8/27/13 - germans, beer gardens, and gemutlichkeit

In today's selection -- from The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn. In the mid-1800s, a mass migration of Germans spurred by hard times and a crackdown by repressive German governments brought their beer-drinking ways to whiskey-drinking America. Entire families, children intact, could be seen sipping beer together at newly minted "beer gardens." This resulted in large populations of Germans especially in Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Prohibition, which was in part an ethnic and class-based movement, was in some respects a reaction to this immigration. (And though the German migration was one of the larger migrations to America, many German-Americans anglicized their names and masked their culture after they began to face attacks, hostility and discrimination from other Americans -- especially during World War I):

"[In St. Louis in the late 1870s, people flocked to beer gardens to] enjoy sprightly polkas and popular tunes, played by a small band, before heading home after dusk on the horse-drawn streetcars. ... It was 'one of the peculiarities of German customs' that parents readily brought their young ones to such drinking places, noted the 1878 book A Tour of St. Louis. 'It is often the case that a family consisting of husband and wife and half a dozen children may be observed seated at a table, sipping fresh, foaming beer, and eating pretzels.'

"Germans had poured into the Midwest from the 1830s through the 1880s as part of a mass exodus from their homeland. They were fleeing hard times, bad harvests, bullying bureaucrats, and the brutality of war for a better, freer life. The crackdown that followed the revolutions of 1848, in particular, drove many German liberals to America, where some became distinguished leaders in the antislavery and workers' rights move­ments. By 1880, some 54,901 of the 350,518 people in St. Louis -- more than 15 percent -- were German-born. They had nourished their dreams on books of advice like The Germans in America (1851), by a Boston pastor named F. W. Bogen. 'A great blessing meets the German emigrant the moment he steps upon these shores,' Bogen promised. 'He comes into a free country; free from the oppression of despotism, free from privileged orders and monopolies, free from the pressure of intolerable taxes and imposts, free from constraint in matters of belief and conscience.' Many Germans were drawn to the idea of a young, dynamic country where their talent and strenuous work mattered more than the whims of government bureaucrats or the accident of birth.

"The Germans brought with them something called gemutlichkeit -- a compound of 'conviviality, camaraderie and good fellowship, love of cel­ebrations, card-playing, praise of [the] German way of life, and all these washed over by flowing kegs of good lager beer.' Lippincott's Magazine ex­plained to its readers in April 1883: 'Beer and wine the German looks upon as gifts of God, to be enjoyed in moderation for lightening the cares of life and adding to its pleasures; and Sunday afternoon is devoted, by all who do not belong to the stricter Protestant sects, to recreation.'

"Many native-born Americans frowned on such ideas. The New York Times, the voice of the eastern Protestant establishment, with its affection for blue laws and prohibition, hoped these aliens would soon outgrow their Old World habits: 'In the old countries, where freedom is smoth­ered, drinking may be necessary to drown the depressing influences of despotism; but here, where freedom woos the mind to culture, no such beastly compensation is called for, and we believe we have said sufficient to prove that our German fellow-citizens are born for higher and nobler uses than for schnapps and lager-bier.' The Cincinnati Enquirer, in con­trast, insisted that German beer actually helped to civilize America. 'For­merly Americans drank scarcely anything else than whisky, frequently very bad whisky, and the consequence was quarreling, strife and fights. Now Americans drink almost as much beer as the Germans do, and whereas Americans used to pour everything down their throats standing, they now sit down good naturedly and chat over a good glass of beer, without flying into one another's hair.'

"It wasn't long before the number of beer gardens operating on Sun­days in St. Louis became something of a national scandal, as easterners complained of a steady assault on the sanctity of the Lord's Day. Though St. Louis was predominantly Christian, 'it cannot be claimed that its in­habitants are pious, in the sense of the word as understood in Boston,' admitted the authors of A Tour of St. Louis. St. Louis residents -- some descended from French Catholics, who shared the German attitude to­ward Sundays -- burst from their homes on the Lord's Day, filling the streets with laughter and chatter as they made their way to such 'umbra­geous enclosures' as beer gardens. 'Music, dancing, ball games, and other amusements are indulged in with a zest which shows the intensity of plea­sure realized from them by the participants.' For them, such pleasures were 'soul-feasts.' "


Edward Achorn


The Summer of Beer and Whiskey


PublicAffairs a member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2013 by Edward Achorn


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