Drinking patterns in America

I’ve been doing some research on medicinal alcohol for a new exhibit and came across the data for this graph-



I was surprised to see the huge fluctuation in the amount of beer consumed by Americans (yellow line), and also the sharp decrease in total alcohol consumed (red line) in the 1830s. What was going on?

In Mark Lender and James Martin’s book “Drinking in America: A History” (Free Press, 1987), I learned that the American colonists held on to the 17th century European belief that alcohol was good for you. It warmed you on cold nights, kept off chills and fevers, made hard work easier, aided digestion, and sustained one’s general health. It was a common practice to take “drams” at appointed hours during the day to remain healthy. It is true that at this time in many European cities, water was contaminated and unsafe to drink.  Alcohol was safer and even called “aqua vitae.”

In addition, if alcohol wasn’t used as medicine, it was often used a vehicle for medication. It was convenient and made the medication more palatable.

In 1790, a prominent American physician, Benjamin Rush, published the first medical study that suggested that constant overuse of alcohol could lead to disease and death. He correctly identified alcohol as an addictive agent and classified chronic drunkenness as a disease. You can read the full text of this groundbreaking work from the Medical Heritage Library.

Rush's Moral Thermometer showing the dangers of drinking alcohol
Rush’s Moral Thermometer showing the dangers of drinking alcohol, 1790

This research from respected member of the medical community added momentum to the pre-existing Temperance movement. I think that the drop in alcohol consumption in the 1830s can be attributed to the growing reach of the temperance movement. Some physicians probably began to question their use of alcohol as medicine (or the vehicle for it) during this time as well. Actually, the medical community continued to debate the merits of medicinal alcohol for the next 80 years!

Temperance was one of the social reforms that was pushed aside in the growing Abolition movement leading up the Civil War. That could be one of the causes of the increase in alcohol consumption in the 1850s and 1860s. The increase in beer consumption at this time is probably the result of an increase in immigration from Germany and eastern European countries.

For more information about medicinal alcohol during the early 20th century and Prohibition, see my previous blog post here.

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