“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore always carry a small snake”*…
During the 1820s, thousands of folks along the Erie Canal corridor were … succumbing to the mind-blasting effects of raw alcohol. America was reeling through the most phenomenal drinking binge in its history. Hordes of citizens were living their lives in the woozy, dislocated haze of permanent inebriation.
Western farmers who grew barley, corn, and rye found it more profitable to ferment and distill their crops into strong liquor than to ship the grain to market. Whiskey was plentiful and cheap. Each man older than fifteen was drinking on average fourteen gallons of hundred-proof whiskey every year. By the middle of the decade, more than a thousand distillers were operating in New York State. Whiskey was cheaper than wine or beer, more readily available than imported luxuries like tea and coffee, safer to drink than water.
Whiskey was considered ‘so conducive to health,’ a journalist wrote in 1830, ‘that no sex, and scarcely any age, were deemed exempt from its application.’ Children drank. Adults deemed it more patriotic to drink whiskey than French wine or Dutch gin. Liquor filled the role that coffee would later assume as a morning bracer. A glass of whiskey with breakfast was commonplace.
A man need not go to a tavern: he could stop for a glass of whiskey at a grocery or candy store. He could down a shot at a barber shop. Theaters served strong drink. Millers provided the refreshment to waiting farmers. Militia musters always ended with heroic drinking. Casual sellers of grog set up bars in their basements.
Men during this period habitually drank at work. Before the spread of factories, artisans typically operated workshops that employed a dozen or so journeymen and apprentices. The master was expected to provide ale or whiskey for his employees’ dinner and breaks. He often drank with them. He tolerated a degree of absenteeism on what was known as Saint Monday, as workers recovered from Sunday binges…
– From Jack Kelly’s Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal, excerpted in the ever-illuminating Delancey Place.
More at “The peak of American intoxication.”
* W.C. Fields
As we head down the hatch, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Captain J.N. Taylor of the Royal Navy first demonstrated the fog horn. At the time, it was called a telephone (to mean a far-signaling instrument to be used on ships, railway trains, etc.).
Happy National Pecan Pie Day