December 5, 2007
The 74th anniversary of “Repeal Day”, the end of Prohibition in the United States provided the inspiration for this entry.
Ah, today should be a citywide holiday, it really really should.
December 5th marks the 74th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, just a tick of the geological clock since that final state (Utah, who else) grudgingly ratified the 21st Amendment.
You couldn’t really blame the Prohibitionists for their distaste for John Barleycorn. A flood of cheap corn whiskey in the early years of the nineteenth century changed the way an already soggy American society imbibed — for the soggier. The forerunner of today’s coffee break emerged as the mid-morning whiskey “elevenses”, and by 1820 the average Joe was pouring down half a pint a day — that’s over five gallons a year!
In the middle of the century, hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation began to get the upper hand. Temperance societies appeared and abstinence laws started to pass throughout the “civilized” half of the country, but out West, well … let’s just say that as writer Rudyard Kipling strolled off a clipper ship into 1889 San Francisco, his delicate British sensibilities were shocked, shocked! by the way we got our drink on.
In one of a series of letters written for readers of a colonial Indian newspaper, a snippy (but observant!) young Rudyard made some pointed and funny observations about San Francisco drinking, the custom of “treating”, and the salutary effects of the California climate:
“And this brings me by natural sequence to the great drink question. As you know, of course, the American does not drink at meals as a sensible man should. Indeed, he has no meals. He stuffs for ten minutes thrice a day. Also he has no decent notions about the sun being over the yardarm or below the horizon. He pours his vanity into himself at unholy hours, and indeed he can hardly help it. You have no notion of what â€˜treatingâ€™ means on the Western slope. It is more than an institution; it is a religion, though men tell me that it is nothing to what it was.”
“Take a very common instance. At 10.30 A.M. a man is smitten with desire for stimulants. He is in the company of two friends. All three adjourn to the nearest bar,â€”seldom more than twenty yards away,â€”and take three straight whiskys. They talk for two minutes. The second and third man then treats in order; and thus each walks into the street, two of them the poorer by three goes of whisky under their belt, and one with two more liquors than he wanted. It is not etiquette yet to refuse a treat. The result is peculiar. I have never yet, I confess, seen a drunken man in the streets, but I have heard more about drunkenness among white men, and seen more decent men above or below themselves with drink, than I care to think about.”
“But the climate of California deals kindly with excess, and treacherously covers up its traces. A man neither bloats nor shrivels in this dry air. He continues with the false bloom of health upon his cheeks, an equable eye, a firm mouth, and a steady hand till a day of reckoning arrives, and suddenly breaking up, about the head, he dies, and his friends speak his epitaph accordingly.”