Taverns and Drinking in Early America, by Sharon V. Salinger –
A Review, by Matthew Lipscomb
Taverns and Drinking in Early America, by Sharon V. Salinger, serves to, ironically, uncork the bottle on the history of alcohol from an arguably interesting standpoint. The issue of alcohol, as it relates to culture, history, and social impact, has been a frequent and growing topic for historians. Perhaps brought on by the immanent, cultural documentarian Ken Burns and his award winning series Prohibition – there is now a growing body of work that respectively cuts at the issues from various different angles. For Example, The search for God and Guinness, by Stephen Mansfield explains and defends the folksy axiom that “Guinness is not just good for you -it’s good for the world.” In doing so – it argues that the Guinness brand helped combat drunkenness by providing a less intoxicating choice and also created a benchmark standard for a corporate culture of both corporate integrity and excellence towards it’s employees – essentially contextualizing and then subsequently applying the recent increase in the ambient cultural interest in alcohol history and the public awareness of a growing sense of corporate malfeasance as being the new normative standard for many modern companies. Salinger, likewise, chooses a certain vector by which to advance a contribution – choosing to historically extrapolate the relationships and influences of tavern culture in respect to both travelers and their drinking and lodging accommodations. Salinger seeks to explore these roles from sociological and cultural standpoints while exploring the culture of inn-staying travelers and drinking in the larger culture, as it related to the taverns that accompanied these inns (5). She historically charts the origins, changes, and the historical and cultural transformations taking place through which the culture was both changed and sustained.
Salinger’s first chapter explores the origins of American Tavern Drinking Culture, the laws regulating it (22), the roles of women (23) and its relationships with various trades, such a mariners (39). An important topic that is also covered is the legislations related to and the devastating impact of alcohol upon the American Indian tribes (27). Salinger also sees the origins of tavern culture through various sectarian traditions (Puritan, for example) and those secular as well. Salinger also covers the tradition of credit, as it relates to the budding economic hegemony of the colonies and tavern culture (42).
Salinger’s second chapter explores the organized culture that evolved within port-situated taverns: the fabric of local community that essentially evolved – secondary to their generally intentioned purpose, which was for travelers (58). Salinger shows how other cultural edifices, such as how gaming (gambling), eventually also evolved (58) and how Taverns also become known for fraternities/clubs that came to often be organized within them (76). Salinger’s third chapter covers the subsequent attempts at combating consequential drunkenness from non-sectarian (136) and sectarian (102) legislative provinces and the consequences of their sometimes-differing presuppositional ideological dispositions/predilections in terms of tolerance and/or their desire to prevent it. In her fourth chapter, Salinger reviews the topic of legal prosecution, again, from nonsectarian (123) and then sectarian (136) ideological biases from different legal provinces & states. Chapter six expands her analysis of the legal questions as they relate to licensing where she examines the associated procedures as they related to community density and revenue (153), the qualifications that were established for accepting or denying licenses (159), how the issues affected women contextually, and what she titles as the questions of the “vagaries and Inconsistencies” that plagued any attempted legislative efforts in terms of the comprehensiveness of their application, integrity in quality, and fairness in their overall affect. She examines these problems from a ‘law-creation’ standpoint and then from that of a ‘law-effect’ one (173). Chapter six examines the subsequent question of were there too many taverns and the associated demographics and laws related to their oversight and regulatory planning, initially in port cities (184) and then later in outlying towns and rural areas (199).
In Chapter seven, Salinger covers the issues of the proverbial ‘tavern degenerate’ – and the legislations and cultural dynamics associated with those who abused alcohol on a relatively consistent basis (211). Of interest, is Salinger’s relating of the American custom of travelers often sleeping in the same bed with likewise-traveling strangers (215) and the discomfort and aggravation that this caused foreign travelers who were always completely taken back by the practice (212). Salinger further explores both the social interaction dynamics and the questions related to the propagation of ‘gendered spaces’ (220). Salinger makes an effort to explore how gender, class, and wealth differences combined with different attitudes present in such individuals, pervasive as thy were across such social and cultural strata, as they related to the abuse or ‘presuppositionally proper means’ of enjoying alcohol. She traces the rapid and evolving differences (226) that transpire initially in situ, in various different contexts – such as port taverns – and then, later, other outliers; such as rural contexts and the like.
One potential weakness in Salinger’s Taverns and Drinking is that it falls under the same rubric of ‘General History’ – which to many people is simply indelibly boring. A contrast to this, for example, is the before mentioned book by Mansfield, The Search for God and Guinness – which, essentially, revolves around the presumption that there is a built-in demographic of ardent Guinness lovers who simply love all things Guinness and, therefore, a history of the beer brand and its relation to pretty much anything immediately becomes a topic of intense fascination to a huge number of people. Salinger’s book, on the other hand, appeals to a smaller, much less pedestrian and much more academic crowd – and this is genuinely unfortunate. It seems that Salinger may be trying to put too much in for too many people. Feminist and gender studies are very popular – perhaps she could have made this the central theme – as it is inserted in almost every context that she explores, or even (for the beneficence of Postcolonial scholarship), she could have focused on the impact and history of Alcohol and the American Indian. That said, however – Taverns and Drinking stands on its own as a definitive and valuable contribution to that which it simply presents itself as – and is definitely enjoyable for those who have the eyes and ears to see and hear the value that it brings to the table.