Colonial America (1800-1855) Alcohol Consumption

American Alcohol Consumption

The Alcoholic Republic, 1800-1855

Americans steadily drank more and more whiskey during the early 1800s
as supply increased and price tumbled. The annual per capita consumption
of distilled spirits in 1830 was five gallons–nearly five times the
amount people consume today. Like rum, whiskey was legal tender. People
bartered with whiskey, paid their taxes with whiskey, and on some
occasions, paid their ministers’ salaries with whiskey. It was also a
dietary staple because the supply of other beverages was unreliable and
water sometimes carried disease.

Liquor and socializing were closely entwined. Taverns and inns served
as important community centers. They sheltered and fed travelers and
often served as the local trading post, post office, auction house,
courtroom, polling place, recruiting and militia office, stage coach
depot, and liquor retailer. As community gathering spots, they encouraged
patrons to drink and smoke–often and in great quantities.

As whiskey consumption accelerated, drunkenness increased so markedly
that it caused widespread community complaint and commentary. Family
violence also became a more visible fact of life. Accounts of inebriate
mothers neglecting their children spread, but these stories were
outnumbered by incidents of wife and child beating.

These social ills coupled with rising incidents of alcohol-related
illnesses alarmed many Americans, giving rise to a temperance movement
between 1820 and 1850. The cries for temperance–moderate use of
alcohol–and for complete abstinence swept across the United States with
a wave of religious revivals. Secular societies also organized, including
the Washingtonians, a support group similar to today’s Alcoholics
Anonymous. As a result of the temperance movement, drinking rates sharply
dropped from five gallons per capita in 1830 to less than two gallons in
1840.

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