Drinking in Early 19th Century America

I have a couple of comments on my recent article On Vanity about the per capita drinking rate of early nineteenth century America.  According to their calculations, people would only be drinking three ounces of pure alcohol per diem if the per capita rate of drinking were 18 gallons of pure alcohol.  And if everyone from the age of fifteen onwards only drank only three ounces of alcohol per diem, it strikes one as crazy that any sort of Temperance movement would start.

But yes, many temperance ladies were crazy anyway.

But yes, many temperance ladies were crazy anyway.

So, I decided to examine how 18 gallons of pure alcohol would translate across the spectrum of beer, wine, and hard liquor (most probably rye whiskey, rum, or gin at that time) in terms of bottles and cases.  Now, look closely at my math and see whether I’m correct in my calculations.  My specialty is Classical languages after all, not mathematics.  But if I am right, early Americans must really have been having a good time!

tavern

Standards of Measurement

Bottle of liquor = 750 ml or .75 liters

Bottle of wine = 750 ml or .75 liters

Bottle of beer = 12 fl. oz.

Case of beer = 24 bottles

ABV of liquor = 40%

ABV of wine = 12%

ABV of beer = 5%

How Many Bottles of Liquor are Needed to Reach 18 Gallons of Pure Alcohol?

Let’s start with the proportion 40/100 = 18/X.  The part on the left, 40/100, refers to the average ABV of 40% we see on most bottles of liquor.  The number 18 on the right refers to the eighteen gallons of pure alcohol which make up 40% of the volume of liquor in gallons.  The variable x denotes the total volume of liquor.  Here are the following steps I take:

40/100 = 18/x is cross-multiplied in order to get:

40x = 1800.  Then divide both sides by 40 to get the value of x:

x = 45 gallons of rye whiskey (let’s call it rye whiskey)

Yet, rye whiskey is presently served in .75 l bottles.  So, let’s convert 45 gallons to liters, which this site tells me is 170.34 liters.  How many bottles is that?  To get the answer, we need to divide this number by .75.

170.34/.75 = 227 bottles of rye whiskey

That sounds like a ton doesn’t it?  At the time, people were often given bottles of liquor instead of money in payment for their labor.  And how many bottles does this translate to per week?

227/52 = 4.37 bottles of rye whiskey per week.

You can be sure that many Americans were basically downing a bottle a day!  But, most tended to spread out their drinking: restorative doses during the day, to celebrate meeting new people, to conclude business deals, aperitif, digestif, and nightcap before bed.  That all adds up!

If this article starts making you thirsty, he's a recommendation I have for you. Could you imagine drinking 4 1/3 bottles of this per week?

If this article starts making you thirsty, he’s a recommendation I have for you. Could you imagine drinking 4 1/3 bottles of this per week? Nevermind, it’s 95 proof instead of 80, so more like three and a half bottles per week, but still!

How Many Bottles of Wine Are Needed to Reach 18 Gallons of Pure Alcohol?

In the early nineteenth century America, liquor and beer were more popular than wine, but for the sake of curiosity, let’s apply the same calculations to wine.

12/100 = 18/x

12x = 1800

x = 150 gallons of wine

150 gallons of wine = 567.81 liters of wine

567.81/.75 = 757 bottles of wine

757/52 = 14 1/2 bottles per week or two bottles a day!

An American wine with a rather American grape. Ravenswood makes Zinfandel worthy of being considered a work of art--or a good table wine depending on how much you spend.

An American wine with a rather American grape. Ravenswood makes Zinfandel worthy of being considered a work of art–or a good table wine depending on how much you spend.

How Many Bottles of Beer Needed to Reach 18 Gallons of Pure Alcohol?

At this point in time, people would regularly drink beer for breakfast.  I will not need to convert my figures to the metric system because bottles are usually sold in 12 oz. bottles, unless they are imported from Europe.  (Curiously, European brewers use larger tall bottles (25.4 fl. oz vs. 24 or 22 fl. oz.) and smaller regular bottles (11.2 fl. vs. 12 fl. oz.) than American brewers.  Go figure.)  Here are my calculations:

5/100 = 18/x

5x = 1800

x = 360 gallons of beer (That’s almost a gallon of beer per day!!!)

Now, to get how many fluid ounces of beer, we need to multiply 360 by 128, since a gallon holds 128 fluid ounces.

360 x 128 = 46, 080 fluid ounces of beer

46, 080/12 = 3,840 bottles of beer or 160 cases

160/52 = 3.08 cases per week

Here's one especially for my European readers. One of the best tripels I've ever had. not impossible to find in the United States, though.

Here’s one especially for my European readers. One of the best tripels I’ve ever had, not impossible to find in the United States, though.

While these figures can be admired, I suggest that none of my dear reader try to imitate an early 19th century American in this regard or they won’t reading my blog anymore–or anything besides liquor labels for that matter!  Once again, check my calculations and tell me if I erred in any way.  By the way, the current per capita drinking rate for Americans (taken from people 21 years or age or older) is 8.6 liters or 2.27 gallons of pure alcohol per capita.  A much more healthy amount!

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4 comments on “Drinking in Early 19th Century America

  1. iblessall says:

    No, you’re right. I was at a museum last weekend that had a huge exhibit (took me 2.5 hours, and I’m fast in museums, to get through it) on the Prohibition in America. Drinking was at absurd levels before Prohibition. And while Prohibition caused the general average to go down for a while, binge drinking soared during it.

    • Wow, that’s a huge exhibit! The interesting thing about Prohibition is that most Northern states outlawed liquor before the Civil War, but Federal soldiers fighting in the South developed a taste for liquor and essentially abolished those prohibitions when they returned home.

      It certainly is amazing to think about how much people used to drink! In one decade, I remember it reached 21 gallons of pure alcohol per capita, but I did not use that figure least too many people doubt it.

  2. Foxfier says:

    About the only point I’d like to repeat is that most folks would not be drinking all of the alcohol they “consumed”– and that estimates quickly get out of control.

    • You can be sure that some would drink all the alcohol they consumed. But, the phenomenon was not limited to America. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes that English sailors of the same time knew not the meaning of moderation and would drink all the alcohol one gave them. Americans who drank a bottle of whiskey were about as common as the three bottle men of England, who could easily consume three bottles of port a night! (The port of those days was lower in alcohol than now.)

      But, medicinal and culinary uses of alcohol were indeed very common.

Legens, scribe sententias tuas.

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