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Education: Higher Education

America’s Mind-Altering History

Class 3. King Alcohol—The Biography of Alcohol in America


This class examines important episodes in the history of alcohol use and reform in the United States. It offers primary and secondary readings that not only explore the consumption of America’s favorite psychoactive substance over the past three centuries, but also the ways in which gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status of its users shape the images of alcohol and its use, along with the problems and policies associated with it. Whether stimulated by fears of a drunken citizenry, the domestic costs of drunken husbands who squander their wages, the moral degradation of the female alcoholic and her progeny, or the fatalities associated with drunk driving, efforts for individual and collective temperance and prohibition have constituted the largest social reform movement in the American history. The readings discuss the politics of the temperance movement in the late-18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, as well as how changing cultural norms, political and economic imperatives, and new technologies have impinged upon the act of drinking and its real and perceived consequences.

Class Resources
  • Benezet, Anthony. The Mighty Destroyer Displayed: In Some Account of the Dreadful Havoc Made by the Mistaken Use, as well as Abuse, of Spiritous Liquors by a Lover of Mankind. Philadelphia: Joseph James, 1788.
  • Dorchester, Daniel. “General Progress (1840-60).” In The Liquor Problem in All Ages. New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1884, pp. 267-83.
  • Richmond, Mary. “The Homeless Man: The Inebriate.” In Social Diagnosis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1917, pp. 429-33.
  • “Women’s Christian Temperance Union.” In Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, edited by Ernest Hurst Cherrington. Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Company, 1930, pp. 2891-2901.
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. “Annals of Anthropology: Drinking Game.” New Yorker, February 15, 2010, pp. 70-76.
  • Golden, Janet. “A Cultural History of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.” MD Advisor: A Journal for the New Jersey Medical Community 3 (Winter 2010): 22-24, 26-29.
  • Mancall, Peter. “ ‘I was Addicted to Drinking Rum,’: Four Centuries of Alcohol Consumption in Indian Country.” In Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000., edited by Sarah W. Tracy and Caroline Jean Acker. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004, pp. 91-107.
  • McClellan, Michelle. “‘Lady Tipplers’: Gendering the Modern Alcoholism Paradigm.” In Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000, edited by Sarah W. Tracy and Caroline Jean Acker. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004, pp. 267-97.
  • Reinarman, Craig. “The Social Construction of an Alcohol Problem: The Case of Mothers against Drunk Drivers and Social Control in the 1980s.” Theory and Society 17 (1988): 91–120.
  • Tracy, Sarah W. “Introduction.” In Alcoholism in America from Reconstruction to Prohibition. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007, pp. 1-24.

Discussion Questions
  1. “History,” says Peter Mancall, “not biology, holds the key to understanding Native American drinking patterns, just as history, not biology, holds the key to understanding alcohol consumption in other American populations.” What historical factors—cultural, political, spiritual, technological, economic—appear to be most important in the development of drinking patterns in the United States? Do these patterns differ among groups? If so, how? Are the same factors at play in the social and political responses to drinking?
  2. How did concerns over women’s drinking change between 1890 and 1990? Why were, and why are, women’s alcohol problems frequently still perceived as more severe than men’s problem drinking today?
  3. The earliest temperance advocates distinguished between fermented beverages, which they regarded as healthy, and distilled beverages, which they regarded as dangerous to one’s health. Do we make such distinctions today? If so, what are our rationales, and how do they compare with those of early temperance advocates such as Anthony Benezet and Benjamin Rush?
  4. How did industrialization, immigration, and urbanization affect attitudes toward alcohol in the United States? How do modern technologies—transportation, industrial, medical, and alcohol-related—potentiate the dangers associated with drinking for both men and women?
  5. Based on your readings in this class, how might you characterize the relationship between alcohol consumption and minority populations within our society?
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