Drink Like a Colonial American Day: What Have We Learned?

This is me at 8am yesterday morning.  It’s admittedly not the best photo ever taken of me.

“SHAME!”

That’s the one word Roommate Jeff had for me at the end of the day, after I bailed out on Drinking Like A Colonial American.  “SHAME!”  He was disappointed in me, to say the least.

I still can’t figure out why the day was so hard; my guess is the combination of drinks, plus the pacing.  One of the last things I want to do when I’m drinking is sober up, and that seems to be the name of the game when you’re ingesting a drink an hour.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences with it, if they’re brave (foolish) enough to try a colonial drinking day at home.

The one thing I learned that truly amazed me is the effect the temperance movement had on America’s drinking habits.  I feel like the temperance movement has always gotten a bad wrap, particularly recently with the boom in books and documentaries about prohibition.  But considering in 1830 we were drinking five gallons of distilled spirits per person per year, and a decade later that number was down to two–that’s pretty incredible.  Perhaps our country was ready for a change.

But honestly, the most fascinating part of yesterday’s experiment was the discussion that sprung up in the comments.  If you haven’t read them, I encourage you to do so.

Thank you for participating, everyone!  I’m going to take a break from torturing myself for the next week while I celebrate my birthday.  I’m going to post a few lighter posts.  And then…well, we’ll see what the new year brings.

5 Responses to “Drink Like a Colonial American Day: What Have We Learned?”


  • Have an awesome birthday. You know- I bet some chocolate egg cream might help you recover!

    I am intrigued and may venture to try this myself, though I think I might try Mr. Dickens’ terrifying regime. I now kinda want to know how wrecked an entire pint of champagne in the middle of the afternoon would make me. :)

  • I agree, chocolate egg cream is the best hangover remedy in the world! It’s nice to read your thoughts on the 19th-century temperance movement. They are widely-regarded as a bunch of fun-hating buzzkills, and unfairly lumped in with the 20th-century temperance movement. But in all fairness, drunkenness was a tremendous problem in the 19th century (and presumably the 18th century as well, but I am not very knowledgeable about the earlier years; certainly it’s still a problem today). It was an era in which women were very rarely granted a divorce and beating one’s wife and children wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Women who were granted divorces might never see their children again, and that kept many unfortunate women in abusive marriages because they would not leave their children at the mercy of their drunken husbands. And of course, a married woman ceased to be a person; her money and property and even her children belonged to her husband. So even if she or the children worked, their income might taken from them and drunk away. Women were very active in the temperance movement, but its motivation was more than the usual Methodist-esque anti-vice, no dancing/cards, fun-killing rationale. Drunkenness caused a tremendous amount of misery for women and children and of course, for men as well, many of whom ruined their promising young lives with strong drink. It was also the bane of soldiering men; Bernard Cornwell describes officers skewering stray wine caskets as they rushed into battle because they knew that their soldiers would stop to drink even as the French were attacking. They’d rather be a drunk prisoner-of-war or even a corpse than pass up the free hooch! If soldiers couldn’t march due to drunkenness, they had to be left behind and were usually killed by the French. Alcohol does make you forget your cares, if only for a little while, and there’s no question but that poor people had a lot of cares in the 19th century, but intemperance also affected the wives and children of the wealthy. I think it came to a crisis point when trade, commerce, and industrialism made wine and spirits cheap and accessible for working-class men who worked in cities and not on farms. It was no longer just a friendly pint at the local after lunch. Well, that’s my theory, anyway, but I do agree that the temperance movement was well-founded (even if it became a little whacked-out in the 20th century).

  • Other lesson learned: never drink bourbon for breakfast.

  • Alcohol consumption may be more a function of time than place. John Merriman in his contemporary French history course at Yale devotes an entire lecture to 19th century French drinking habits. Your average Zola character could give your average colonial American a serious run for his money.

    Watch the lecture: http://openmedia.yale.edu/cgi-bin/open_yale/media_downloader.cgi?file=/courses/fall07/hist276/mov/chapters/hist276_10_100807.mov

  • On behalf of American historians everywhere, thank you for taking one for the team! You’ve really made me reconsider the Temperance movement too, as well as the mental state of the Founding Fathers.

    Hope your birthday celebration was more enjoyable than this experiment. I love hard cider, so I’ll second the commentor who suggested that a drier cider would be more palatable (i.e. not Woodchuck.)

    Also, I wonder what the typical ratio of solid/liquid calories would have been. Were they relying on beer for sustenance, or balancing it out with a hearty breakfast? Of course this probably would have varied across classes.

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