“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 but 39 appeared, as one was duplicated and one missing. In total, some 24,000 words appeared, rather astonishing considering the medium and the times.

 

 

National Prohibition was slated to start in January 1920 having been approved in January 1919 by the 18th Amendment. Indeed, a good part of Connecticut was already liquor-free under local, “no-licence” election. Why on earth would a daily newspaper do a lavish spread on the history of alcohol? The series starts with alcohol in the ancient world and brings it up to recent times including the rise of the Prohibition movement.

There is indeed a retrospective, or memorial, feeling to the installments. Now that the prospect of alcohol being gone from daily life was evident, ruminative minds were pondering the loss of an old Western legacy, what it actually meant. The paper correctly called the forthcoming ban “epochal”. It used the fundamental nature of the change as a pretext to surveying 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 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 this remind you of anyone? Does Will Durant come to mind? It is an index of life’s ceaseless patterns of change that few reading me will know whom I mean.

Durant was a long-lived historian, famous for his The Story of Civilization and many other books.

It is interesting to note (I find) that he was of French-Canadian origin, part of the Canadien exodus to New England before WW I. They came for jobs and a better life. Numerous famous 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 probably authored “The Story of Alcohol”, or maybe his young wife and frequent co-author, Ariel, did albeit I could find no source to confirm this or even point in the 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 of the series’ author may have been required by the newspaper, or perhaps the author, as showing an undue interest in alcohol, even an academic one, would not have enhanced the public image of a teacher and author.

The first instalments deal with alcohol in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Palestine, Greece, and Rome. Many good stories are conveyed, 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 were licentious in drinking parties and other contexts.

 

 

Excess drinking was condemned in some quarters of the ancient world. Mythology records that when Bacchus toured lands to teach wine-making skills, some kings sent him away, and were later punished for this.

The message continually is that wine and beer were mixed blessings given the potential for abuse. A skein of the series is that humankind slowly came to realize 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 explains that the onset and perfection of distilled spirits was a pivot in deciding whether alcohol should be banned.

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

[A second part of this study 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.