A New Nation of Drinkers
At the founding of the United States, Americans were consuming alcohol at a scale almost unimaginable to us today. American alcohol consumption peaked in 1830, when each person consumed, on average, 5 gallons of distilled liquor each year. Assuming that men were doing about two-thirds of the drinking, that works out to each man drinking 4 to 5 shots per day, every day of the year. In addition, per capita consumption of hard cider was estimated to be at 15 or more gallons per year.
In the early 1800s, hard cider and whiskey were the mainstay of American drinking. Apples trees were everywhere, and hard cider basically makes itself in the Champlain Valley. For rural farmers, distilling corn or grain allowed them to extend the shelf-life of their agricultural products. Alcoholic beverages were often cheaper than coffee and tea, and in an era before pasteurization, safer to drink than water or milk.
Above: This temperance pamphlet from 1826 outlined the steps to ruin that followed a morning drink. “The Drunkard’s Progress.” Designed and published by J. W. Barber, New Haven, Connecticut, 1826. Courtesy Library of Congress.
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“The land o’erflows with Gin and Whiskey”
By 1820 there were over 200 distilleries in Vermont. Distilling was a key part of the local economy and whiskey became a sort of barter currency in the early republic. Each state had its own currency, and often it was unregulated, so whiskey was often used to buy and sell what was needed. Every town and area had a local distillery, some towns had more than one.
In 1811, the Bennington Reporter covered a fire in Peacham, VT, and reported, “On Sunday evening, the Gin distillery of Mr. Ephraim Foster, of Peacham, with its valuable contents, was destroyed by fire. It may not be improper to observe that, 27 stills yet remain in operation in the single town of Peacham. If not with “milk and honey,” certainly, this land o’erflows with Gin and Whisky.”
When Jabez Rogers’ distillery in Middlebury, VT, burned in the 1790s, his case became the impetus for a new federal law that allowed distillery owners to be refunded any federal taxes they had paid on product that was destroyed by fire.
Image: Detail on Jabez Rogers’ “An Act for the remission of the duties on certain distilled spirits destroyed by fire,” Third U.S. Congress, Session 1, Chapter 53. Courtesy Library of Congress.
New Waterways, New Distilling
When the Erie and Champlain Canals opened in the 1820s, they changed everything in the Champlain Valley. Canal boats, like the ones pictured here, would be towed down Lake Champlain headed to the Champlain and Erie Canals (and vice versa) and reach new cities far faster than transported goods over land. In terms of making whiskey, distilling moved from a local activity to a regional one, as larger distilleries in western Pennsylvania and western New York began distributing whiskey through the canal system.
With the opening of the canal system, larger distilleries began producing the nation’s whiskey and local distilleries closed. Farmers in the Champlain Valley could transport their perishable goods to market more quickly, and distilling became less of a local economic necessity.
When their local economy was no longer tied to distilling, the temperance message became more appealing to rural Vermonters and New Yorkers.
Image: In Tow Down Lake Champlain. Postcard 340, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection.
The mid-19th century was marked by a significant increase in religious activity particularly in New England and rural upstate New York. Called the Second Great Awakening, this era of religious revival was characterized by large conversion events and travelling preachers who came to rural areas and preached the gospel. Temperance was almost always tied into these religious messages, and many events included the signing of a temperance pledge.
This 1871 temperance album featured a temperance pledge to be signed by those committing to abstinence. It also features a line from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, linking temperance with civic life and religion.
Image: Temperance Album, 1871. Courtesy Library of Congress.