America: an alcoholic history

The Alcoholic Republic
W. J. Rorabaugh
Oxford 1979

Rorabaugh’s theory, reminiscent of the theory that civilization can be traced back to communal beer-drinking festivals,  is that the United States was founded on drunkenness, but that around 1830 the country sobered up, got religion, forgot about drunken republican brotherhood,  and devoted itself thereafter to property accumulation.

Rorabaugh has done his homework and tells us pretty much everything we want to know about the history of America’s drinking habits. During the early colonial period spirits were regarded as a healthful gift of God and drinking started at breakfast. During the the revolutionary and early republican periods communal bingeing became widespread, but after about 1830 or so, when the republican ideals had proven hard to maintain,  the norm became individualistic evangelical Christianity, sobriety, and self-improvement in the pursuit of wealth —  or else solo binge drinking.

For the first settlers west of the Appalachians, whiskey was the only cash crop and served as a form of currency in a cash-poor region. (Rorabaugh compares American frontier life in the early 19th century to that of the similar impoverished rural cultures in developing but still underdeveloped Sweden and Scotland). Most of the American groups especially noted for drunkenness are about what you’d expect  (laborers, sailors, Irish immigrants),  but few would have guessed that schoolteachers and ministers would be among them. It’s also surprising to find that the Primitive (Hardshell) Baptists forbade members to join  temperance societies.

Still later, when the existence of a permanent working class with little hope of rising any higher became evident, desperate forms of escapist drinking became most prevalent. The temperance movement rose as early as 1750, but only when it took a religious form around 1830 did it become effective. Drinking by immigrants and the lower classes was always regarded as more harmful than drinking by “real Americans”, and the prohibition movement tended also to be middle class and nativist.

The beverages of choice were fruit brandy, rum and hard cider in the beginning, whiskey and cider during the period of early independence, and finally whiskey and beer. Tea and wine were generally regarded as unpatriotic, and after a certain point, so was rum. During the early days milk and clean water  were hard to get and were even regarded as unhealthful, and few adults drank either if they could help it. The American taste was for distilled spirits mixed strong, and some early temperance advocates even promoted beer as a temperance drink. (But beer only became important relatively late, with the German immigration after 1850.)

Rorabaugh speculates that whiskey helped people endure a horrendous diet consisting almost entirely of pork and corn meal. Beyond that, “Americans had psychological needs that were met better  by alcohol than by food” (p. 122). American drinking culture, as distinguished from Italian drinking culture for example, helped men deal with their disappointments, anxiety, and high but probably  unattainable goals. He also notes that both abstinence and the characteristic alternation of abstinence and bingeing are conducive to a strong work ethic, contrasting both patterns to the use of opium in that respect.

Drunk or sober, students of American history  should all find  Rorabaugh’s book to  be of great interest.

[Links, further reading, and my  ancestor the frontier brewer are at “more”].

Great-great-great-grandpa Selzer

My great-great-grandfather was a brewer in Sioux City Iowa, which at that time was a wide open frontier town. My mother grew up knowing little about her great-grandfather Selzer, and this was probably for good reason. He did earn a lot of money, and his descendants were highly respectable.

Rudolph Selzer was born in Giessen, Hesse, Germany in 1828 and died in Iowa in 1899. (Trivia: Georg Büchner attended school in Giessen 1831-1833). In 1853 he married and joined the flood of Germans emigrating the he U.S. after the failed 1848 revolution. A shoemaker by trade, in 1859 (a year before  the founding of Anheuser Busch) he entered the brewing business in Omaha as a partner of Fred Krug. In 1860 Krug bought him out, and Selzer set up his own brewery in Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City was a frontier town at that time and must have been pretty rough, considering that it was still pretty rough in 1886.

In 1884 (after a failed attempt in 1882) Iowa passed a prohibitionmeasure. In Sioux City the law was ignored, and in 1886 a prohibitionist attempting to get the law enforced was murdered by a brewery foreman. The alleged murderer was acquitted of murder despite the presence of several witness and had a beer with the jury after the trial; lived out  the remainder of  his life in Sioux City.

Finally in 1894 the state law was repealed and replaced by a local option law. However, probably because of the murder, a local prohibition ordinance had been passed in 1888, and most of Sioux City vice, including some of the Selzers, moved across the Missouri River to Nebraska. There was no bridge, so this trip could only be made by ferry; the Selzers owned one of the ferry lines.



S.H. Katz and M.M. Voigt, “Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet,” Expeditions 28 (2), 23-34).

Beer as the origin of  civilization

Rudolph Selzer

Prohibition in Iowa

Prohibition had its own rationale but was generally considered to be anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, and anti-German. State prohibition and blue laws were ignored almost completely in the German towns in the state (including Davenport, Iowa, which is where Bismarck “Bix” Beiderbecke grew up). Sunday closing laws were specifically anti-German, because even church-going Germans (Catholic and Lutheran alike) liked to have a few beers on Sunday afternoons.

Selzer Brothers awarded permit to run ferry across the Missouri River, 1884 (pp. 436-439)

Biography of murdered prohibitionist

It was a dark and stormy night. Reverend George Haddock was returning the carriage and horses to the Jerry Merrill Livery stable at the corner of Third and Water Street when he noticed a group of men standing watching him. The time was 10:15 p.m. Reverend Haddock and a fellow minister had been visiting Greenville, a town 2 miles east of Sioux City. They had been looking to see if the town was violating the state liquor law.

Never a person to back away from a confrontation, Rev. Haddock started across the muddy, rain soaked street. With a rope attached to an iron wheel in his hand he walked toward the men. Two men started to walk toward him. One put his hands in front of his face and the other walked behind him. A single shot rang out and Rev. Haddock dropped to the muddy ground in the middle of the street. He got to his feet and stumbled to the sidewalk, falling again. He never got up. He died on the sidewalk that night.

Selzer Brothers tavern in Nebraska 1888

Upon the passing of the prohibitory law in Iowa in 1888, the “bum” element of Sioux City was driven across the river and they established themselves in this heretofore quiet burg [Covington, Nebraska], and at one time upwards of fifty saloons and nearly as many bawdy houses and gambling dens…. At present [1893] there are in the town eleven saloons: J.R Judson, Selzer Bros., Flittle and Weir, Hittle and Cofifell, Marshall Luthe, Mandersheid and Loup, T.A. Provost, Mugh McGoffin, and James Sprey.

The village [of Covington] contains about one hundred and seventy-five inhabitants [as of  1882]. Selzer Bros. wholesale liquor business destroyed by fire, 1904

Moonshining and bootlegging in 20th century Wobegon.

Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I came upon this entry and am curious as to the author. Rudolph Selzer was my great-great grandfather as well–my mother was Mary K Selzer (daughter of George Selzer who was the son of Charles Selzer, the son of Rudolph). My grandparents died in 1960 and mother was an only child–I never knew anyone from her side of the family. I have an old glass with Selzer Brewery etched onto it. I’m curious how we are related. I am familiar with the family history, at least in the sense that in the family plot they are all there. There is an oblisk of sorts that has the children of Rudolph and Theresa listed and even has grains etched onto it used in making spirits. Off hand, I can’t think of the names except for Otto- who was killed in an accident in the brewery- and I suppose my great grandfather Charles. I found the article interesting.

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