“The Story of Alcohol”

The Bridgeport Times of Bridgeport, CT featured an illustrated series called “The Story of Alcohol” between July 15 and the end of August, 1919. It comprised nominally 40 instalments (39 appeared as one was duplicated and one missing), an astonishing 24,000 words or so in total.

National Prohibition was slated to enter into force in January, 1920, having been approved in January, 1919 by the passage of the 18th Amendment. Indeed, a good part of Connecticut was already liquor-free under “no-licence” election. Why on earth would a newspaper do a lavish spread on the history of beverage alcohol? The series starts with alcohol in ancient times, bringing it to more recent periods and first stirrings of the prohibition sentiment.

There is a retrospective or memorial feel to the articles. Now that the prospect of alcohol disappearing from social life was patent, ruminative minds were thinking about a weighty legacy being disavowed in toto by a resolute country, forever. The paper called the changes “epochal”. It used the fundamental nature of the change as a pretext to survey man’s entire history of using and abusing alcohol. In the words of the opening, July 15 instalment:

In a good many ways the approach of the day when prohibition is to be enforced throughout the United States is one of the epochal events of history. Other things than alcohol have been put under the ban of law – gambling, slavery and numerous others that have seemed harmful to the progress of mankind. But none of them have been so universal as alcohol nor has any one of them been traced so far back into the dimmest period of human history. So it seems now the timeliest of timely subjects for illustration in this space.

In fact, I suspect there was more than a tinge of regret in the minds of the (anonymous) writer, and the editor. The series was perhaps a kind of guilt trip, a working out of psychic conflicts raised by an unprecedented and audacious attempt to re-engineer society.

The articles read as engaging popular history, stuff written for educated or thinking people by an expert, almost certainly an academic. The tone is even, friendly, and focuses on specific historical figures, from Noah to the Greek warrior Chares to Socrates. Does that remind you of anyone? Does the name Will Durant come to mind? It is an index of the mantra that life is change that few if any reading will know the name. Durant was a long-lived historian, famous for his The Story of Civilization and many other books.

(It is interesting to note he was of French-Canadian ancestry, part of a group which transplanted to New England before WW I to seek better opportunities. Numerous accomplished Americans have 100% or partial Franco-New England ethnicity including Will Durant, writer Jack Kerouac, John C. Garand (designer of the M1 Garand rifle), author Paul Theroux, and actor Matt LeBlanc).

I think Durant may have authored the Story of Alcohol series, or maybe his young wife and frequent co-author, Ariel, did albeit I could find no source to confirm it or even tending in that direction.

Durant had published numerous articles on history and philosophy by 1919 and had taught in various schools. He had worked earlier as a reporter in New York and would have had contacts in the press world.

The anonymity may have been requested by the newspaper as part of the compensation arrangement, or perhaps Durant, or whomever wrote it if it wasn’t he, requested it so his teaching career would not be affected. Showing an undue interest in alcohol, even an academic one, would not have been viewed robustly in the lead-up to National Prohibition particularly for a teacher.

The first instalments deal with alcohol in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Palestine, Greece, and Rome. There are many good stories and insights. The Greeks for example almost never drank wine undiluted. On the other hand, they drank large amounts of it and drunkeness was a feature of some parts of social life, especially the symposium. The Greeks didn’t seem to care much for connoisseurship, and would flavour their wine with a wide range of things, from cheese to wormwood.

The Romans were more conscious of different qualities of wine, but they too in drinking parties and other contexts drank large amounts.

Excess drinking was condemned in some quarters, mythology records that when Bacchus toured lands to impart wine-making skills, some kings sent him away and were later punished for this.

The message continually is that wine and beer had mixed blessings since the potential for abuse was always there. A skein of the series is that humankind was slowly realizing that alcohol at bottom was an evil to be controlled and ultimately abolished. One might think thousands of years was rather an extended time for even a prolonged experiment, but the series later suggests the onset and perfection of distilled spirits was an important factor to decide if alcohol prohibition should apply.

To my knowledge, these articles were never printed in another newspaper or other source.*

[A second part follows, here, and a third, here].

Note re image: the image above of Bridgeport, CT is believed in the public domain and was obtained from Wikipedia, here. It is included for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

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*Subsequently we found a further (earlier) publication, in the San Francisco Chronicle, see here.