Prohibition: Early Alcohol Consumption cover

Prohibition: Early Alcohol Consumption


Early European colonizers in North America were used to drinking beer as a result of unsafe water in their native countries and they continued this practice in the new land. This NoteStream explores Early alcohol consumption, distilleries, the rise of saloons and early "medicinal uses" of alcohol.
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Prohibition: Early Alcohol Consumption

80th Anniversary

December 2013 marks the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the period between 1920 – 1933 when the manufacture, transport and sale of intoxicating liquors

was illegal in the United States. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, was the crowning achievement of a temperance movement that had been building in this country since the late 1700s. Alcohol consumption had peaked to a high of about 7 gallons per person in the early 1800s (compared to less than 3 gallons today), with recognized health and societal consequences.

See America Thirst

See America Thirst

Movie theater decorated for See America Thirst,

which tells the story of two men who become involved in a bootleggers' war and fall in love with a night club singer, 1930.

Courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.

Not so fast...

But the new laws were difficult to enforce, due to general unpopularity and the profits that could be made through circumventing the law.

Demand for alcohol remained high, and organized crime and corruption flourished. Loopholes and exemptions also allowed home wine production, and prescriptions for medical alcohol rose dramatically. Enforcement difficulties, popular resistance, and economic pressures associated with the Great Depression all contributed to efforts to repeal Prohibition. In 1933, the 21st Amendment ended national prohibition and returned responsibility for alcohol regulation to the states.

Early Alcohol Consumption

Early European colonizers in North America were used to drinking beer as a result of unsafe water in their native countries

and they continued this practice in the new land. One certain source of beer was the tavern, which provided lodging, food and drink for travelers and locals as well. The Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam had a full scale brewery by 1612, and local micro-breweries were established to supply beer to other areas throughout the colonies.

Many Options

Hops grew wild in New England and beer, drunk throughout the day, was made with a wide variety of ingredients, including fermented malt, roots, and pumpkin

with additions of boiled bark from spruce, sassafras or birch trees. Fruit and vegetable wines were made by colonial farmers, who used honey as a source of fermentation, and honey was also fermented into mead. Apples were not native to New England but once orchards were established in the mid-1600s, mildly alcoholic cider became a favorite beverage for all family members; some was fermented into hard cider.

Utah Liquor Company

Utah Liquor Company

Utah Liquor Company Window at Night, 1914.

Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved.


Early colonists brought ales and wines with them to the New World. They continued to import, but also began producing locally.

Distillation – the process of boiling a liquid to separate the components – is a process that has been used worldwide since ancient times. Distillation of fermented solutions such as beer, wine or mead results in a product with a higher alcohol content. Distilled alcohol can be stored longer than beers and wines, so producing distilled beverages became a good way for farmers to use excess grain to produce a marketable product. Through the mid-18th century, most spirits were produced by small farmer-distillers. There were no laws to limit production and excess product was easy to store, transport, trade and sell.

Stills For Sale

Stills For Sale

"Stills For Sale," advertisement from an 1809 issue of the Kentucky Gazette.

Courtesy of Lexington Public Library Kentucky Room.


The establishment of taverns was a vital tradition among early colonists, who brought with them to the new country the practice of drinking beer

and other alcoholic beverages. Not only did the early taverns provide food, liquor and lodging for travelers, but they frequently served as de facto town meeting houses and courthouses.

Drinking alcoholic beverages was commonly seen as not only acceptable, but beneficial. But drunkenness was considered undesirable and various local laws such as those regulating the establishment of closing times, limitation on the volume of liquor served, and fines for the excessive drinker and/or the server were not uncommon.

McGreevey’s Third Base Saloon

McGreevey’s Third Base Saloon

McGreevey’s Third Base Saloon served as the official headquarters of the Boston Royal Rooters and was one of the early American sports bars.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Michael T. "Nuf Ced" McGreevey Collection.

Taverns to Hotel Bars to Saloons

Prior to 1820, taverns dominated as drinking establishments, but their replacement by hotels with their “hotel bars” offered an alternative,

and by 1850 saloons were prominent. On the urban East coast, these generally took the form of politically-oriented saloons, while on the American frontier saloons were commonly characterized as having swinging doors, a long bar, spittoons, and tables for playing cards, but the variety of saloons was in fact immense. By 1900, there were an estimated 300,000 U.S. saloons, three times the number in 1870.

Walking Distance

Walking Distance

1907 map of Catlettsburg, Kentucky, showing eight saloons on a single block (Block 6, lower right corner of map).

Courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.

Coolidge Tavern

Coolidge Tavern

Coolidge Tavern, Watertown, Mass., an early American drinking establishment.

Courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library, Watertown, Massachusetts.

Medicinal Uses

The use of alcohol for medicinal purposes is documented in writings from ancient Egypt and other early cultures. Alcohol does have

“medicinal” properties; it is antiseptic and (in high doses) can be an anesthetic. In ancient times, medicinal properties may also have been ascribed to alcohol in cases where the water supply was not clean, and drinking alcohol was a safer option.

Distilled alcohol was also useful historically as a solvent to create medicines from botanicals. Juniper, for example, was believed to be useful in treating fevers and other conditions; gin was initially a medical product.

Dispensary Bottle

Dispensary Bottle

Dispensary bottle, c. 1905. Courtesy of the South Carolina State Museum.

The alcohol used in creating medicines also served as a preservative. Alcohol was believed to be useful in treating conditions ranging from high blood pressure to tuberculosis. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, advances in science and laboratory techniques contributed to reduced acceptance of alcohol in medical treatments. In 1916, whiskey was removed from The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America.