American Cycles of Prohibition: Do They Have Roots in Ancient Drinking Norms?

Ancient amphorae / Southampton University, Creative Commons

It has been proposed that different drinking norms developed in northern and southern Europe during antiquity and that these patterns are still found today in the cultures overlying these areas.

By Dr. Ruth C. Engs
Professor Emeriti in Applied Health Science
Indiana University Bloomington


It has been proposed that different drinking norms developed in northern and southern Europe during antiquity and that these patterns are still found today in the cultures overlying these areas. European immigrants to the New World brought with them their different drinking attitudes and practices. In the United States, clashes between these divergent cultures and their drinking patterns precipitated anti-alcohol, temperance, and prohibition movement cycles.


The Drunkard’s Progress: by Nathaniel Currier 1846, warns that moderate drinking leads, step-by-step, to total disaster, by Nathaniel Currier / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Since the early 1980s, the United States of America has been in the midst of another “Clean
Living Movement” (Engs 1991a). These movements – which include anti-alcohol sentiments–
appear to emerge approximately every 70 to 80 years. Most authors concur that since the early nineteenth-century there have been three anti-alcohol or Temperance cycles (Musto, 1989; Engs 1991a; Pittman 1980, Room 1989). However, one author (Blocker 1989) suggests five reform cycles which the other authors have collapsed into three. Canada has also experienced these cycles but not to the extreme in terms of public policy as has been found in its southern neighbor.

In all three Clean Living Movements, along with anti-alcohol fervor and legislation, there have also been education programs, advocacy groups, and public policy measures regarding other health concerns. These areas have included general health and fitness, infectious diseases, nutrition, tobacco, drugs, pure water, eugenics, and women’s reproductive choices (Engs 1991a; Greene 1986; Whorton 1982). Although it would be of interest to explore the reasons why these issues appear to arise simultaneously, this will have to wait for another paper.

In the anti-alcohol aspect of these cycles, legislation to control the perceived problem has
generally occurred after the peak in per-capita consumption (see Figure 1). Peak consumption
for the first wave was in 1830; in the mid-1850s 13 states passed prohibition measures. Around
1910, the next peak in per-capita consumption occurred. During the early teens a number of
states passed more restrictive laws even before prohibition on a national level occurred with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1918. Finally in the current cycle, per capita consumption peaked
around 1979.

Although some states adopted drinking laws for individuals under 21 years of age in the early
1980s, prohibition for this age group on a national level was not implemented until 1987 (Lender and Martin 1987:72,84,129-130; Room 1989; Rorabaugh 1976:361).

Over the past forty years, there have been many speculations as to the etiology of the first two temperance movements in the United States. Hofstadter (1968) originally suggested that middle-class reformers were concerned about whether their way of life would continue to be dominant in America. He postulated that Prohibition was the product of the rural population being upset about both urbanization and European immigrants. Gusfield (1986) expanded Hofstadter’s model and suggested that the Temperance movement was a symbolic issue. He suggested that both Protestant clergymen and the middle-classes regarded industrial America and the influx of non-Protestants immigrants as a threat to their status, values and lifestyle. The movement was the result of conflicts between divergent sub-cultures.

On-the-other-hand, both Rorabaugh (1979) and Rumbarger (1989) point out that in the early
nineteenth-century, even before the flood of non-Protestant immigrants, temperance sentiments
arose. Rumbarger suggests that leadership and economic support for the temperance movement came from Eastern urban industrialists and professionals. These individuals believed that anti-alcohol measures were of vital economic importance for the maintenance of sober labourers to increase productivity in the growing industries.

Levine critiques these models and suggests, in a preface to Rumbarger’s text (1989:xiii), that one factor in the temperance movement was an attack on the part of the bourgeois on the working class lifestyle symbolized in temperance ideology. It was a campaign of “industry, sobriety and thrift,” three primary virtues of the Protestant work ethic. Levine (1991) further suggests that temperance movements, found almost exclusively in spirit and beer drinking cultures since the nineteenth century, have focused upon self-control and selfdiscipline. Both of these issues are primarily values of Protestantism. However, Levine (1990:16) points out, based on work by Erickson (1990) that not all Protestant grain based cultures developed large temperance movements. The reasons may be due to the type of Protestantism.

Rorabaugh (1989) reacting to the economic and industrial hypotheses points out that the
temperance movement actually preceded industrialization by at least a decade. He considers
the first movement a logical response by early nineteenth-century Americans to the conditions
of their time. It was a reaction to the prevailing patterns of unprecedented drinking based upon unprecedented rapid change and stress. Purcell (1985) gives support for this hypothesis by suggesting that heavy drinking had increased during times of rapid urbanization in antiquity, the Middle-Ages, and during the British Industrial Revolution. It might be noted that in all three Clean Living Cycles, increases in per-capita consumption (Roaraburg 1976) has occurred during the time of rapid increases in urban population (US Gov. Stats. 1991) and social change in the United States.

However, as Rorabaugh (1979:146) has so aptly stated in discussing this association with the first movement, “this correlation, while it does not prove a causal relationship, strongly suggests that such a relationship exist [s].” In terms of western European civilization and its colonies, Levine (1991), Erickson (1990) and the author (Engs 1989) have simultaneously, but independently, noted that anti-alcohol movements, have primarily emerged in Protestant Nordic and English language speaking culture– with the exception of Finland . Several decades ago Bainton (1945:409, 52-53) suggested that modern anti-alcohol measures have their roots in radical Protestant groups which formed during the Reformation in the northern cultures of western Europe.

In addition, the author has reported (Engs 1991b, Engs 1992) that contemporary western
European drinking norms have their roots in antiquity; the northern Germanic-Celtic cultures, untouched by Roman influences developed ambivalence (either heavy binge drinking or abstinence) concerning alcohol because it was not always available. The more southern Mediterranean and Romanized regions considered wine a pleasant part of the daily diet and frowned upon drunkenness but not drinking.

The reasons for temperance and prohibition movements in the United States and other
Germanic-Nordic language based cultures is, of course, complex and probably result from a
synergistic mix of many social, economic, religious, genetic, and political factors. This paper, will suggest an additional factor for the American temperance cycles in a model which expands upon the Hofstadter and Gusfield theories, recent ideas from other scholars, and the author’s model of the origins of western European drinking norms in antiquity. In brief the author proposes that modern temperance cycles have deep roots in antiquity due to differences in attitudes towards alcohol developed in the northern and southern areas of western Europe. These ancient drinking cultures were brought by European immigrants to the New World.

The Model

Southern Western European areas, which had been Romanized, retained a Latin based language, the wine drinking norm, and Roman Catholicism during the Reformation. Northern
European areas untouched by Roman influence, or who lost their Romanization (Britain), adopted Christianity several centuries after the Romanized cultures. They also readily embraced Protestantism during the Reformation, retained traditional feast drinking patterns, a
preference for grain based alcoholic beverages, and Germanic-Celtic based languages. The
Northern Protestant cultures, in particular Britain, because of religious and political conflict during the Reformation period, developed hatred and fear of Roman Catholics.

Western European immigrants brought their drinking norms and religious prejudices to the New
World. Concerns about retaining Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle-class family and work values, animosity towards Roman Catholic urban immigrants with “alien” drinking norms, and perceived social problems resulting from their drinking was a major factor in the first cycle, somewhat of a factor in the second, and an underlying factor in the current anti-alcohol cycle. The animosity to foreign norms in the first two cycles, did not necessarily initiate, but rather intensified the movements into Prohibition as a measure of social control over these groups.

In each successive cycle as descendants of immigrants became assimilated into the middle-class ethos, they reacted to perceived social problems related to alcohol abuse to protect their values. A major factor in the present movement is hostility on the part of the middle-class towards youth who typically exhibit the Northern European binge drinking pattern.

Before the hypotheses suggested by this model are posited, information concerning contemporary western European drinking norms and their development from antiquity need to be reviewed.

Contemporary Western European Norms

In Western Europe, there are two dominant drinking norms and to some extent a blending of the two norms. The Northern, or Nordic, pattern is fraught with ambivalence concerning drinking. Either abstinence or heavy drinking to intoxication is common within the culture. Spirits and beer are the most common beverages. Although per-capita consumption is low there are many perceived problems and numerous alcohol policy measures to control alcohol. These cultures are primarily Protestant and speak non-Latin based languages (Bales 1946:495; Davies 1984:26,45; Davies and Walsh 1983:264,74-77,85-86; Heath & Cooper 1988; FAO 1984; Smith & Hanham 1982:18-19).

In contrast, the Southern, or Mediterranean pattern, is characterized by drinking wine in moderation. Drinking to intoxication is frowned upon by most members of the culture. Children
are introduced to wine, usually in diluted form, at an early age. Although there is high per-capita consumption there are few perceived problems related to drinking and few alcohol control measures (Davies 1984:26,45; Jellinek 1962;384-387; Lolli, et al 1952:100). These cultures have Latin based languages and the Roman Catholic religion.

In the Blended pattern, both wine and beer are consumed. There is high per capita consumption and an average number of alcohol control measures. See Table 1 for Western European nations and their characteristics.

Origins of Western European Drinking Norms in Antiquity

Northern Patterns

Prima Europe tabula. A 1486 copy of Ptolemy’s 2nd-century map of Roman Britain / National Library of Wales, Wikimedia Commons

The author has suggested a model which traces modern western European drinking norms to at least 2,500 years ago (Engs 1991b, Engs 1992). In brief the model suggests that in the northern areas of Europe the pattern of heavy feast drinking of ales, and sometimes mead,
became common at least by 500 B.C. This heavy episodic drinking may have had several origins. It may have been related to sporadic supplies of alcohol due to the harvest. Ale did not
readily keep and mead was scarce leading to a “feast or famine” situation in terms of alcohol
availability. When alcohol was available it was rapidly consumed to intoxication (Cunliffe 1986).

Another probable factor is that certain segments of the population will increase consumption when they are depressed or lack of sun light. Seasonal Affective Depression is common in
northern cultures thus leading to probable swings in drinking between long dark winters and light summers (Geller 1971; Parker 1987; Thompson and Silverstone 1990). Ambivalence
concerning alcohol may have developed due to parts of the population attempting to control
the heavy feast drinking which often led to fights and bloodshed (Engs 1991b; Engs 1992; Braudel 1984:223-234, 239; Davidson 1988:40-45; Dietler 1990:382; Ross 1986).

Southern Patterns

Evolution of Italy in antiquity / GaiusCrastinus, Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, the milder Mediterranean climate and naturally growing vines led to the emergence
of viticulture. Wine drinking occurred, more or less on daily basis, because wine could be readily stored. By the second century b.c.e, most Romans drank some form of wine mixture
(Hyams 1965:94,130-131; Younger 1966:166-169).

When Romans began to move north and west into central Europe, they introduced urbanization
and daily wine drinking as part of the diet. When Roman power began to wane in the west, areas which retained the Roman Mediterranean culture, including Italy, Greece southern France, Portugal and Spain, retained wine drinking with meals in all social classes. The
Northern European areas such as Scandinavia, Northeast Germany and Poland, untouched
by Roman influence, retained heavy feast drinking patterns and grain based beverages (Engs
1991b; Jones 1986:766; Hyams 1965:108-117, 130-131; Younger 1966:152-154,166-169,206-

Blended Pattern

During the late Roman Empire, Germanic invasions into central Europe and the assimilation of these groups into the old Roman culture, in areas which include modern north and central France, Southwest Germany, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland, led to a Blended pattern of
drinking and other cultural norms (Anderson 1974:154-155). Both beer and wine were consumed at meals and at other times; later spirits were added. Britain lost its veneer of Romanization and reverted to Celtic patterns augmented by Germanic and later blended Norman patterns over the course of the early Middle-Ages. Britain developed a blended but more northern pattern with the preference of ale (Engs 1991b; Wolfram 1988; Jones 1986; Anderson 1974).

The author has reported (Engs 1991b, 1992) a high correlation (r >.7, p < .05) between total absolute alcohol consumption, wine consumption, Latin based language, viticulture, and being a Roman Province. High per-capita consumption is predicted by Romance Language and being a Roman province with 78% of the variance being accounted for. Wine consumption is predicted by Romance Language. Beer consumption is predicted by Germanic based language and low absolute alcohol consumption. The percent of the variance for these two beverages accounted for, respectively, are 75% and 51%. The author concluded that modern western European drinking norms have roots in ancient Roman and Barbarian antiquity.


A basic assumption for this report is that contemporary western European nations reflect the
underlying norms of their culture over the centuries based upon the fact that one can predict
alcohol consumption patterns, by Language and Roman provincial status (Engs 1991b, 1992).

Two Null hypotheses for this paper are proposed: 1) there will be no historical support to suggest that the dominant Protestant, Anglo-Saxon based middle-class society implemented alcohol control measures to control Roman Catholic immigrant groups to the United States with
different drinking norms during the first and somewhat during the second cycle.

In the present cycle, as descendants of immigrants became acculturated into the middle-class,
prohibition measures are an effort to control youthful drinking which tends to exhibit the Northern binge drinking pattern leading to perceived social problems. This leads to the second
Null hypothesis; 2) there will be no difference in alcohol control policies and drinking patterns due to Religion, Language, the amount of absolute alcohol, beer and wine consumed, and the number of alcohol control measures in the contemporary world.


It needs to be clearly noted that this paper is primarily an interpretation of what is already known rather than a history based upon primary sources. The author is aware that a more thorough investigation of primary resources needs to be undertaken before definitive conclusion concerning this model can be made. My interest for this paper is not a history of the American movements but an interpretation in light of the model I have developed concerning the origins of drinking norms in western Europe from antiquity.

Pearson-Rho and multiple regression analysis were used to determine correlations between
language, alcohol control policies, Religion and per capita consumption of various beverages for empirical evidence in support of this model. The SPSS program was used for analysis.

Origins of American Anti-Alcohol Movements Based upon Northern European Protestant Roots

Western European Christianity and Attitudes towards Drinking

As is commonly known, there are numerous references in the Old and New Testaments to both wine use and drunkenness. Drinking, for the most part, is condoned but drunkenness is condemned. Other than a few early ascetic Christian sects, the early church and religious leaders considered alcohol a gift from God to be used in moderation. Drunkenness, and not
alcohol itself, was considered sinful throughout the Middle Ages by the Church. Between the
fifteenth and seventeenth century many changes in religious thought occurred in western Europe as part of the Reformation. This led to a change in attitude and practices concerning
drinking among some of the re-forming religious groups (Austin 1985:129; Conley and Sorenson 1971:22-23; Frend 1982).

The northern Germanic areas developed Protestantism while the southern Latinized areas retained Catholicism. This is likely because regions of western Europe which came under the
influence of the Roman Empire the earliest are also the areas which first became Christian. By
the end of the Roman Empire (early fifth-century) Italy, Spain, Portugal, southern France had
become Christian. By the sixth-century, northern France and southwest Germany had converted (Rosenberg 1977:218-228; MacMullen 1963; Jones 1986). These are also the nations today which still retain Latin based languages, except Southwest Germany and Austria, Roman Catholic religion and the wine drinking norm. See Table 1.

On-the-other-hand, northern areas which were not under the influence of Roman culture became Christianized several centuries after the waning of the Western Empire. This included Britain in the seventh-century which had lost its veneer of Romanization and early Christianization. The Low countries and northern Germany converted to this religion in the eighth, and the Scandinavian cultures, in the tenth-century. Except for Ireland which remained Catholic, they all adopted Protestantism, still speak a non-Romance languages and tend to be beer/spirit drinkers (Johnson 1987; Smith 1977:209-210; Rosenberg 1977:218-228). See Table 1.

During the Reformation, early Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin reflected the more blended pattern of drinking by sanctioning moderate drinking of wine and beer as part of the diet. It is estimated that about a quart a day of beer per person was drunk in the German areas. However, these and other early Protestant leaders vigorously condemned drunkenness and alcohol abuse. Sermons and tracts attacked the particular propensity of Germans towards inebriety. Moreover, Luther mentions that drunkenness and gluttony are common among Germans but not among Italians (Durant 1957:417,477, 769).

As the Protestants groups began to evolve, some became concerned about habits, customs and individual morality. The Germanic Anabaptists and Hutterites began to see alcohol as an
evil in itself. Anabaptists began to emphasize that a mark of a true Christian was sobriety; drunkards were expelled from the church. The Anabaptist moral code influenced German pietism which in turn influenced English Methodism and the seventeenth-century Quakers. This later group pioneered the beginnings of temperance sentiments in the New World in the late eighteenth-century. Calvinist influence led to Presbyterianism in Scotland and moral reforms against drunkenness. Calvinist and some Methodist churches following their lead in the early nineteenth-century began to advocate prohibition (Bainton 1945:52; Burke 1978:217,279; Conley and Sorenson 1971:64-65).

In contrast other developing Protestant groups such as the Anglicans and Puritans (Anglicans
who were attempting to purify the church from Catholic practices) retained more moderate views. Their attitudes towards drinking was similar to that of the Medieval church; drunkenness was considered a moral offense but alcohol itself was believed to have been created by God to be used for enjoyment and in moderation. Puritans , under some Calvinists influence, felt that God was served by honest labor and that social evils such as drunkenness were caused by idleness (Austin 1985:194).

One major factor for a change in attitude concerning alcohol by certain Protestant groups was the increased consumption of spirits in the Northern and Blended drinking cultures. This led to the Gin Epidemic among the poor, urban labouring class in England during the time of the Industrial Revolution in the mid eighteenth-century. Concern about drunkenness arose and spirits began to be seen as evil. Concurrently the Great Awakening occurred during this century. John Wesley, an Anglican priest and the founder of Methodism, was one of the first to speak out about the Gin epidemic. Beer on the other hand remained an integral component of the British self-image. “Protestantism, constitutional government, and beer are seen as a trinity of virtues opposed to Catholicism, autocracy, and wine” (Austin 1985:276; Braudel 1984). These attitudes were brought to the colonies.

Origins of Anti-Catholicism

Thomas Nast Anti-Catholic Cartoon / Public Domain

Prior to the reformation, three great monarchies, England, Spain and France, controlled Western Europe. Part of the struggle of the Reformation was a political struggle within, and
between, these powers. In the sixteenth-century, Luther and Calvin intended to reform the church, not to create a new one. Civil wars and turmoil between the old Catholic and reforming
forces occurred in Germany, Holland and France. Many Protestants were massacred in this strife from the middle of the sixteenth- though the seventeenth-century until Protestantism stood as a separate religion. This struggle resulted in fear and hostility towards Catholics on the part of the Protestants (Atkison 1977:378-398).

In England and Scotland, the struggle lasted longer then the rest of Europe. As early as the
thirteenth-century a strong anti-papal movement in Britain developed under John Wycliffe. It
was strengthened by both Lutheran and Calvinistic thought. During the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century civil war and battles between Protestant and Catholic contenders for the
crown developed. Many Protestant reformers were slaughtered in these power struggles. By the late seventeenth-century, the Anglican church had a firm foothold in Britain. A struggle then
ensued with reform within the Church of England by Puritans (Atkison 1977:386-390).

The Reformation did not occur in Ireland. England attempted to compel the Irish to adopt the
Anglican church but the low level of education and absence of Irish language printed material prevented change. Among the Irish, Protestantism became linked with foreign rule. It was rejected and some hostility between the two countries continues into the present time (Atkinson 1977:397-398).

Both New England Puritans and Anglican Virginians in the early seventeenth-century brought
backgrounds of religious intolerance of each other. However, they had a common enemy, namely, Roman Catholics. These, and other British Protestant groups , who immigrated to the New World also had deep prejudices towards Catholics because of fear that the Roman church would control their country (Billington 1974:11).

Drinking Attitudes in the Protestant Colonies

In the early seventeenth- century, colonist continued the English idea that alcoholic beverages
were part of the diet and therefore good. “Cider and beer were drunk with meals as well as on community social occasions; heavy drinking to the point of drunkenness seems to have been expected, or at least tolerated, on such occasions” (Blocker 1989:4) However, concerns about drunkenness led to the passage of the first law in 1619 to control excessive drinking and drunkenness but not to restrict everyday use of alcohol. Beginning about 1650, rum began to be imported into the colonies and in 1657 the first distillery was established. An increase in
drunkenness likely occurred (Cherrington 1920:17-31). This led to Puritan minister Increase
Mather (1673:6) publishing two sermons concerning the sin of drunkenness; he was anti-drunkenness but not anti-drinking.

During the eighteenth-century, an apparent increase in per-capita consumption occurred. Much
of this increase was due to imported rum which was replaced by whiskey in the 1790s. Sentiments against distilled spirits and drunkenness as a sin began to increase. Many states made drunkenness a crime with various punishments. However, occasional drunkenness among the upper classes was seen as a natural harmless consequence of drinking (Conley and Sorensen 1971:24-25; Cherrington 1920:31-38; Rorabaugh 1979:26-27, 45-47, 68)

A response to this perceived increase in drunkenness, on the part of Quakers on the eve of the
War for Independence, resulted in two pamphlets by Benjamine Rush indicating that alcohol
could have social and health consequences and recommended abstinence for the drunkard.
Antony Benezet recommended total abstinence from spirits as he felt they were destructive and
degraded the work performance of labourers. British Methodist immigrated just prior to the War; their leader John Wesley condemned distilling in 1780 (Cherrington 1920:38-43; Levine 1978:147,150-151).

The First Anti-Alcohol Movement (1774-1860)

Protestant Attitudes: Anti-Alcohol, Anti-Catholic-Anti-Immigrant

Although anti-alcohol sentiments began in the mid-1770s, organized Temperance efforts did not occur until 1826 as an effect of Protestant revivals which lasted for the next 16 years. These revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” contributed to Abolition (anti-slavery), Temperance, and Nativist (anti-Catholic immigrant) sentiments. Most revivalists were Methodists and Baptists who were for the most part anti-alcohol. As the Temperance and the Nativist movements grew, they became interwoven (Billington 1974;527-528; Carwardine 1978:18,44-45, 50-53; Conley and Sorenson 1971:32-33; Gienapp 1987:45,98; Johnson 1978:128-136).


Temperance leaders viewed alcohol as the cause of poverty and disease, particularly in the urban slums, and an evil which was undermining the Protestant work ethic inherited from Britain. “During the 1820s, the men who founded the Temperance movement sought to make
America into a clean, sober, godley, and decorous people ” (Gusfield:1986:5). As illustrated
by a typical temperance tract, “The Drunkard Destroyed ” (Worcester 1817), poverty, crime, and family violence were all caused by drunkenness. The tract implies that abstinence leads to a middle-class moral lifestyle. A later tract published during the main surge of the movement, “The Spirit of Temperance Reform” (1845), also suggests that alcohol caused these problems in urban areas. Between 1835 and 1840, the Temperance movement went from a stand of moderation to abstinence (Walters 1978:129).

Although the Temperance movement started before the immigration waves of the 1830s into Eastern city slums, Temperance forces, encouraged by revivalists to cleanse the urban areas, began to be increasingly concerned about drunkenness and disease, particularly among Irish Catholics. During the 1840s, hostility towards these immigrants and their drinking patterns grew stronger. Revivalists railed against “east-coast cities pickled in alcohol and swollen by European ‘infidel’ or Roman Catholic immigrants” (Carwardine 1978:18). The poverty and disease among the Irish was thought to be the result of “intemperance, moral depravity and sheer idleness” as reported by Billington (1974:526) from the Nativist publication, The Crisis.

In Boston, for example, Irish Catholic immigrants were seen to be in an endless cycle of birth and poverty, intemperance, squalor and disease. These problems concerned middle-class
Protestant women as there was fear that the immigrants’ health problems could spill into middle-class areas (Verbrugee 1987:14-17). During the 1832 and 1849, rampant cholera epidemics plagued Boston and other the urban areas. This disease was thought to be Gods punishment upon “Drunkards and filthy, wicked people of all descriptions” as it was primarily found among intemperate Irish-Catholic slum dwellers and rarely found among the middle-class Protestants (Rosenberg 1987:44, 41-45, 55).

Temperance was a way for the middle-class to reform the drinker identified with the poor, alien and downtrodden. It was also an assimilative process to help lift these individuals into middle-class respectability and income. Encouraged by revivalism, Temperance became a symbol in the 1840s of native vs. immigrant, Protestant vs. Catholic, middle-class vs. poor, businessmen vs. workers. The Temperance Movement was seen as a way of curtailing alcohol sales and as a method of social control to solve the problems presented by the urban Catholic immigrant whose culture clashed with, and threatened, American Protestant values (Gusfield 1986:5-6; Johnson 1987:55-61,135-141).

Anti-Catholic and Anti-Immigrant

The anti-Catholic British colonist who came to America during the 17th century were soon isolated from the intellectual streams that flowed in England and Europe. In time, England
sublimated her anti-Catholic fervor and adopted more liberalistic attitudes towards continental Europe. Americans, out of touch with these currents, did not. They retained these biases which deepened (Billington 1974:10-11). “By the close of the Seventeenth Century nearly every colony had given proof of its inbred fear of Popery. Stirred to zealous bigotry by pulpit and penned propaganda . . only in Rhode Island in 1700 could a Catholic find complete equality under the law, and even here it is doubtful [how]. . liberal [this] might have been” (Billington 1974:25).

Anti-Catholic sentiment continued until the Revolutionary War when it temporarily abated. After the war, however, there was an increased fear that “the future might bring Catholic immigration and so endanger their Protestant institutions” (Billington 1974:44). Evidence of this distrust and hatred of foreign Catholics, particularly Irish and French, was the extension of the period of residency necessary for naturalization from two to five years and the passage of the Alien and Sedition act in 1798. At this time a distinction was beginning to be made between Catholic and Protestant foreigner (Billington 1974: 36-37; 44-45).

Beginning in the mid-1820s, masses of Irish Catholic Immigrants began to pour into the United States (US Census 1970:105-105). It was primarily the Eastern urban areas which received the brunt of these impoverished immigrants who swarmed into the already crowded, unhealthy urban slums. “The average American of that day, with suspicions of Catholics which had been inherited from colonial times, saw only in this immigration stream a new menace of Popery. Nearly all … were Catholics; a majority of them were Irish” (Billington 1974:61).

For the Irish immigrants, the church and saloon were focal points of life which became social clubs for political gain. Northern drinking patterns became exaggerated among Irish immigrants
as it distinguished them from other ethnic groups and became symbolic of Irish identity. This heavy binge-drinking led to many social problems (Stivers 1985:112-119, 126).

From 1834 to 1844 a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment permeated the country due to riots and lawlessness among Irish Catholics and bloodshed between native Protestants and Catholics. A reaction to this lawlessness included anti-Popery tracts, preaching’s from the pulpit, and propaganda against drunken Catholics. This led to “countless voters band(ing) together to form a national Nativist party on carrying the cry of No-Popery to the doors of the White House” (Billington 1974: 522, 528-529).

Nativists were fearful that the Catholic church was attempting to subvert Protestant middleclass values and ruin the nation. For example, when Father Mather from Ireland visited the urban areas for temperance reform among his people, some Nativists editors felt this was a Popish plot to advance Catholicism in America (Billington 1974:457,522-528). Furthermore, Gienapp (1987:45) notes that “Closely connected to the temperance movement was a growing hostility to immigrants. For the Irish and Germans … drinking was an integral part of socializing . . they were unwilling to give up their whiskey and lager beer to conform to American conception of proper social behavior. Riotous tippling among the foreign born mocked the social values of reformers …” who in reaction began to enacted laws to eradicate public drinking and disorderly behaviour. This fear of safety for the Republic and for Americas Protestant heritage, found both in rural and urban area, formed a bond between Nativists and Temperance workers to eradicate the problems (Gienapp 1987:97).

Nativist and Temperance Link: State Prohibition Laws of the 1850s

For a good number of reformers in the early 1850s, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-liquor
sentiments became fused in the Temperance crusade (Gienapp 1987:45; Walters 1978:138). The linkage grew out of the Nativist Know Nothing party’s strident appeal to Protestant middle-class values and the anti-liquor movements hostility to immigrants and Catholics with foreign drinking norms. “For both the Know Nothings and temperance crusaders, besotted Irish Catholics functioned as their primary negative reference group” (Gienapp 1987:98).

Neal Dow, creator of the Maine Prohibition Law of 1851, symbolized the connection between the two movements. He was a member of the Nativist society and manifested hostility to Irish
Catholic immigrants. Gienapp (1987:92-105) discusses in great detail the joining of the Protestant temperance and anti-Catholic Irish Nativist forces which merged into the Republican

In the mid-1850s, 13 states passed prohibition laws. Ohio was a typical example. From the 1840s to the mid-1850s, many Ohioans had become alarmed by Catholic Irish and German
immigrants who crowded into urban areas. “Concern eventually focused on a visible manifestation of urban and immigrant life, drinking; and as historian Jed Dannenbaum has
noted, the Temperance Movement grew accordingly among native-born Ohioans. The result was a hard fought campaign in 1853 . . to pass an Ohio version of the prohibitory Maine Law” (Lender 1984:85). Figure 2 shows that state prohibition laws were passed a few year after the peak arrival of immigrants.

The Second Movement (1874-1919)


The second Temperance cycle was linked with Populism and the Progressive reform movement. As in the earlier movement, reformers were predominately Protestant with Nativist middle-class values. These movements often overlapped as individuals involved with the crusades were attempting to keep the old American values, control Catholic immigration and eliminate alcohol and urban problems. Temperance reform was a major issue and was a part of most of these movements (Keller 1977:128-131,512-513,549; Gusfield 19:103).

In the late 1860s, Democratic victories led to the repeal of anti-liquor legislation in many states. Less immigration also occurred compared to the previous decades. It was not until a decade later that Temperance forces began to reactivate along with an increase in immigration. In 1874, the Ohio Temperance League and the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Movement) were both founded. They remained persistent undercurrents and contributed to the formation of the National Anti-Saloon League in 1893 whose motto was – “The saloon must go.” “The singleness of purpose of the league might be described as an obsessive and unremitting compulsion to eradicate the institution of the saloon from American Society” (Conley & Sorenson 65, 51,61; Cherington 1913:9; Keller 1977:128-131).

“The Dangerous Classes”: Immigrants and Catholics

In the last decades of the 19th century, the Temperance movement changed from advocating
self control to one of regulating others, in particular immigrants, Catholics and city dwellers. Keller (1977:512) notes, “As in so many other areas of social control, a mix of religious moralism and fear of social disorder fed the late nineteenth-century anti-liquor movement.” In 1876, the first prohibition amendment was proposed. Thereafter, a prohibition measure was continuously before Congress until the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1918 (Keller 1977:512, 571-573).

On-the-whole, anti-liquor ideals were popular where Populism as a political force had been common, particularly in the more agricultural areas. These rural regions were afraid of their
decreasing political power and the rising power of urban industrialization. Keller (1977:570) states that “Cultural politics was intensified by the emergence of overtly nativist, anti-Catholic organizations”. However, as these populist groups began to disintegrate at the end of the century they added pressure to the Republicans to take stands on issues such as prohibition.

A growing body of literature during the last quarter of the 19th Century discussed the harmful
impact of the new immigration on the local environment. There was a perceived threat from
these “dangerous classes” by the urban middle-class including fear of Irish labour terrorists in the 1870s and the Italian Mafia of the 1890s. There was “scientific” and popular beliefs that immigration was a prime cause of most social ills; native labourers also feared competition for jobs. However, Germans, at least up to the entry into the Great War (WWI), were seen to assimilate more readily. They along with Scandinavian immigrants tended to move to the rural areas. However, because of the continuing fear of, and hostility, to urban immigrants, in 1920 national origin quotas were formed to slow immigration (Blocker 1973:62, Keller 1977:447).

Another indication of Anglo-Saxon Nativist’s fear and hostility towards Catholic immigrants with alien drinking norms was Eugenics. It became an under-current of the Progressive and Temperance movements. The census of 1880 indicated that there was a declining birth rate among Anglo-Saxon families raising a fear of “race suicide” for the Puritan stock, considered
“superior” by them to Southern or Eastern Europeans. Because the immigrants had many children, the old Anglo-Saxons feared they would be out populated. The Populist antipathy towards urban and Catholic communities reinforced the belief that in order to protect the Anglo-Saxon race and old American values, alcohol and the Saloon, which was seen as the underlying cause of social problems among Catholic immigrants, had to be abolished (Grant
1916; Greene 1986:252-255, 225,231; Gusfield 1986:100).

The Evil-Saloon: Anti-Alcohol, Anti-Immigrant

After the Civil War and up until the last decade of the nineteenth-century, the saloon was considered the social club of poor immigrants where job information, newspapers and
comradeship was available. Polish immigrants in particular found them similar to establishments in their peasant villages (Blocker 1989:109; Freund 1985:80-82). However, with the flood of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe beginning in the 1880s, a change of attitude regarding the saloon occurred. Engelmann (1979:8) states, “Rather than the church of the poor, the saloon was considered more and more the devil’s headquarters on earth.” Many
columns of newspapers print and articles about saloon related violence and crime began to be published. They began to be depicted as the ultimate evil in American life by Protestant revivalists (Engelmann 1979:8-10; Conley & Sorenson 1971:65-66).

To determine the effect of the saloon and alcohol on crime among various urban ethnic groups, a study was undertaken by the “Committee of 50” a group of politicians and reformers. They concluded that “the hardest-drinking nationalities yield the highest percentage of intemperance as a cause of crime,” namely immigrant Poles, Germans and Italians (Koren 1899:136, 146). This report also implied that among the “Dangerous classes,” “two thirds of all crime of every city (is) due to drink” (Koren 1899:11) Curiously they did find that saloons tended to be meeting places for working class men and did not find most of them “dens of evil.” They found little intoxication among patrons of Italian and German saloon where families socialized. Anti-Prohibition publications in retaliation to the Prohibition forces stated, “This whole anti-saloon league movement is in reality a thinly veiled warfare on everything foreign” on the part of Puritan stock who is now lazy (Debar 1911: 249-250).

Prohibition: The Sum of These Antipathies

The Eighteenth Amendment resulted from support of various groups who saw alcohol as the root of all social ills. The fear of the saloon grew concurrently with the new waves of Roman Catholic Irish and Southern and Eastern European immigrants. The Protestant middle-class was horrified by the slums, the alien religion and the violence of these groups. Hostility to
immigrants was most common near the extreme ends of the political spectrum and among
Progressives whose views were most influence by Populist sentiment. The Populist progressives were frank to express their dislike of Catholic immigrants and drew their greatest support from the discontented native born Americans (Keller 1977:512-513; Hofstadter 1955:176-178,185; Gusfield 1986:197).

Besides anti-alcohol, sentiments among Protestant middle-class Nativists, by the beginning of the 20th Century, the Anti-Saloon and Prohibition movement also grew strong among urban
industrialists. “Since workingmen drank mostly in saloons, employers sought to remove saloons as far as possible from their factory . . . so they would not patronize them during lunchtime” (Engelmann 1979:13). The best worker was considered a non-drinking worker.

In addition, the urban areas, which had been traditionally “wetter,” voted for prohibition. This was because they expected their community would be a better place to live as leading, scientists, medical authorities, athletes, and business and political leaders of the nation had testified to the benefits of prohibition for almost 20 years. Moreover, many second, and third generation urban immigrants, had become acculturated into the Anglo-Saxon American ethos resulting in fewer differences between the old middle-class groups and more recent immigrants (Blocker 1989:109; Engelmann 1979:21-23). These newer Americans were also concerned by the problems posed by new immigrant slum dwellers (Blocker 1989:109-110). As found in the first cycle, Figure 2 illustrates that prohibition measures – including the Volstead Act – occurred after the peak influx of Roman Catholic Irish, Italian, or Polish immigrants.

Current Cycle (1980-?)

Prohibition was repealed in 1932. Since this time people from the divergent European cultures have become more or less acculturated into the American ethos (Greeley 1971:16,24-25; Gusfield 1986:200). However, the American culture has not developed a national norm concerning drinking and there remains remnants of the different European cultural patterns.

In the current cycle which began in the early 1980s, fear and hostility appears to be directed at youth who usually exhibit the Northern binge-drinking patterns which leads to many perceived social problems (Engs 1977; Hanson & Engs 1992). During the Vietnam war, youth rebelled against the middle-class establishment and began to be seen as a threat to the prevailing political power and middle-class values. As part of the rebellion they smoked marijuana and used other drugs (Engs 1987:ii-iii). However, alcohol was found to be the drug of choice among this group. With this fear and hostility towards youth, as Gusfield (1986:200) also suggests, the 21 year old purchase law was passed as a method to control their dangerous, and in particular drinking/driving, behaviours.

Results Concerning the Association of Religion, Language, Alcohol Control Policies, and Alcohol Consumption

Inspection of Table 1 reveals that Protestant Northern Germanic based language nations have the lowest per capita consumption and the highest number of alcohol control measures. As can be seen in Table 2, there is a significant negative correlation between having many alcohol control policies, Catholicism, and high per-capita consumption. There is a positive association between high beer consumption and Germanic based language. Conversely there is a positive correlation between high per-capita consumption, wine drinking, Romance language and Catholicism.

The result of a stepwise regression analysis, in Table 3, reveals that and many alcohol control policies can be predicted by low per-capita consumption with 44% of the variance being accounted for. High alcohol consumption is predicted by high wine consumption and
Catholicism with 80% of the variance being explained. Conversely, low per-capita alcohol consumption is predicted by low wine consumption and Protestantism.


Based upon both the empirical and limited historical evidence gleaned at this time, it is tentatively concluded that the Null hypotheses posited for this paper are rejected. There appears to be an associations in western-European culture between drinking norms, language
and religion. Immigrants brought these cultural norms and religious biases to the new world. A
factor intensifying the first, and somewhat of the second cycle, was fear and hostility towards Catholic immigrants with drinking patterns seen as harmful to American Protestant middle-class values. This animosity resulted in prohibition measures to control perceived negative drinking and other behaviours. Each successive European immigrant wave became integrated into the prevailing Protestant American ethos. These immigrants adapted middle-class values and attitudes towards perceived negative drinking behaviours. The current temperance cycle is a middle-class effort to control the Northern binge-drinking pattern, found today primarily among youth.


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Originally published by IUScholarWorks (06.02.1992, Kettil Bruun Society’s Alcohol Epidemiology Meeting),, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States license.



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