The Insane True Story Behind America's History with Alcohol

Wise prophet Homer Simpson famously described alcohol as "the cause of and solution to all of life's problems" and it turns out he's kind of right. Alcohol isn't just a mostly overpriced social lubricant at best (and horribly destructive and addictive poison at worst);  it actually played a huge role in the daily routine of almost every man, woman, and child in early America.  

The drinking habits in early America shaped the country into what it is today, for better or for worse. Take a look back in time with this list and check out all of the old laws, resourceful criminals, and fearless leaders that changed our boozy history. 

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  • The Mayflower Only Landed on Plymouth Rock Because They Ran Out of Beer

    The Mayflower Only Landed on Plymouth Rock Because They Ran Out of Beer
    Photo: Bureau of Engraving and Printing / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    We're taught in school that the Pilgrims made the daring journey from England to America in search of ideological freedom and a fresh start that was free from political or religious tyranny and that Plymouth Rock would be the metaphorical cornerstone upon which they built their bright new future... but it turns out they were just out of beer.

    Originally the Pilgrims were supposed to land in what is now New York but made a stop in Massachusetts because they were out of beer and needed some quick. Beer certainly helped folks pass the time on their nine-week Atlantic crossing, but they also used it for hydration. (At least that's probably what they told themselves when they decided to make a quick pit stop in Plymouth Rock instead of going straight to New York.)

    The fact that they even thought they were running low is still pretty insane, because the Mayflower was reportedly carrying 10,000 barrels of wine, in addition to a large supply of beer. Truly, it takes a special kind of person to look at 10,000 barrels of wine and say "What if we run out between Massachusetts and New York? Forget it, we're stopping here, this is where we live now."

    So that's why the Pilgrims landed on, settled and eventually had the first Thanksgiving: we were simply out of beer.

  • In The Early Days, There Was No Legal Drinking Age

    In The Early Days, There Was No Legal Drinking Age
    Photo: Bain News Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The drinking age of the United States is one of the highest in the world at 21 years old. It took effect in all states in 1984, after Ronald Reagan threatened to cut the federal highway budget of any state that didn't comply with the mandate. But, back before Prohibition, the rules were a lot more loose. 

    From 1776 to 1919 (the beginning of Prohibition), there was no set drinking age for the country as a whole. States set their own drinking ages – and 15 was a pretty common one –  but most states didn't enforce a drinking age at all. 

    Really, the concern with the drinking age is mostly related to drunk driving accidents. The reason the drinking age was changed from 18 to 21 was because there was an increase in drunk-driving-related accidents in the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of which came from drivers under 20. 

    But why were we letting so many young children drink beer way in the past? Well, that brings us to our next point...

  • People Drank Beer for Hydration Because It Was Safer Than Water

    People Drank Beer for Hydration Because It Was Safer Than Water
    Photo: National Museum of American History / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    George Washington was a producer of what was known as "small beer," a low-alcohol version of the popular hoppy beverage. See, in the early days, alcohol was often consumed instead of water, since it couldn't harbor potentially harmful bacteria like water often did. People (wisely) trusted beer more than they did water. Beer that wasn't too strong was needed back in those days, since water was sometimes not drinkable, and the colonists and early Americans needed a substitute whistle-wetter. The usual consumers of small beer were soldiers, paid servants, and male workers (usually of a lower class). 

    George Washington's small beer recipe has been reproduced by many modern beer makers to get a taste of what drinking was like in colonial America. The custom of drinking them while on the job, however, has not been recreated in America.

  • Colonists Used Alcohol To Trick Native Americans

    Colonists Used Alcohol To Trick Native Americans
    Photo: William Faden / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Native Americans didn't have a strong drinking culture, and the new colonists knew this and unfortunately turned it to their advantage. In the early 1600s, colonists would ply Native Americans with alcohol to get the inexperienced Native Americas drunk to give the more experienced colonists the upper hand during a trade. This was all very abrupt for the Native Americans, and they could not adapt quickly enough to the new lifestyle that had been thrown upon them. 

    Colonists began to judge the native people for their "inability" to handle alcohol (although the white settlers were just as rowdy), and, at one point in the 1620s or '30s, it even became illegal to sell a drink to a "dangerous" Native American. Essentially, colonists blamed the Native Americans for a problem they created themselves. It wasn't great.

  • Booze Was Once Used As Payment For Laborers

    And you thoughts the benefits at your job were bad. 

    There are numerous reports of alcohol being used as a payment for workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries (commonly among lower-class workers, such as house servants and laborers) but the most famous example featuring alcohol as payment was for the builders of the Eerie Canal. The mostly Irish team of laborers were paid a combination of 50 cents and 32 ounces of whiskey per day (including a two ounce shot every morning before work at 6am). The free-flowing alcohol led to a lot of violent fights, fun, Irish drinking songs and, of course, the completion of the canal that helped turn New York into a leader in the growing, global economy.

    And it was all done for 50 cents and 32 ounces of whiskey. What a steal.   

  • There Was A Pre-Prohibition Wine Mega Sale

    There Was A Pre-Prohibition Wine Mega Sale
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Now that America had several decades of hard, unmonitored drinking under its belt, it was time to take stock of the country and slow down its aggressive drinking habits. This lead to the brief banning of alcohol in America known as "Prohibition."

    In the time leading up to Prohibition, many winemakers saw the writing on the wall and knew they had to dispose of their wares. Leading wine makers of the period had the equivalent of 75 Olympic swimming pools of wine to offload before the law took effect. Americans stepped right up to the boozy plate and stocked up for the apocalypse – over 141 million bottles of wine were sold within three months. That was quite a bit of wine, especially considering that some of the population was already on board with the Prohibition movement.

    A smart business man named Horatio Lanza also bought a huge amount of wine, about 1.3 million gallons worth, and made quite a bit of money for himself during that period.

    We're not trying to force a second Prohibition or anything, but summer BBQ season is coming up, so if the threat of another alcohol ban could drive down the prices of booze real quick, that would be really helpful.