Raise one to moderation.

Photographer: Craig Hudson/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

'Blackout Wednesday' and America's Boozy Past

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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Known to bartenders and police officers as “Blackout Wednesday,” Thanksgiving Eve holds the dubious, if unofficial, record as the day of the year with the highest levels of alcohol consumption. It may not have the celebratory and commercial appeal of “Black Friday,” but as a ritual it is every bit as entrenched.

Recent statistics compiled by MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, show a sharp uptick in drunk-driving fatalities on Thanksgiving Eve, competing with other, better known days defined by overindulgence: New Year’s Eve and July 4.

Yet, while it isn't cause for celebration, it is nonetheless laudable that Americans have managed to limit occasions for mass inebriation to just a handful of days every year. In an earlier, now forgotten time, every day was Blackout Wednesday. That our nation of drunks managed to sober up is something for which we should, on this holiday, give thanks.

In the first settlements in America, alcohol was part of everyday life, but wasn't the problem it soon became. The Puritan minister Increase Mather once delivered a sermon in which he declared that “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness.” Lest his flock head straight for the tavern, Mather qualified his statement, noting that “abuse of drink is from Satan ... the Drunkard is from the Devil.”

That’s pretty much where things stood on both sides of the Atlantic in the 17th and early 18th centuries: there was a good deal of alcohol consumption, but there were limits, too. Colonial Americans may have dispensed alcohol when we would not -- pregnant mothers drank, and babies got rum to soothe their gums -- but consumption remained level.  Alcohol was also strictly regulated, especially in Puritan New England.

That changed, in part because of a surfeit of rum distilled from Caribbean sugar. But also as Scot-Irish immigrants, skilled in the arts of distilling whiskey, arrived en masse in the second half of the 18th century. After the struggle for independence cut off the rum supply, they turned to whiskey distilled from corn, a crop that grew easily -- and plentifully -- in the new United States.

The booze began to flow freely. English author William Cobbett, who visited in the 1790s, noted with disapproval that among Americans, “drinking is said to be necessary, in certain cases, at least, to raise the spirits, and to keep out the cold.”  He recounted his horror at seeing “even little boys, at, or under twelve years of age, go into stores, and tip off their drams!

Between 1790 and the mid-1820s, alcohol consumption reached dizzying heights. In the 1820s, Americans 15 and older consumed the equivalent of 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year. This number, compiled by the historian William Rorabaugh, is even worse than it sounds, given that the vast majority of the booze was consumed by a single subgroup of the drinking-age population: white men. As Rorabaugh has dryly noted, “this rate of use is among the highest ever recorded in any society and is close to the human body’s physiological maximum capacity for intake of alcohol.”

This feat is almost impossible to achieve without drinking around the clock. Americans often took whiskey and water with breakfast, followed by a ritual known as the “elevens” in late morning -- an alcoholic coffee break. Then more booze at lunch, with refills at an afternoon break and at dinner, crowned with a nightcap. Most American men were likely mildly intoxicated all day, though special occasions might call for serious binges.

To put this in perspective, consider the per capita consumption among adults 15 and older in the U.S. today. It’s the equivalent of 2.26 gallons of pure alcohol a year. The most intoxicated country in the world -- Belarus -- has a per capita alcohol consumption rate of about 3.79 gallons a year.

Naturally, the collective inebriation of early Americans raised alarm. From the 1790s onward, a growing number of writers railed against our fondness for spirits. The Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, noted that alcoholism (though he didn’t use the term) seemed to be hereditary. He further observed that it caused “obstructions” of the liver. (He reached the more debatable conclusion that drinking was responsible for “gaming, peevishness, quarreling, fighting [and] horse racing.”)

But health concerns alone couldn’t curb alcohol consumption. Stronger medicine came in the form of the temperance movement, which aimed at cutting, and ultimately eliminating, alcoholic beverages.

The movement soon became infused with the rhetoric and revivalism of the vast religious revival known today as the “Second Great Awakening.” Several evangelical sects -- the Baptists and Methodists, most notably -- swelled the ranks of new organizations dedicated to eliminating alcohol and its sinful effects. Soon, groups such as the American Temperance Society had more than 1 million members, most of them evangelicals.

Their literature, aimed at “Demon Rum,” appealed to the moral sensibilities. “Let the customs of society be changed,” one temperance manual declared, and “each individual, and especially all young men united with others, to touch not, taste not, and handle not the abominable thing, and the evil will be done away.”  

This convergence of religion and moral reform worked astonishingly well. Between the late 1820s and the 1850s, alcohol consumption dropped by almost three quarters. This may have been the most successful public health movement in U.S. history.

Although alcohol intake increased somewhat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it dipped again in the wake of Prohibition, rising gradually to its current, historically low, level. Today, the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of alcohol consumption in the developed world, despite the sorts of binges that take place on New Year’s Eve and Blackout Wednesday.

If you drink tonight, please do so responsibly. While there are many past traditions worth celebrating -- Thanksgiving, for example -- our earlier alcohol bingeing isn't among them. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net