By: Katherine Story | Photography: Brenna Beech
Going downtown on a Thursday or Friday night seems like a fairly modern practice. The whole atmosphere screams 21st century – texting people to coordinate the location, dodging frustrated cars filled with people, TVs and speakers blaring games and music – but just because the technology has changed does not mean the people who lived before us in the South did not know what it meant to live in a drinking culture.
“The averages in 1820… were 1.5 shots per day for every man, woman and child,” says UGA history professor Stephen Berry. “Some people are doing much more than their fair share. They were just doing a ton of drinking.”
There are certainly many differences in drinking from the early 19th century to today. Most college students and residents of Athens are not drinking to excess as often, which can lead to death.
“If the coroner is standing above your body [in 1820-1880], you died of a combination of alcohol and stupidity if you were a white male,” Berry says.
Being “drunk” now is not necessarily the same thing as being “drunk” during that era, either. Joe Calpin, a junior biology major from Johns Creek, said that when most people start experiencing the bar scene, they tend to order the same thing – usually a drink that is going to be simple, sweet and cheap.
However, there is still variation and external factors that make it hard to pinpoint what the crowd will be favoring. The Athens drinking scene has divisions.
“Some other college towns have nice bars where they share them with people who actually live in the towns, whereas in Athens, it’s very separated,” Calpin says.
In the 1800s, people saw drinking as another facet of life, ubiquitous and omnipresent. According to the Alcoholic Republic, the lifestyle was so pervasive that parents felt the need to acclimate their young children to drinking by encouraging them to take sips from their own glasses. People are certainly more careful not to let their child consistently consume alcohol now.
Arguably, the largest similarity between 1815 and 2015 is the uncertainty of money. At that time, the economy was having major fluctuations, which led to it being called “flush times,” where the market would have frequent booms and busts.
“It’s roughly every 20 years… you’re riding this wave. Some people are getting rich, but then a lot of people are crashing and getting very poor,” Berry says.
The culture that was created left people fearful of their financial state, and this led to significant drinking. Although our booms and busts are less drastic, the recent recession left many people reeling. For once we had federal entities stepping in and trying to control things on a large scale in order to fix the “bust” of 2008. Understandably, people might turn to relaxant activities to ease their mind off their wallet or bank account.
The South had a heavy-handed culture of drinking, which is why the temperance movement found such success. People were aware there was a problem.
“We tend to associate alcohol with conviviality and partying,” Berry says.
Looking back on history, it is sometimes hard to understand where people were coming from and their motivation behind their actions. But, as we all know, alcohol can be a way to bring groups together and have a good time.