American Writers Confront Lager

Below I link a starkly funny piece from 1866. The writer is uncredited, signing himself only “Hunki-do-ri”, but internal and other evidence suggests he was a Philadelphia journalist.

I think most reading, regardless of age, know the meaning of “hunkydory” – satisfactory, alright, okay. It’s not quite an antiquated term – David Bowie used it after all.

The phrase was popular cant during the Civil War, with a misty etymology no one has ever fully explained, to my knowledge.

Hunki-do-ri’s comic style has a slightly surreal or fabulist edge, reminding me of Monty Python, Jonathan Winters, or Robin Williams. Hence, while 1866 is a long time ago, the piece is rather contemporary in comedic style.

In the 1860s an issue preoccupied America: is lager beer intoxicating? Because the drink was relatively new in the country and less strong than ale or porter, it wasn’t well understood. This was exacerbated by its association with German and other Central Europeans, new Americans still in process of integration and acceptance.

Countless journalistic sallies, essays, court cases, and reports studied whether lager was intoxicating and the extent to which it should be regulated. This area has been, and will continue to be a fecund field for cultural historians and other studies.

In earlier postings I discussed a few examples of this journalism; to these let’s add the 1866 example. Hunki-do-ri’s premise: I must spend a full day drinking lager in its usual habitats to understand fully its effects. Whence a journey that begins with the breakfast hour and ends only at bedtime.

It started this way:

9 A.M. —Took a glass of lager at a Third street saloon. Exceedingly cooling to the system. It diffuses a gentle and agreeable exhilaration throughout the brain.

9.05 A.M. —Took another glass with brown bread, salt, and cardamon seeds. Thoughts run in agreeable channels. Disposed to look leniently upon the frailties of humanity. Wouldn’t refuse to receive cash in full from a debtor, or force money upon a man I owed. Pat the head of a little Dutch* baby that toddles by me. Am carried back in imagination to the days of my youth (which the nights of my mature years had put out of my head somewhat.) …

Right away the tone is set – the second drink is consumed five minutes after the first.

The writer does not much concern himself with the cultural fact of German-ness in America. Many pieces of the day depicted German-Americans in stereotypical, often denigrating terms. Hunki-dor-i largely stays away from this field, and qua drink, certainly liked lager.

Occasionally he references foreign emblems for mainstream Americans, the spiced bread is an example. In general though the tone is humorous, upbeat, finally riotous.

A counterpoint to this treatment are the pages of Bob Brown on the Turner Park Beer Garden outside Chicago in his Let There be Beer (1932). It appears in the chapter “An American Beerhood” at pp. 114 et seq.

I discussed the book, an overlooked classic in American beer studies, in two posts earlier.

Brown was raised in Oak Park, Illinois, which adds to the authenticity of the account. I say this because Brown had a rambling, arch, rollicking style and at times could be forgiven for historical inaccuracy. Still, there seems little doubt his beer garden existed.

The period is circa-1900. Brown locates the park six miles from the Chicago suburb of River Forest, reachable by foot through forest or on water.

Turner Park, says Brown, was named for “gymnast” in German, turner (the masculine noun). The park seems to have been the locale of a Turnverein club, the gymnastic and social clubs that spread through German-America in the last quarter of the 1800s.

Brown focuses on the beer amenities, stating that “among rustic tables standing four-square to hold the stagger of thick glass mugs” the “brew-master” “Ran the place single-handed, milled the malt, brewed the beer, and waited on tables…”.

The best time was in spring, when “Bock was on tap, dew was on the firecracker green grass, froth fresh on the seidel”.

The account tells the adventures at the park of “Joe”, the protagonist. Joe almost certainly was a lightly disguised young Bob Brown. Joe flees the starchy, orderly, indeed officially dry confines of River Forest for the pleasures of “outlawed” Turner Park.

Written two generations after Hunki-do-ri’s lager adventures, Brown’s account is notable for an evident sympathy with German-American culture. He portrays the old-stock burghers of River Forest as judgmental, prejudiced, hypocritical. No doubt there is some exaggeration here, given the florid style, but the portrait is striking nonetheless.

The “foreign customs” of “Dutch-town”, the enclave where Germans and other newcomers lived, are contrasted to “padded”, “tailor-made”, “Bible class” River Forest.

Brown shows how harsh were Joe and his classmates to the Dutch kids, making fun of their language and customs “from a safe distance”. In his own way, Brown critiques the bullying culture that he probably observed, maybe participated in, as a school-child.

Joe visits the beer garden, stube Brown also calls it, in all seasons. In winter he would skate the six miles down the (Des Plaines) river to get there. He explains that the exertions meant by the time he got home, no evidence of intoxication showed, yet his mother noticed how the household supply of “cloves” (chewed to mask alcohol) kept diminishing. No slouch, she put it down to Joe and his father tippling.

For supporting evidence that Turner Park and its beer garden/stube really existed, see e.g., this Illinois historical study from c. 1998. It states the associated gymnastic club was an extension of one in Decatur, and mentions the adjacent beer garden. The garden ran, it appears, at least from 1896 until 1914, although it seems Turner Park originated in some form c. 1875.

See for example this report in September 1875 describing a German shooting fest at the park. The availability of lager at numerous “stands” is mentioned. A small community, River Grove, grew alongside the park and is now a town of some 10,000 but the park itself seems no longer to exist.

Brown was born in 1886. Oak Park is 2.5 miles from River Forest…

Still a drink of some mystery in 1866, by 1900 lager had almost completely taken over American beer customs. It took only 50 years or so.

Brown nonetheless in separate chapters lovingly depicts the older ale and porter tradition, with its associated hostelries. I’ll return to this before long.

N.B. For some general background on the emergence of beer gardens in Chicago after the Civil War including as connected to the Turners, see Perry Duis’ study, The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston 1880-1920, at pp. 154 et seq.

Note re image: image above, of Des Plaines river in winter, is sourced from the Lake County Forest Preserves Site, here. All intellectual property belongs solely to lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Means German here, probably.