10/19/11 - liquid bread

In today's excerpt - Americans were heavy drinkers from the very beginning. During revolutionary times Americans drank quantities of hard liquor many times greater than today's Americans. In the late 1800s, however, America's preference in alcohol changed from spirits to beer—a change driven largely by the massive influx of immigrants. As always, these immigrants—German,—were denigrated and reviled as scum:

"By the end of the nineteenth century, production of whiskey and other distilled spirits had declined substantially, to a per capita figure not radically dissimilar from what it would be a full hundred years later.

"But this change in habit disguised the cold fact that something had come along to replace the rotgut, moonshine, grain alcohol, and all those other cheap elixirs, as potent as battery acid, that had been the basic stock of the down-at-heels saloon. ... In 1850 Americans drank 36 million gallons of beer; by 1890 annual consumption had exploded to 855 million gallons. During that four-decade span, while the population tripled, that population's capacity for beer had increased twenty-four-fold.

"There was nothing mysterious about this change. Immigration was responsible, of course, at first from Ireland and Germany. The Germans brought not only beer itself but a generation of men who knew how to make it, how to market it, and how to pretend it was something it was not. The four-year-old United States Brewers' Association declared in 1866 that hard liquor caused 'domestic misery, pauperism, disease and crime.' On the other hand, the brewers maintained, beer was "liquid bread."*

"It also was the substance that composed the ocean upon which a vast new armada of saloons was launched. As the cities filled with immigrants; as a similar settlement of the West accelerated, particularly in the predom­inantly male lumber camps and mining towns (the states in the North­west, wrote historian John Higham, 'were competing with each other for Europeans to people their vacant lands and develop their economies'); and as a clever and worldly young brewer named Adolphus Busch figured out that pasteurization kept beer fresh enough to ship across the country on the newly completed transcontinental railroad, it became the national beverage.

"That the proliferation of saloons was abetted by immigrants (usually German or Bohemian), largely for immigrants (members of those nation­alities, but also Irish, Slavs, Scandinavians, and many, many others), was not lost on the moralists of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and other temperance organizations. As early as 1876, [temperance leader] Frances Willard had referred in a speech to 'the infidel foreign population of our country.' Near the end of her career, Willard called on Congress to pass immigration restrictions to keep out 'the scum of the Old World.' In the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges of northern Min­nesota, congressional investigators counted 256 saloons in fifteen mining towns, their owners representing eighteen distinct immigrant nationali­ties. 'If a new colony of foreigners appears' in Chicago, the muckraker George Kibbe Turner wrote in 1909, 'some compatriot is set at once to selling them liquor. Italians, Greeks, Lithuanians, Poles—all the rough and hairy tribes which have been drawn to Chicago—have their trade exploited to the utmost.' U.S. census figures indicated that 80 percent of licensed saloons were owned by first-generation Americans."  


Daniel Okrent


Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition


Scribner a division of Simon Schuster


Copyright 2010 by Last Laugh, Inc.


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