Religion and Social Movements

An American in England, 1828, Is Shocked By English Drinking Habits

Beer Street Gin Alley by William Hogarth

Beer Street Gin Alley by William Hogarth

America’s drinking habits were changing for the better as the new country passed its 50th anniversary, at least according to a Rhode Island mill owner.

Zachariah Allen was a Rhode Island inventor, writer, merchant and philanthropist. He built a fire-safe mill, patented the first steam cutoff valve and invented the first home hot-air furnace.

In 1828, he traveled to the workshops of England and wrote about what he saw in his book, The Practical Tourist. He visited iron mines, silk mills, a pin factory and a limestone quarry, and he reviewed new marvels, like the train, the telegraph, the steamboat – not unknown then, but still rare.

He also visited English taverns, and he didn’t like what he saw. “A deluge of beer, beer, is now spread over the land, to increase the evil f drunkenness,” he wrote.

Allen compared the secret tippling of the American worker with the public beer-drinking marathons of the Englishman.

English emigrants are heard to exclaim, after being a short time in the United States, that their fellow-workmen, the Americans, do not take any pleasure;–meaning by this expression, that the American mechanics do not hold festive meetings, or participate in the carousals at public houses, which these foreigners have been accustomed to indulge in before they left the Old Country.

The United States, then 52 years old, was filled with optimism and prosperity. That, at least, was why Allen concluded Americans had much better drinking habits.

Better Drinking Habits

drinking habits zachariah allenBy 1828, temperance was starting to take hold in America. It began in 1784 with a treatise by Benjamin Rush on the ill effects of alcohol. In 1789, the first temperance society was formed in America when 200 farmers from Litchfield, Conn., got together to ‘discourage the use of spirituous liquors in doing their farm work.’

Temperance societies spread, and 40 years later Allen noted approvingly that 800,000 people subscribed to them in the United States. He wrote that the consumption of spirituous liquor had been halved in just a few years.

Temperance was not unknown in England, but it took a different form than in America. English authorities tried to wean people from gin – the bad beverage – and steer them toward the good beverage – beer. In 1751, artist William Hogarth published a print called ‘Beer Street and Gin Alley’ depicting happy productive beer drinkers vs. slatternly ginners.

In 1830, the beer tax was repealed in England — a mistake, Allen thought. The deluge of beer spread over England, he wrote, increased ‘the evil of drunkenness. It is in vain to asset that strong beer and porter, as consumed by the mechanics and laboring classes in England, form a beverage healthful and necessary to brace their sinews for toil.’

Slinking Into A Dram Shop

drinking habits temperance societiesUnlike the English, who openly spent hours in taverns, American workmen were ashamed of their drinking, Allen claimed.

Although the American toper may drink an equal quantity of intoxicating alcohol with the professed beer drinker of an English ale-house, yet taking it as he does in the state of distilled spirits, he swallows a hasty draught. He commonly slinks into some dram-shop, where behind a screen, or in an obscure corner, usually prepared for secrecy and expedition, he takes his glass as privately as possible. This done, he carefully wipes his mouth, perhaps with his sleeve, and sallies forth, emboldened to court observation in the broad daylight. The beer-drinker, on the contrary, usually requires half a day to get drunk upon his more diluted potation, and then his shameless condition is veiled by the approaching darkness.

He concluded that the American workman has more hope of advancement than the Englishman.

He knows that the path to wealth in the broad field of adventure is open before him; and that with talents aided by industry and enterprise, even the highest honors of his country are attainable. This was the case with Franklin and many other distinguished Americans. A hope of advancement is thus found to exist amongst all ranks of working men, and all in the United States are more or less such…

The English laborer, whilst he smokes his pipe and drinks his beer at the ale-house in company with his wife or associates, appears to be perfectly contented with his situation, and particularly with this state of blissful enjoyment, without looking forward to greater happiness, or distinction in society. From their extremely limited education, they seem aware that advancement to a higher station, than that which they fill, can with the utmost difficulty be attained, surrounded as they are by competitors struggling for their daily bread.

Under the operation of the peculiarly free institutions of the American republic, and of the general system of diffusing knowledge by means of free schools, there appears to be a buoyancy of feeling in the American laborer which sustains him, amid his severest privations and efforts, with cheering prospects of success in his calling.

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  1. Pingback: The Prohibition Era Begins in Litchfield, Conn. in 1789 - New England Historical Society

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