A Better Heaven Than Brooklyn

Americans Argue: did the “Half and Half” Exist in the old Country?

Between November 24 and December 3, 1902 an extraordinary correspondence ensued in the New York Times on a rather arcane question: did Britain know the “half-and-half” as a drink of the beer family?

The term half-and-half, sometimes under the humorous (in gas-lamp America) variant “arf and arf”, was well-known in the United States. It is in Jerry Thomas’ famous bar guide of some decades earlier, see in this edition at page 101. It appears there as a mix of porter or stout and ale, or a mix of fresh and aged ales.

The term regularly appears in the U.S. press of the time. Prizefighters seemed to like ales when training. Some probably took them post-bout, altering the usual course.*

As the ring of arf and arf implies it was assumed the drink was of English origin. In this vein a 1902 story in the Times noted that British habitués in Manhattan’s Abingdon Square, aka the British Quarter, ordered the drink in clubs and saloons.

The article, written tartly from a brash American standpoint, stated that the type of English man who carried an air of innocent simplicity into his thirties drank half and half.

Parenthetically, it always surprises me how by 1900 even Americans of evident Anglo-Saxon ancestry, as most journalists were then, looked at Britain as a truly foreign country – so completely had the distinct American character emerged.

The writer of the first letter, a William Alpin, had lived in London some decades earlier. As self-described, he was “young, American and full of Dickens and Thackeray” and clearly avid to confirm U.S. impressions of U.K. customs. Yet, once in Britain, he could find no trace of the half and half. In his words:

I read with much interest in the Sunday edition of THE TIMES the short article on “Odd Corners,” describing the English colony at and about Abington Square. I am afraid I shall have to dissent with the writer, though, as to the presence there [i.e., in England] of “half-and-half.” I lived five years in London, from 1870 to 1873, during which time I frequently visited Liverpool, Birmingham, Brighton, Dover—in fact traveled athwart and across the country, even to Scotland and Wales—and in all that time I never heard half-and-half once mentioned, nor saw anybody who could tell me what is meant by that word compound. American tourist friends who visited me could scarcely believe that the “typical English” drink, half-and-half, of which they had heard at home so much and so often, was absolutely unknown in England even by name…

A deluge of letters followed, many of which you can read in this Fulton Newspapers link, printed in the same issue on November 30. For the rest, the search function of the New York Times will assist, I’ve tried to gather them here.

I have written of the half and half before, including in the earlier New York press, but this exhibition of interest was unprecedented. The letters all disagreed with Alpin. Some pointed out that his accent confounded bartenders, and had he spoken of “arf and arf” he would easily have found the drink. Others stated he looked in the wrong places, as only the public bars and other low resorts would supply the article, it couldn’t be found in railways and hotels which a young American of his sort presumably frequented.

One simply wrote:

I am not yet seventy, and, during the years M. Alpin was living in London I was also living there, and I have no compunction in saying I had to carry a jug pretty often for my father’s half-and-half.

Other letters named types of half and half, usually a mixture of ale and porter but also variants such as old-and-bitter, aka mother-in-law. One writer stated beer and ginger beer could be a half and half. Another denied this and stated that mixture was a shandy-gaff (true).

One notable correspondent was Frank Vizetelly, the son of noted English journalist and drinks writer, Henry Vizetelly, so one in a position to know on these matters. His contribution was to provide citations for the half and half in literature including for an issue of Gentleman’s Magazine in Georgian times.

Alpin wrote back finally in a huff. He stated that despite the “score” of letters protesting his assertion he was proved right since the half and half was so various in character it meant nothing finally, but he was labouring here.

My point is not so much to show that half and half in Britain existed around 1900. It is an old item in the U.K. drinks inventory that stretches back at least to porter’s origins in the early 1700s. The term continues in use to this day or at least is understood by most familiar with the bar lexicon. Certainly various American beers were sub-styled half and half into the post-Prohibition era as these examples amply show, from Jess Kidden’s historical beer pages.

But I draw attention to the Times letters for their various opinions and the felicity in many cases of the prose, down to the dry humour. Here is a sample (for clarity, “four-half” was a type of half and half):

It’s really too bad our unsophisticated friend, Mr. “Willie” Alpin, never had the pleasure of meeting a certain gentleman who was fond of talking about “The Little Nipper.” There’s the man who could have given him some information on the momentous question, “Is there, or is there not half-and-half in England?” I reckon the brewers have to work overtime to keep any in sight.

The next time “Willie” Alpin goes to London he must go down to the House of Commons and interview a brewer on this subject. But meanwhile he must, if fortune gives him the chance, get the ear of “The Little Nipper” man. You remember, “The Little Nipper” enters a “pub” (I believe, Sir, that is what they call the horrible things) with his most adoring parents. The papa orders in his sweet vernacular: “Two pots of four-alf,” whereupon ” The Little Nipper” playfully  remarks: “What, ain’t muffer goin’ to ‘ave none?”.

Yes, I think The L. N. man could put him “wise” on this subject; I will not try, but just say, in conclusion, that I notice that Mr. “Willie” Alpin lives in Brooklyn. Now, I believe the late Ward Beecher made some remark about Brooklyn being like heaven. Well, maybe it is: but if I could have the pleasure of the company of Mr. “Willie” Alpin in London any Sunday from 1 to 1:30 P. M. at any one of, say, 3,000 “pubs.” (excuse me) and he would guarantee to drink all the half-and-half that was passed over the “bar” in response to a demand for “‘arf-and-‘arf” during that short space of time, he’d wake up in a better heaven than Brooklyn, N. Y.

If there remains any doubt, yes half and half did exist in 1900, as beer writer Martyn Cornell elucidated a few years ago, here.

Cornell’s article is helpful too to make clear a misprint or omission on the part of one of the Times letter-writers. The writer described six types of beer in general use in England, one of which was “beer”. The others were porter, stout, mild ale, bitter, and Cooper, a mix of porter and stout. The “beer” didn’t make sense since he mentioned porter and bitter, which would normally take in “beer”, if not one or more other terms in the list.

The Times correspondent was probably recalling a news story in 1900 in London’s Daily Express on the city’s beer. That story was centrepiece in Cornell’s articleThe Express recited the beer types in current use. These were similar, with one exception, to the letter-writer’s list. Hence we know the source he likely used. And “beer” in the Daily Express was prefaced by “ginger”, so it was ginger beer, in other words, which makes sense in context. Clearly the Times editor was clueless. He probably drank Manhattans.

Finally, one letter-writer noted usefully that American ginger beer did not taste at all like the English article. She wrote that ginger beer in England from stone bottles was akin to lemonade flavoured with ginger.

It looks like I’ve been making the beer shandy wrong my whole life. The deuced shandy!

Note re image: The image of Abingdon Square is from the New York City Parks website, here. All ownership in the image resides solely in its lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Many 19th-century references, both U.S. and U.K., discuss the permissible use of ale or stout to train fighters, rowers, and runners. See e.g. here, or in this study of the bare-knuckle prizefighting era.






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