Drunk for a Penny
Dead Drunk for Two

By Stephen R. Powell

During Colonial times Americans drank more booze than any other time in our history. Alcohol was much more than something to get drunk on (of course they enjoyed that too). For the early nineteenth century America drinking liquor was a way of life, a way of survival. "The Good Creature of God" as alcoholic drink was often referred to, was though to be a "vital" drink that helped balance the humors (fluids) of the body. At every turn or rest stop Americans would take time out to drink. Judges interrupted court to take a snoot full, clergymen (who were the biggest tipplers of them all) were socially obligated to drink at every house call, and business men sealed bargains with a drink. What this led to was a nation of drunkards on a scale that has yet to be matched.

Rum and gin was the most popular drink with whisky later joining the fray. People drank 6-8 ounce glasses of liquor at breakfast, mid morning, lunch, mid afternoon, dinner, and evening, plus a nite cap (and these were the normal people). Taverns often had signs on the door or in the windows that would read "Drunk for a Penny, Dead Drunk for Two" trying to entice customers into their establishments to drink what by today’s standards (and then too) was awful tasting stuff.


“Even our fledgling democracy was corrupted by Alcohol. The very sanctity of the right to vote was violated by drink. When election time came around, votes were often bought with liquor.”


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The following is excerpted from the American Encyclopedia (1830 edition) thus described drinking customs in colonial times

"A fashion at the South was to take a glass of whiskey, flavored with mint, soon after waking; and so conducive to health was this nostrum esteemed that no sex, and scarcely any age, were deemed exempt from its application. At eleven o'clock, while mixtures, under various peculiar names-sling, toddy, flip, etc.-solicited the appetite at the bar of the common tippling-shop, the offices of professional men and counting rooms dismissed their occupants for a half hour to regale themselves at a neighbor's or a coffee-house with punch, hot or cold, according to the season; and females or valetudinarians, courted an appetite with medicated rum, disguised under the chaste names of "Hexham's Tinctures" or "Stoughton's Elixir." The dinner hour arrived . . . whiskey and water curiously flavored with apples, or brandy and water, introduced the feast; whiskey or brandy and water helped it through; and whiskey or brandy without water secured its safe digestion, not to be used in any more formal manner than for the relief of occasional thirst or for the entertainment of a friend, until the last appeal should be made to them to secure a sound night's sleep. Rum, seasoned with cherries, protected against the cold; rum, made astringent with peach-nuts, concluded the repast at the confectioner's; rum, made nutritious with milk, prepared for the maternal office. . . . No doubt there were numbers who did not use ardent spirits, but it was not because they were not perpetually in their way. . . . The friend who did not testify his welcome, and the employer who did not provide bountifully of them for his help, was held niggardly, and there was no special meeting, not even of the most formal or sacred kind, where it was considered indecorous, scarcely any place where it was not thought necessary, to produce them…".

Places like Buffalo were especially hard drinking towns in the 1830’s mainly because of the canal and lake shipping trade that flourished here. Even during the digging of the canal open barrels of whisky were left out along the canal bed with ladle’s on strings attached to their sides for all to drink as much as they pleased (this was a common custom of the era). To those of you who are fond of strong drink this may seem a dream come true, but keep in mind that in those days men often drank nothing else, ever, not even water if they could help it. It was wildly believed that whisky was a vital fluid that helped man work harder and for longer. All this despite a growing movement of temperance minded folk inspired by the writings of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush. Rush was the first notable American to publish writings saying that liquor was in fact bad for you (this came as a shock to many). Even with this knowledge Americans continued to gulp booze furiously without fear of its ill effects...

All material 1996-2001 all rights reserved by Stephen R. Powell




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