the peak of american intoxication -- 7/08/16

Today's selection from -- from Heaven's Ditch by Jack Kelly. The construction of the Erie Canal was one of the monumental economic achievements in early American history. The workers on the canal, like workers in much of the young country, were heavy drinkers:

"During the 1820s, thousands of folks along the Erie Canal corri­dor were ... succumbing to the mind-blasting effects of raw alcohol. America was reeling through the most phenomenal drinking binge in its history. Hordes of citizens were living their lives in the woozy, dislocated haze of permanent inebriation.

"Western farmers who grew barley, corn, and rye found it more profitable to ferment and distill their crops into strong liquor than to ship the grain to market. Whiskey was plentiful and cheap. Each man older than fifteen was drinking on average fourteen gallons of hundred-proof whiskey every year. By the middle of the decade, more than a thousand distillers were operating in New York State. Whis­key was cheaper than wine or beer, more readily available than im­ported luxuries like tea and coffee, safer to drink than water.

"Whiskey was considered 'so conducive to health,' a journalist wrote in 1830, 'that no sex, and scarcely any age, were deemed ex­empt from its application.' Children drank. Adults deemed it more patriotic to drink whiskey than French wine or Dutch gin. Liquor filled the role that coffee would later assume as a morning bracer. A glass of whiskey with breakfast was commonplace.

"A man need not go to a tavern: he could stop for a glass of whiskey at a grocery or candy store. He could down a shot at a barber shop. Theaters served strong drink. Millers provided the refreshment to waiting farmers. Militia musters always ended with heroic drinking. Casual sellers of grog set up bars in their basements.

"Men during this period habitually drank at work. Before the spread of factories, artisans typically operated workshops that em­ployed a dozen or so journeymen and apprentices. The master was expected to provide ale or whiskey for his employees' dinner and breaks. He often drank with them. He tolerated a degree of absen­teeism on what was known as Saint Monday, as workers recovered from Sunday binges.

"Drinking on the job peaked among canal workers. With whiskey cheap and cash in short supply, contractors favored pay in kind -- bed, board, and ample drink. The typical canal worker drank at least a pint, often a quart, of whiskey daily. Whiskey 'was provided bounti­fully and in true western style.' Thirsty from a salty diet and abun­dant sweating, the men drank and drank. ...

"But workers of any nationality, exposed to the harsh conditions of canal labor and the easy availability of alcohol, would have done the same. As one former worker said, 'You wouldn't expect them to work on the canal if they were sober, would you?' When drunk, laborers sometimes passed out and lay exposed for hours to the sun or chill night dew. 'Fever, and death,' a physician noted, 'were but too often the melancholy results.'

"A traveler from England observed that Americans 'quarrel in their drink, and they make up with drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. . . . They drink early in the morning, they leave off at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it until they soon drop into the grave.' Although dan­gerous and debilitating, booze could be a shortcut to heaven, a way to bring one's mind, however briefly, into tune with the mind of God.

"Drinking frequently initiated violence. Drunks fought each other with tedious regularity. They went home and assaulted their wives and children. They squandered their money, committed petty crimes, and shamed themselves in innumerable ways. The intense drinking of the 1820s was corrosive to both individuals and society.

"The pattern was about to change. The casual, paternalistic ap­proach to drinking at work was doomed. There would be no room for a midmorning glass of whiskey as the factory became the work­place for more and more wage earners. Bosses ceased to tolerate tipsy employees. When the machines chugged into operation on Monday morning, workers had to be in their places or lose their jobs."



Jack Kelly


Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2016 by Jack Kelly


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