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A History of Single Life

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A series about hooking up through the ages.

Booze is as old as civilization. In fact, it might be the reason we have civilization at all: The first known cookbook is a Sumerian formula for making beer, and growing grain or grapes for alcohol production was a mainstay of economies from ancient Greece to the American frontier.
    Even back in the good ol’ days of ziggurats and temple prostitution, though, there was always a certain tension between alcohol’s ability to raise spirits and its tendency to loosen morals. Hammurabi’s Babylonian law said that if a woman dedicated to a god were to even enter a drinking establishment, she should be burned to death. Roman husbands could beat their wives if they thought they’d been dipping into the wine, while ribald medieval poets praised the power of the vine to loosen girdles. The sixteenth-century Protestant theologian and reformer John Calvin even closed the taverns of Geneva, Switzerland, entirely and instead opened up "evangelical refreshment places" where dancing was forbidden and your pint of beer was accompanied by a gospel reading. They were, needless to say, not very popular.

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    Since alcohol not only makes the unwashed, unshaven peasant lying in bed next to you seem a damn sight sexier, but also kills those pesky, dysentery-causing microorganisms in your drinking water, it wasn’t until the Industrial Age and the triumph of modern sewage systems, personal hygiene, and the Protestant work ethic that people began to seriously think about doing away with booze altogether. Middle-class reformers blamed uninhibited imbibing for a multitude of evils from child abandonment to prostitution. Organizations such as temperance societies and the Young Men’s Christian Association began springing up, aiming to chain white-collar workers to their desk jobs by getting them away from the bottle.
    At least at first, the reformers had about as much success as Calvin did with his Bible-‘n’-brew joints (or, for that matter, as Nancy Reagan later did with her "Just Say No" campaign). Pubs were a mainstay of male working-class life — a social center, cafeteria, employment office, sports center and meeting place all in one building. The poorer you were, the more you tended to drink, or at least the more publicly you tended to drink. By the end of the nineteenth century, prosperous, middle-class London had one pub for every 393 people, whereas industrial Birmingham had one for every 215 and working-class Manchester one for every 168. In New York, Jacob Riis noted in 1890 that there were 111 churches below Fourteenth Street in Manhattan and 4,065 saloons, or about one for every 270 people.
    Pub owners soon realized that they were only serving half the potential market. With their colored lights and brass ornaments, and ability to serve many patrons at once at their long bars, the "gin palaces" of nineteenth-century London soon became popular with female drinkers. At the high end, the gin palaces were completely respectable places, where getting wasted was not so much the objective as was the business of seeing and being seen. By the turn of the twentieth century, social drinking for married couples and sweethearts had finally become acceptable and commonplace on both sides of the Atlantic.
    In America, however, where John Calvin’s attitudes towards having a good time have plagued us ever since Plymouth Rock, the anti-imbibing movement — epitomized by temperance-activist granny Carrie Nation, who had the

Speakeasies were the true birthplace of modern nightclub culture.

charming habit of smashing up saloons with a hatchet — had more of an influence. The Eighteenth Amendment, pushed on the country by those concerned souls who, in H.L. Mencken’s words, feared that someone, somewhere might have been happy, was passed in 1917, and Prohibition went into effect in 1920. All Prohibition did, however, was force drinking underground, giving birth to the counterculture of the speakeasies. The cheap beer and liquor that had been such a feature of working-class life were now just as illegal as the wine and champagne of the aristocracy, and, though the supply was constrained, the demand continued. Being able to obtain liquor, through whatever means, became a mark of status (as it is today in many parts of the Muslim world, or as getting good-quality pot or coke is in modern America).
    Rather than something one did in the context of other activities, drinking became an end in itself, a romantically and excitingly "bad" and dangerous act — and an absolute requirement for anyone with aspirations to hipness. The excesses of alcohol abuse were not cured; if anything, because people were binge-drinking bad-quality booze like college freshmen during pledge week, they were made worse. The underground nature of drinking caused other problems, as well: Crime from competing smuggling gangs, poisonings from bad batches of bathtub gin, and the "unruly emotions and passions that follow coarse music and inferior liquor," as the novelist Elinor Glyn noted in This Passion Called Love, her 1925 advice book for young people.
    The illicit nature of drinking also encouraged the breakdown of social barriers. Speakeasies were the true birthplace of modern nightclub culture, where one’s class and standing were decided according to a completely different set of rules than those used by the rest of society, and where rich and poor, black and white, could rub elbows far more freely than in the outside world. At a speakeasy, the daughters of respectable middle-class parents could dance to "negro" music, and a young man with access to an illegal distillery could, like Fitzgerald’s fictional Jay Gatsby, become wealthy and popular. For perhaps the first time in history, it

By the late ’50s, the "urban professional lifestyle" had become inextricably linked with the free and easy consumption of liquor.

was the masses that dictated fashion to the rest of society. Prohibition might have been repealed in 1933, but drinking still kept an allure-of-the-forbidden in America that it never had in Britain.
    In the decades after World War II, when a new generation of college-educated women began to aspire to jobs more glamorous than the secretarial pool, they also began to pick up the businessman’s habit of the after-hours cocktail. No one has yet written the history of the singles bar, but by the late ’50s, the "urban professional lifestyle" had become inextricably linked with the free and easy consumption of liquor, and novels such as Rona Jaffee’s The Best of Everything made urban watering holes seem like the natural environment of the men and women, great of ambition but loose of morals, who moved to the big city to make their way in exciting careers in advertising, fashion and publishing. "There is more drinking done on the East Side of New York than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of the wine-drinking sections of France," a liquor-company employee was quoted in a 1965 issue of Cosmopolitan. The author of the article continued: "He was referring not only to the torrent of joy juice that flows at apartment-house parties, but to the heavy trade at the bars, or ‘cocktail lounges’ as they are euphemistically called here. . . in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, off First Avenue, York, and Lexington, there are dozens of new drinkeries that go by such names as Greenstreet’s Café, Bogey’s, and The Red Onion, and cater so exclusively to the young and unattached that nobody who comes in seems over thirty."
    Lest anyone forget, the modern lesbian and gay rights movement also began in a bar — specifically, the Stonewall Inn. As one of

In clubland, it wasn’t so much about the money as it was about the fabulousness.

the few places sexual nonconformists could openly be themselves, the "gay" or "dyke" bar has always been a queer social institution, and even before Stonewall, groups such as the Mattachine Society had campaigned long and hard to keep them free of police raids. What happened at Stonewall in 1969 was that the various gays, lesbians and drag queens were tired of being harassed and decided to fight back physically for once, touching off three days of rioting.
    Eventually, thanks to the influence of now-fashionable gay clubs such as the Continental Baths, the unique culture of the queer underground went mainstream as the disco craze of the ’70s and ’80s. Though the heyday of disco was more about ingesting large quantities of illegal pharmaceuticals, dancing to Donna Summer and hooking up with beautiful boys and girls than it was about shelling out for watered-down drinks, clubs such as Danceteria and Trocadero Transfer kept alive the traditions of both the gin palaces of the nineteenth century and the speakeasies of Prohibition. Not only were they places to see and be seen, but they played by their own set of rules. In clubland, it wasn’t so much about the money as it was about the fabulousness. As Steve Rubell, one of the owners of Studio 54, told New York magazine in 1977, "I remember this guy said he owned Allen Carpets. He was obnoxious as hell and I wouldn’t let him in. I hate people like that."
    The Golden Age of New York nightclubs may have ended in the ’90s with Mayor Giuliani’s gentrification initiatives and zero-tolerance anti-drug policies, but drinking remains perennially popular. New York City today has about 10,000 tavern licensees, or one for approximately every 850 residents, and New Yorkers spend about $450 per person per year on booze. Consumption isn’t socially symmetrical, though: According to the Department of Health, about a quarter of Manhattan residents are "heavy drinkers," consuming two or more alcoholic beverages a day, versus lower rates for the outer boroughs. If you’re young, single and gainfully employed, you’re also likely to drink more. (Though these things are culturally relative: What Americans consider "heavy drinking," my Scottish friends consider "being a teetotaler.") Go into any restaurant, club or corner dive bar in New York, London, San Francisco, Edinburgh or Los Angeles on any given night of the week, and you’ll see the truth of what worried Hammurabi back in the day: No matter what, people are always going to want to get drunk and fuck.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.