Susan Cheever, the recovering alcoholic daughter of author John Cheever (whose own struggles with alcohol are legendary), has written a new book called Drinking in America: Our Secret History. The book outlines the unexpected ways drinking has influenced American history, as well as its impact on her own personal history. “My father was addicted to alcohol and it showed. I was addicted to everything, and that was much easier to hide,” she writes. “I haven’t had a drink in more than 20 years — 20 years during which I have obsessively studied both alcoholism and temperance and their effects on individuals and cultures.”
The fact is that drinking—and opposition to drinking—has touched some of the most important moments in our country’s timeline, “since the beginning, drinking and taverns have been as much a part of American life as churches and preachers, or elections and politics,” Cheever writes
One of the book’s most surprising historical revelations describes how the Pilgrims preferred beer over water to such an extent that they even decided to land the Mayflower on Cape Cod rather than their chartered destination in northern Virginia. “The decision to land illegally on Cape Cod had a huge effect on the later fate of the Pilgrims and the way in which the American character was formed. An illegal landing in a hostile place, partially caused by a shortage of beer, was not an auspicious beginning,” Cheever writes.
Another surprise is how the real John Chapman ( better known as Johnny Appleseed) brought apples to the American frontier for the purpose of keeping everybody drunk. Our contemporary fairytale-like notion is flawed, tainted by our modern perception of the apple as a sweet, edible fruit. The apples that Chapman planted were completely distinct from the apples available at grocery stores today, and they weren’t primarily used for eating. Instead, they were used to make America’s beverage-of-choice at the time, hard apple cider.
Medicinal alcohol was even a thing! Physicians prescribed “medical beer.” Presumably, doctors were doing examinations and diagnoses, but it was mostly a bogus practice, provoking arguments within the American Medical Association and other professional groups. This graph of alcohol use throughout American history shows the increases and decreases in consumption over time, especially for beer.
When it came to Election Day, heavy drinking and buying votes with booze was the norm in 18th century. The polling places were just places to go and get drunk and maybe cast a ballot. Often, people working the polls drank and sometimes the polls were even located inside saloons. Candidates held large parties in public places as people streamed into town to vote. George Washington once spent his entire campaign budget, 50 pounds, on 160 gallons of liquor served to 391 voters.
In 1820, the average American consumed about three times as much alcohol per day as they do in modern times. “Children drank before school, during school at recess, and after school. Farmers had jugs stashed at the end of every row in their fields,” Cheever writes. The Industrial Revolution, however, made constant drinking more dangerous. In a factory setting, having to operate dangerous machinery, it mattered a lot more if you were drunk.