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, a Rhode Island businessman, had many talents as an 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. He also reviewed new marvels, like the train, the telegraph, the steamboat – not unknown in America then, but still rare.
English Drinking Habits
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 of 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.
By that, explained Allen, they meant “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, had optimism and prosperity, Allen wrote. And that, he concluded, explained why Americans had much better drinking habits.
Better Drinking Habits
By 1828, temperance began 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 formed in America. That year, 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 temperance movement halved the consumption of spirituous liquor in just a few years.
Temperance took root in England, too, 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.’ It depicted happy, productive beer drinkers vs. slatternly ginners.
In 1830, England repealed the beer tax — 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
Unlike the English, who openly spent hours in taverns, American workmen felt shame about their drinking, Allen claimed. The American toper, he wrote, “swallows a hasty draught” after “slinking into a dram shop.”
[B]ehind 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.
Allen then 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,” he wrote. With talent, industry and enterprise, the American laborer could attain even the country’s highest honors, he wrote. That happened with Ben Franklin, noted Allen, and many other distinguished Americans.
The English Laborer
Allen observed that the English laborer, “whilst he smokes his pipe and drinks his beer at the ale-house in company with his wife or associates,” appears perfectly contented. He liked his situation and his state of “blissful enjoyment,” wrote Allen. However, he didn’t look 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.
The American laborer, on the other hand, had a “buoyancy of feeling,” wrote Allen. He attributed “the peculiarly free institutions of the American republic,” as well as free public education.
That buoyant feeling “sustains him, amid his severest privations and efforts, with cheering prospects of success in his calling.”
This story was updated in 2021.