A new republic on a binge

Ken Burns’ Prohibition documentary has provoked a lot of discussion about the motives, wisdom and lessons of prohibition. I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know what it did or did not cover.

One bit of history that I never hear mentioned is the patterns of alcohol consumption in the 1800s. The following passage is from Slaying the Dragon:

Between 1790 and 1830, American fundamentally altered its pattern of alcohol consumption. In 1792, there were 2,579 distilleries in the U.S. and annual per-capital alcohol consumption was 2.5 gallons. In 1810, there were 14,191 U.S. distilleries and annual per-capita consumption had risen to more than 4.5 gallons. By 1830, annual consumption had risen to 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person. Problems of public drunkenness and disorder,  and the impact of drunkenness on family life, intensified in the midst of this collective spree.

The growth in America’s alcohol-related problems stemmed, in part, from changes in the availability and taste for particular types of alcoholic beverages. Most important was the shift from beer and wine to distilled spirits. The drink of choice was whiskey, and Americans were consuming it in unprecedented quantities. It was potent, cheap, and highly portable.

A new type of drinker and a new drinking institution emerged in the 19th century. New immigrants, industrialization, and the movement to the Western frontier had all served to create a class of American men who organized their work life and leisure time around drinking. These men were virtually alone, unencumbered by duty to family or enduring community ties. America’s changing drinking rituals were also reflected in the evolution from the tavern to the saloon. The tavern had been the center of village life, but the saloon—associated with violence, crime, vice, and political corruption—now emerged as a threat to community life.

For a little context, current consumption is about 2.3 gallons.

Now, I don’t know what happened consumption patterns between 1830 and 1920, but it seems import to note that the prohibition movement emerged from some very real, dramatic and widespread problems. The common characterization of moral panic seems a little simplistic in this context.