Politics and saloons: America Walks into a Bar, plus how we became fat, sober and sartorially splendid

by John MacBeath Watkins

Since I've broached the topic of alcohol and education, perhaps I should mention, there are some pretty good books on the subject.

There's an interview up on Smithsonian.com with Christine Sismondo, who's written a book with the engaging title, America Walks into a Bar, in which she argues for the importance of the local dive as a place where conversations get started and politics is often the topic. "The American Revolution, Whisky Rebellion and Stonewall riots all came out of bars. Plus, I’ve worked in a neighborhood bar, so its function as a community center became clear to me," she says.

Which is exactly why I don't understand why so many bars have music so loud you can't have a conversation. Maybe it's the Anit-Saloon League finally getting their way. Because they were not about eliminating alcohol, they were about eliminating certain kinds of gathering places. From the Smithsonian interview:

What’s an event that could only have happened in a bar?
New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969. They didn’t come out of nowhere as people often think. Since bars were the only places where gay people could congregate, everyone got to know each other. During the McCarthy era the police regularly shut the bars down, denying gays of their fundamental right to associate. When they’d had enough and it came time to organize, the networks were already in place through the bars.

Well, yeah, I guess a local dive could be a social networking site.

There was a racial element as well. Clarence Darrow noted that "not every Anti-Saloon Leaguer is a Ku Klux Klanner, but every Ku Klux Klanner is an Anti-Saloon Leaguer."

And of course, working men only had Sunday off, and immigrant workers had only one gathering place available to them -- saloons. So, if you were an industrialist who didn't want his employees organizing, or a political incumbent who wanted to keep your lot in power and stifle any nascent immigrant political machine in its crib, the logical thing was to close saloons on Sunday.

When I was a kid in Maine, we went to a church with records that went back to colonial times. My mother discovered that the biggest item in the church budget back then was rum. It made people convivial, and the water safer to drink, if you mixed rum and water. The temperance movement didn't stand a chance until clean water became available.

An earlier book, The Alcoholic Republic, by W.J. Rorabaugh, points out that for much of our early history, water was not conveniently available or safe to drink. Few people had water piped into their homes, and frontiesmen prefered to build on the hills rather than on fertile bottom land, while the water table was easier to reach on lower ground, so the wells they dug tended to be downhill from the house. Abe Lincoln had to haul buckets of water up the hill as a boy, and in the winter, water often had to be thawed. People who lived on the Mississippi had to let their water settle before they could drink it, and people living downstream form very many neighbors found that whiskey was less lethal than water.

Ben Franklin opined that if God had meant for man to drink water, He would not have given man an elbow capable of raising a wine glass. Of course, he was a rich man; wine cost as much as $1 a gallon, about four times the cost of a gallon of whiskey in Franklin's day. Milk was available to many, but before pasturization, it might be as unhealthful as drinking water; Lincoln's mother died of "milk sickness." Tea was expensive, in part because of tax, and an unpatriotic drink that came from British colonies on British ships (Rorabaugh notes that there was no Boston coffee party.) Cider was the working man's drink if he wasn't tippling distilled spirits. Sometimes it was made stronger by leaving it outside until the surface froze, and pulling off the ice.

Most apples were grown for cider, and most cider was fermented so that it would keep. A family might drink a barrel full of cider a week, starting with a tankard at breakfast. And of course, cider was one of the targets of Temperance, and with prohibition, the orchards had to switch to eating apples. But apples had aquired such an unsavory reputation from their association with drink, that the apple industry had to start an ad campaign telling people apples were not unhealthy. The sales motto, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," became so pervasive most people don't even connect it with an advertising campaign any more, unless they've read Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire.

New York didn't have much potable water until 1842, when an aqueduct started bringing clear, cold water from a river 40 miles away. Temperance zealots became advocates of public drinking fountains, and the substitution of water for alcohol.

Economics payed a major role. In 1825, a day's wages would buy you two gallons of whiskey or 8 lb. of sugar or 5% of the cost of a year's clothing. By 1970, a day's wages would buy a gallon of whiskey, 42 lb. of sugar, or 25% of the cost of a year's clothing. Predictably, modern people are, compared to our ancestors, on average fat, sober, and sartorially splendid.