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
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
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.
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.