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Eric Burns

The Spirits of America
A Social History of Alcohol

Eric Burns

Eric Burns discusses his research interest in "America's favorite pasttime" for his book The Spirits of America

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about alcohol?
A: A social history of alcohol raises two great questions: To what extent are human beings willing to go for pleasure, even when that pleasure might ultimately cause pain, and why? To what extent are other human beings willing to go to restrict that pleasure, even when the restrictions might cause chaos, and why?

Q: The Spirits of America is a, well, spirited mix of interesting facts as well as some nifty trivia. What did you discover in your research that amazed you?
A: The extent to which our forebears, the original American colonists, consumed alcohol. There wasn’t a single abstainer among the Founding Fathers, and they and their generation drank from morning to night, perhaps starting the day with rum or brandy and ending with a mixed drink called a hotchpotch. Furthermore, they drank on the job and while shopping, at weddings and funerals, and even in the courtroom, passing around a bottle while guilt or innocence was being decided by judge or jury.

Q: Why did our ancestors drink so much?
A: Because of their loneliness and increasing alienation from the Motherland, because of the unsanitary nature of other beverages of the time, and because of their belief in the medicinal powers of booze. In fact, there was an insurance company in colonial times that raised its rates ten percent for the non-drinker, believing him “thin and watery.”

Q: Were alcoholic beverages an important a part of the electoral process in the colonial era?
A: Extremely. Candidates would vie with one another to see who could spend the most money on booze for the voters. And the voters felt they were entitled to as much of the stuff as they could get; after all, they would often have to travel long distances over hard roads to get to a polling place. George Washington lost his first bid for elective office because he did not buy enough spirituous beverage for his voting populace. He did not make the mistake a second time.

Q: What did you discover in your research for The Spirits of America that amused you?
A: A great deal, but perhaps nothing more than the amazing adventures of Izzy Einstein, prohibition agent extraordinaire, a master of disguise and droll wit, and a man who probably did more to enforce the early twentieth century law against alcohol consumption than Eliot Ness and the rest of his Untouchables put together.

Q: But the most famous of history’s anti-alcohol crusaders is the old hatchet-wielder, Carry Nation. What kind of portrait do you paint of her?
A: Sympathetic, I think. Sure she was loony, but she was committed. Sure she was unorthodox, but she had a heart. The heavyweight-boxing champion of the world ran from her. Saloon owners boarded up their establishments when she came into town. She was the first true superstar of temperance, and it all started on that day in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, when she was browsing through a hardware store and happened to pick up a hatchet.

Q: Before Carry Nation came along, women in the temperance movement would sometimes assemble in front of saloons and try to pray them shut. How did that work?
A: Surprisingly well—in the short term, at least. A group of women uttering prayers and singing hymns in front of a gin mill seemed to shame at least some of the habitués into modifying their behavior for a night or two or three. But there were also occasions when the establishment fought back. Sometimes bartenders ‘baptized’ the women with buckets of warm, sudsy beer, dumping the liquid over their heads so that they would return home from the labors smelling not of triumph but of conversion to the other side.

Q: You write that in the nineteenth century, “one out of every five people admitted to a hospital for treatment of alcohol abuse was a woman.” Most histories do not record this fact. How did women get to be such drinkers? Weren’t they also staunch supporters of temperance, in particular the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union?
A: Yes, they were. But they were also susceptible to the same enticements and pleasures as men. And a sad irony: Many women took to drink in the mid- to late-nineteenth century in an attempt to escape the abuse of their drunken sons and husbands.

Q: You have come to believe that Prohibition was one of the two greatest legislative mistakes in American history. Why?
A: Because it sped the rise of organized crime and, even more important, led millions of Americans to a profound disrespect for both the wisdom and efficacy of law. The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited alcoholic beverages, remains to this day the only constitutional amendment ever repealed.

Q: The illegal alcoholic beverages that Americans drank during Prohibition were far more dangerous than the legal ones available previously, weren’t they?
A: Many of them were. “Yack Yack Bourbon” contained iodine; “Soda Pop Moon” had a base of rubbing alcohol; the ingredients of Squirrel Whiskey were a secret, but its name, it is believed, comes from the tendency of people who had taken a few sips to try to dig their feet into the sides of trees and try to run up to the top branches. Then there was the woman in Atlanta who got her kicks during Prohibition by imbibing a combination of mothballs and gasoline.

Q: What is your alcoholic beverage of choice?
A: A rum and Coke. Usually without a paper umbrella.


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