- Historic Sites
Beer And America
It came over with the Mayflower and stayed on to be the unchallenged drink of democracy.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
Such, at any rate, was the view from above toward the end of the century, and it was reinforced by the naturalist novels of the period. The beer drinkers in Stephen Crane’s 1893 Maggie: A Girl of the Streets fit the bill—laborers and immigrants all: “The vast crowd had an air throughout of having just quitted labor. Men with calloused hands and attired in garments that showed the wear of an endless trudge for a living, smoked their pipes contentedly and spent five, ten, or perhaps fifteen cents for beer. … The nationalities of the Bowery beamed upon the stage from all directions. Pete aggressively walked up a side aisle and took seats with Maggie at a table beneath the balcony. ‘Two beehs!’” Beer is the alcoholic ensign of class degradation, and the heroine’s final ruin is marked by the appearance of a beer-soaked demon: “The girl went into gloomy districts near the river, where the tall black factories shut in the street and only occasional broad beams of light fell across the pavements from saloons. … The shutters of the tall buildings were closed like grim lips. … When almost to the river the eirl saw … a huge fat man in torn and greasy garments. … His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face. He laughed, his brown, disordered teeth gleaming under a grey, grizzled moustache from which beer-drops dripped.”
It was the same on the other side of the country. As whiskey and cocktails climbed the social ladder, beer descended it. Frank Norris had his poor brute McTeague, in the novel of that name, make the point at his own wedding when a guest proposes a champagne toast: “The guests rose and drank. Hardly one of them had ever tasted champagne before. The moment’s silence after the toast was broken by McTeague’s exclaiming with a long breath of satisfaction: ‘That’s the best beer I ever drank.’”
But there was a flip side to the association of beer, saloons, and workingmen—a view, so to speak, from below. And this bottom-up perspective has done more than anything else to shape what beer means in America. If the saloon was a place of sin to middle-class reformers, to working people and immigrants it was a place of refuge. For the five cents a glass of beer cost, the saloon offered cards and billiards, information, food, and, most of all, company. “The saloon exists in our town,” a Westerner wrote in 1912, “because … it offers a common meeting place. It dispenses good cheer. It ministers to the craving for fellowship. To the exhausted, worn-out body, to the strained nerves, the relaxation brings rest.” In cities, workers transferred their traditional social drinking and bonding to the saloon from the factory, where industrialization and rigid timetables made it both unacceptable and dangerous. In a saloon, over a beer, where the ritual of treating your neighbor to a drink made every man equal, there was a kind of virtual democracy, a haven from the economic pressures of the workplace and the aspirational pressures of home.
Beer acquired a new attitude from the working-class culture of the saloon, a kind of macho bohemianism that potently combined bravado, rebelliousness, masculine sentimentality, self-deprecating humor, and a large dose of skepticism about American middle-class success. Jack London, appropriately, was probably the first writer to capture it in print. His 1913 memoir John Barleycorn , ostensibly a temperance tract, is rather more an ode to beer, male bonding, and a devil-may-care attitude toward work and money: ” ‘Come on and have a beer,’ I invited. Again we stood at the bar and drank and talked, but this time it was I who paid—ten cents! A whole hour of my labor at a machine. … Money no longer counted. It was comradeship that counted.… There was a stage when the beer didn’t count at all, but just the spirit of comradeship of drinking together.” Beer, for the first but hardly the last time in our literature, is part of the workingman’s rite of passage: “Ay, even the barkeeper was giving me commendation as a man. ‘ He’s been sousin’ here with Nelson all afternoon .’ Magic words! The accolade delivered by a barkeeper with a beer glass! … And so I won my manhood’s spurs.”
London understood something else as well. This new culture of beer contained more than the low comedy of rebelliousness and the sentimentality of male friendship. It also held the romance of adventure and the elegy of a lost era of freedom, of heroism and power, when those now humble were kings: “The more beer Captain Nelson and I drank the better we got acquainted. … So he drifted back to his wild young days, and spun many a rare yarn for me, while we downed beer, treat by treat, all through a blessed summer afternoon. And it was only John Barleycorn that made possible that long afternoon with the old sea dog.” All this was part of the working-class retort to the reformers and evangelists, and in one form or another it would resonate in the American popular imagination long after Crane’s beer demon had become period melodrama.
By the early twentieth century, beer—the drink of moderation, of fun, of sports, most of all of workingmen—was poised to assume its place as national drink and national symbol when it ran into a weird detour. American beer had not yet entirely shed its links with Germany and Germans, associations wealthy beer barons like Adolphus Busch, with his estates in America and Germany, his backing of the Tyrolean Alps beer concession at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and his support of Germany’s exhibit there (which won him the Order of the Crown from the Kaiser), did nothing to discourage.