Beware the Bottle!

Much attention is focused these days on the costs of addiction, to drugs and alcohol in particular, here in America. The Partnership for a Drug Free America is one well-known effort, while “Drink Responsibly” is the motto of a liquor industry campaign. While the specifics of these current public education efforts may vary, they rest on a foundation that dates back two centuries or more in this state and nation.

Alcoholic beverages had long been a centerpiece of Connecticut life dating back to English settlement of the colony. Beers and ales, wines and distilled spirits–most importantly perhaps, rum–were common accompaniments to meals and entertainments. A certain percentage of the population, much as today, found such drink addictive, creating personal and (frequently) public problems that caught the attention of both church and state.

Fast forward to the early decades of the 19th century when, buoyed by the energy of the so-called Second Great Awakening, a period of vigorous religious revival and evangelism, public attitudes toward the use of alcohol were being questioned. Like other social reform movements that were beginning to find their collective voices at this time—anti-slavery and women’s rights are two prime examples—the growing sentiment to address the problem of drunkenness took on the look of a popular crusade. The temperance movement, as it came to be known, initially appealed to people to limit their consumption of alcohol, following the ancient Greek admonition to experience “all things in moderation.” When this approach proved ineffective, temperance adherents looked to strictly limit or outright prohibit production and consumption of alcoholic beverages.

By the 1830s and 1840s groups of like-minded individuals, many linked by Protestant religious affiliation and values, began to appear; together they helped form the heart of the temperance movement nationally. The Connecticut Temperance Society sponsored a “Cold Water Army” (a children’s group whose members pledged to drink cold water instead of alcohol) and tried to rally public—and political—opinion to their cause. In addition to publications, rallies, parades, and other events helped keep the temperance issue fresh in the public mind. Some tavern keepers even decided to embrace the movement, and beginning in the 1830s “temperance taverns” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) made their appearance.

As with every social reform effort there was a vocal, perhaps equally committed, portion of the populace who did not want to be prohibited from drinking alcohol. The battle for the minds of the people continued into the 20th century when, with the passage of the Volstead Act, framed in the 18th Amendment, it seemed the temperance forces had finally achieved their goal. The ensuing “dry” period (1920-1933) however illustrated just how difficult such social engineering is when individuals decide what is best for themselves. And speaking as a descendant of several Irish-American saloon keepers I can only imagine that the repeal of prohibition in 1933 seemed to some almost a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

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