[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series. In this post, Dr. Gabe Klehr asks us to think carefully about the ways that we talk and teach about the historical experience of “drunkenness.”]
By Gabe Klehr
Last spring, I taught a new class on the role of alcohol in American history. I usually find that I can spend a lot of time setting up a class, but it takes actually teaching it to really figure out what the themes of the class are going to be. Obviously, any history class involves questions of historical identification and difference, but talking about historical use of alcohol brought these questions to the fore in interesting and surprising ways.
I was in the middle of a lecture about American drinking habits in the eighteenth century when the issues of understanding the effects of alcohol in the past became particularly clear. I had started the lecture with a discussion of the drinking habits American colonists had brought with them from early modern Britain. This was a world in which a British physician wrote “Water is not wholesome solely by itself for an Englishman.” Given the levels of pollution in most water sources in early America, this might have been sound advice. Jamestown, for example, had brackish, possibly poisonous water, and colonists stopped drinking it almost as soon as they were able to produce enough alcohol.
I laid out this background and then discussed what this meant. Eighteenth century residents of British North America drank alcohol at all meals from morning to night. On top of this regular daily drinking there were frequent communal binges on holidays and other public gatherings. As I was describing all of this, a student asked “so, basically early Americans were drunk all the time?” It wasn’t a bad question, but as I tried to answer it, it occurred to me how many other questions it raised about our relationship with people from the past. Not all early Americans had access to alcohol. And early modern beer and wine and spirits might not have had as much alcohol as we might assume: in their post earlier this week, “Jolly Good Ale and Old: Or, Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?” Angela McShane and James Brown of the Intoxicants Project talked about their research into early modern ABV numbers.
It was easy enough to get students to understand the biological perspective, but I wanted them to see it as only part of the puzzle. Alcohol tolerance can be a biological metaphor for trying to understand the subjectivity of historical actors. Colonial Americans didn’t feel the effects of alcohol the way most of us do. It isn’t just that people processed alcohol differently, but also that they understood it differently, and this understanding changed the effect of alcohol. In the metaphor, this could almost be considered a form of cultural tolerance. For historians, of course, this is a familiar perspective, but as many of us know from experience, getting undergraduates to think of the past as a different country with different standards and values can be quite difficult.
As the class progressed, these problems continued. On one hand, much of the energy and interest of the class came because students could personally relate to the class material about alcohol and attitudes about it. I want students to feel invested in the course material, but it was very difficult to get many of them to consider what it meant that people in the past thought about alcohol very differently than contemporary Americans do. It was also often difficult to get them to consider what all this meant about our contemporary medicalized and therapeutic understandings of alcohol, or even to consider those approaches to be historically contingent rather than simply the “correct” approaches that historical actors were unaware of.
To come back to the question the student asked, I’m not sure it is possible to know if colonial Americans were drunk most of the time. I tend to think that such a vast gulf separates us from them that it is very hard to know how they felt. Some things in the past might be lost forever and perhaps nothing is more fleeting and subjective than a physical state caused by an intoxicating substance. However, how I would answer the question isn’t really the point. What I wanted was to get students to pose the question and to try to use sources and their historical imagination to think about it.
I’ll be teaching the course again next spring and have been considering how I can encourage students to consider these questions. I’m planning to spend the first week of class examining how historians approach the history of food, drink and alcohol. I’m hoping that an approach that brings questions of methodology and theory to the fore will set the tone for the rest of the class. I’d appreciate any suggestions on readings. I don’t want to be prescriptive in telling students how they should think about the relationship between past and present understandings. I do, however, want to give them some frameworks for understanding the questions. I think tackling questions about historical imagination head on will help to make it a theme rather than a stumbling block in the class. Talking about something that students have a visceral and personal understanding of (in this case, alcohol) can often be an excellent way to address historical imagination, and I’m hopeful that the students and I can do that together.
 Quoted in John Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, A Social History of Drink in Modern Britain, p. 9. Routledge, 2012.
Gabe Klehr is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently working on a book examining black Baptists in biracial churches in Virginia from 1780-1865.