oh, not all of them.

PETER: Not all of them, but it’s—

BRIAN: You know, because those hippies in the ’70s who wanted the local and the authentic, and hated that standardized Anheuser-Busch, those big American corporations? Well, guess what? Those big American corporations are now owned by foreign companies. Anheuser-Busch—

ED: So now they’re exotic again.

BRIAN: Exactly. Well, not so much. They are gargantuan.

PETER: Now we’re drinking Dutch beer. Or South African beer.

BRIAN: Here’s a test, guys. What beer company owned by American ownership accounts for the largest percentage of the market?

WILLIAM: I know that Old Milwaukee was voted best tasting beer not too long ago. But I don’t have a clue.

BRIAN: William, you’re changing the topic. And Old Milwaukee, by the way, is not owned by an American company.

PETER: That’s South African.

BRIAN: That’s South Africa. That’s part of the Miller constellation, if I’m not mistaken.

ED: Rolling Rock.

BRIAN: That’s not a bad guess. It’s Yuengling.

WILLIAM: Wow. Right here.

PETER: Right in Pennsylvania.

BRIAN: Right near you. And it just surpassed Sam Adams, the Boston brewing company. But what’s amazing is those count for tiny percentages of the market. I think less than 2% in each case. So on the one hand, we have a real move towards the microbreweries. On the other hand, most Americans—and most Americans who consider themselves to be real Americans—are drinking beer that is owned or produced by owners in other countries.

PETER: So Brian and Ed, what interests me about all this is the ersatz use of the word “craft.” It’s something like “organic.”

BRIAN: “Natural.”

PETER: “Craft,” as in, the potato chips I eat are often “handcrafted.” And I have this image of little people making each chip for me.

BRIAN: So you don’t don’t mean Kraft as in processed cheese.

PETER: Well, I think it’s the kind of nostalgia invoking Ed’s century and before. My century, too.

BRIAN: Pepperidge Farm. Ye Olde, with an E.

PETER: Hey, thanks a lot, William, for your great call.

WILLIAM: Hey enjoy your ales and stouts, and have a grand day.

BRIAN: All right. Thank you so much.

WILLIAM: Bye now.


FEMALE SPEAKER: [SINGING] This is the last call for alcohol this evening.

BRIAN: It’s closing time here at BackStory. But we hope you’ll look for us online and continue the merriment. Pay us a visit at And let us know your favorite euphemism for drunk.

PETER: As always, you can find a lot of other BackStory extras on our Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages. Our handle is backstoryradio. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: This episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Anna Pinkert, and Nell Boeschenstein.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.

BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

FEMALE SPEAKER: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

BRIAN: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.