Life With Father (and his Beer)

Of Pints and Pyramids

It is idle to cite 19th century references for the “half and half” as a mixture of ale and stout (or porter) as they are legion. Indeed they go back to the early 1700s in the form of porter’s predecessors, but also successors as the mixes were always present, and continue in some form to this day.

Beer historical literature has covered well 19th-century examples, so no need to survey them here.

Nonetheless, it is instructive to consider specific examples, not previously cited to my knowledge, for their didactic or entertainment value.

One such appeared in Slang and its Analogues Past and Present by John Farmer and W.E. Henley. The book was self-published in 1893 and sold to private subscribers, exactly where though is not clear. A casual scrolling of the tome shows why, look opposite the definition of Half-and-Half, for example (on p. 248).

Among references for half and half cited by Farmer and Henley we read one from Albert Smith in Punch magazine in 1841:

Ale and porter, the proportion of the porter increasing in an inverse ratio to the respectability of the house you get it from.

Now, this shows us that the proportion of ale was important – in 1841. Why? I’d infer because the ale mentioned was at the time mild ale, not pale ale. Mild ale was strong and on the sweet side from low attenuation.

The cheaper the dive you took your half and half in the more likely the house saved money by using more of the standard-strength, cheaper porter. At least that’s what I think, vs. that too much porter put the taste off, say. Low respectability and elevated palate don’t seem to match up, in other words.

Another discussion of half and half of more than passing interest is in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from July 1875 in a piece entitled Drinks, here.

In fact, two variants of the half and half appear in the article. One was a mix of Bass ale and Guinness porter. The other was a mix of “bitter”, almost certainly draft, with XX London stout. This was termed “stout-and-bitter” and said to be known by its humorous alternate, “mother-in-law”.

That term is often today thought of as a jape on another mixture, “old and bitter” (old ale and bitter ale), but it looks like the joke was elastic enough to apply to the stout-and-bitter too.

The article is by the pseudonymous “Flaneur” and is quite funny and typically American in its rambling humour and irreverence. The ostensible subject is a declamation of drinks that might be suitable for American conditions.

Various bibulous candidates are considered, only to be rejected. Beer (i.e., ale and porter) is good and its mixtures interesting, but it doesn’t really suit the American climate.

Lager does better, but only partly. The various rums enumerated are good, but if you drink them like they do in the Caribbean you’ll be dead in three weeks.

Wine is divine, but too expensive. And so on.

A centrepiece is a description of writer William Thackeray’s drink habits. In one episode, he drinks a glass of stout regularly, this observed by Flaneur in England apparently, but pays in a precise amount of copper pennies vs. lavishing sovereigns or at least asking for change from same. I infer here a charge of meanness although I find the reference to coppers vs. sovereigns vague in a Pythonesque way.

A second episode occurs on one of Thackeray’s tours in America, in Boston. A sophomore takes him to a bar and orders “one of those things”. No further precisions given, evidently a house slang. The drink is provided but it throws the eminent author into a tizzy.

College men were prepared then. The sophomore orders him “one of those other things”. And that fixes up old Makepeace just right! Flaneur was impressed.

The piece ends on a note of anti-climax where Flaneur asks an old boy what he thinks is the best drink. The man tells him, dog’s nose, a mixture of gin and beer. But Flaneur doesn’t like the answer and presses the old gent further who finally walks away in a huff. Deflation.

A strange piece Drinks is, in some ways, as it presents elements of the fantastical sometimes found in comic writing of the period but also today. It’s that surrealist or disconnected touch you see in modern comedy from Monty Python to Sarah Silverman.

A lot about nothing perhaps (not comparable to finding that the term “micro-brewery” first appeared in the American press in 1969, say) but fun to read.

This piece by Flaneur, in the same paper in the following month, is noteworthy for its “harried dad” monologue, something that with a change of a word or two would fit right into Home Alone or a Chevy Chase vacation film.

I ain’t a dad, but I get it completely. My clanging milkmen are the non-stop emergency vehicle sirens that go day long, night long in this town. But they help people, like delivering milk does, so we grin and bear it – like Flaneur did.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the digitized newspaper article linked in the text, via Chronicling America. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.