NOTIONS of health and healing based on tradition, rather than scientific evidence, characterized much of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American medical thinking. Along with plants and simple chemical compounds, wine and distilled spirits were treated as curatives—a glass of wine for nervousness, a dram of whiskey for a chest cold. Moreover, as water might be the source of illness, beverages like beer and hard cider were viewed as safe and even restorative. In both England and colonial America, beer was food—a filling, grain-based carbohydrate. Most farmers in early America would set aside land for orchards, with the harvest run through a cider press and left to ferment in jugs or barrels. And by the 1830s and 1840s, many Americans grew interested in imported wine and some began planting vineyards for domestic wine production.
YET by 1830 many Americans also recognized that drink was a problem. Whiskey was cheap and plentiful, with over 14,000 distilleries across the country meeting a truly staggering demand for strong spirits. Historians estimate that, on average, Americans over the age of 15 drank around seven gallons of whiskey a year (the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per person per week, or about 90 bottles a year).
STRONG drink and drunkenness were certainly prevalent and understood as a problem in colonial America and the young republic. Yet by around 1830 the use of alcohol was often framed as an ever-intensifying confrontation with morality. One could practice sin or salvation, “intemperance” or “temperance.” Indeed, drink and its putative problems generated numerous volumes of fiction, poetry, and dramatic works—a popular “temperance literature” that appeared in the United States and England. These works focused, more or less melodramatically, on the consequences of alcohol consumption, with typically unoriginal plot lines and action: a protagonist descends into drunkenness and ruin, or finally swears off alcohol and finds redemption.
THE books displayed here document notions of drink as benign or even healthful, and the gathering sense of moral repulsion at the use of alcohol to any extent, a repulsion that was finally expressed in the temperance movement.