Inside McSorley’s Old Ale House, Manhattan, c. 1937

From The Wall Street Journal:

On the evening of September 26, 1765, a group of the leading citizens of Newburyport, Mass., met at the Wolfe’s Head tavern. Between them, they consumed before supper, by my count, 66 bowls of punch (rum, sugar, lemon and water), five bowls and a “nip” of toddy (punch without the lemon), two bowls of egg toddy (toddy with eggs) and a mug of flip (beer, rum, sugar and eggs). After supper they had another 17 bowls of punch, three bowls of assorted toddy and six and a half pints of straight spirits. Each “bowl” was something like two pints (a third to a half of it alcohol) and so served 16 moderately sized drinks. This was for a crowd that could not have been bigger than 150 people. The purpose of their gathering was to debate a response to the recently passed Stamp Act. Of such gatherings, fueled by rum, sugar and water, was the American Revolution born—and the place of its birth was the bar.

Since the first European colonists arrived in North America, bars, taverns, inns and saloons—or whatever you like to call them—have been central to American society. In a country being built essentially from the ground up, the bar served as gathering point, place of recreation, center of political expression and organization and cultural institute where new arrivals learned how to be American. Its story is a long and complex one, covering some 400 years and a vast number of tippling houses of all conceivable kinds. Christine Sismondo’s “America Walks Into a Bar” is a valiant attempt to provide a complete, detailed and readable history of public drinking in the United States. To the best of my knowledge, such a thing has never been attempted before, and for good reason.

It’s not just the size of the task. The subject itself is a problem. Drinking-places are particularly resistant to narrative. Lots of things happen in them, to be sure. But they’re places we go to avoid the world of decisive action and serious achievement; they’re down time. For the most part, the kinds of things that occur there seem hardly worth recording. People drink, talk, wrangle, fight and make up. Stories are told, wagers are placed, sometimes there’s dancing. Life is lived. The heroes are local; the victories and defeats personal. At best, all you’re left with to commemorate them is an anecdote or a joke—and maybe a new cocktail. Which brings up the next problem: alcohol.

A good deal of the testimony about what transpired in bars comes from people who had been drinking when they witnessed it. This causes a certain imprecision in the data.

“The All-American Place”, David Wondrich, The Wall Street Journal