Lady Liquor: The rise of the cocktail and the feminization of drink

Early in this series, I posted about how the growth of the temperance movement in the 19th century was spurred in part by broader availability of distilled spirits: where alcohol was a part of daily life in the United States, beginning with breakfast brew and ending with a nightcap, most people were drinking weak-by-today’s-standards beer, cider, and wine, rather than rum or whiskey. A commenter wrote: “I think distilled spirits consumption increased during Prohibition and continued with the country’s new found obsession with cocktails, increasingly prepared at home and served in gender mixed company, compared to the pre-Prohibition and 19th Century preference for beer consumed at a tavern, mostly by men.” He raises a couple of excellent points I waited to address in a full post, since they merit a more detailed discussion.

First, this is secondary to what the commenter wrote, but important, because it comes up a lot in discussions about Prohibition: the conventional wisdom is that alcohol consumption (all kinds of alcohol) actually increased during Prohibition, and that was one of the reasons it failed. This is almost certainly not the case. Crime increased during Prohibition, but public health records indicate that alcohol consumption may have decreased by as much as 30 percent, likely because people who could take or leave alcohol in the first place didn’t bother to seek it out. And while there was a predictable uptick in drinking right after repeal, it also seems Americans on the whole drink far less now than they did before the Volstead Act, and drink less abusively (deaths from cirrhosis of the liver and other alcohol-related causes have declined).

As for the consumption of spirits per se, it’s true that cocktails became more popular in the 1920s than they had in previous years, and both men and women drank cocktails enthusiastically. In fact, historian Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in her phenomenal book Domesticating Drink, argues that Prohibition had a dual effect on the way women and men socialized. Where previously men had gone to saloons to drink beer (or whiskey) alone, during Prohibition, women – either with partners or friends – went to speakeasies without fear of social retribution.

Etiquette books for women, and women’s magazines, urged “respectable” women to serve drinks and to drink themselves; one advice writer suggested courting couples each have the chance to see each other “unpleasantly drunk” before tying the knot. Department stores and catalogs pushed cocktail shakers and glassware during the 1920s, since cocktail, uh, paraphernalia was not illegal (nor, for that matter, were home winemaking kits); books of cocktail recipes were marketed to the home bartender, not the pro. Punches (eggnogs, grogs and milk punch – which I had the opportunity to try this weekend and which is far tastier than it sounds) were around in the 19th century, and so were some drinks we’d call cocktails now (like the mint julep). Cocktails – and the cocktail party – didn’t really become part of the American drinking scene until the 20th century, though. The rise of the cocktail both influenced, and was influenced by, shifting gender politics in the United States – but also by liquor control laws. Murdock – noting that cocktails were more attractive to women drinkers who wouldn’t think of taking a shot of straight booze – writes:

Before Prohibition, most of the alcohol sold in the United States was consumed at the site of sale in saloons, bars, and other public drinking establishments. After 1900, communities experimenting with alcohol regulation created “package stores” selling sealed bottles for consumption off premises – and attempt to restrict saloon excess while still providing alcohol to voters. …After repeal in 1933, state regulatory agencies encouraged this “privatization of drinking,” and by 1941 most alcohol in the country was sold for off-premises consumption. State package stores, and grocery stores that sold bottled beer, legitimized domestic drinking and undercut the public drinking rituals of historically male spaces.

If the domestic (read: feminine) sphere became a center of polite, sociable booziness during Prohibition, and stayed that way, public drinking spaces changed during and after Prohibition too. Speakeasies, compared to pre-Prohibition era saloons (the domain of men, and segregated by race and class), were remarkably inclusive spaces, admitting women and people of color alike (and often showcasing black entertainers) – and after Prohibition, women continued to visit bars regularly. Male-only social clubs declined in popularity. Dry writers and activists – who kept up the fight long after repeal – were predictably displeased, but so were some male bartenders and writers (like the humorist Don Marquis): “The last barrier is down; the citadel has been stormed and taken…A man might as well do his drinking at home, with his wife and daughters; and there never was any fun in that.” 

Previously: Beer-loving ladies - rare, or just overlooked?

by Christen McCurdy
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Christen McCurdy is a freelance journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon with too many kitchen gadgets and craft supplies. She penned Bitch Media’s “Lady Liquor” guest-blog series on women and alcohol.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Women Drinking Beer!

I find Ladies who drink beer quite interesting ... WHY? Cause they are usually their own person(s). You go gal !!!!!

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