Pick Up Some Beer for a Long Weekend: The American History Guys on Alcohol

Points readers may have noticed that since the hot weather began, we are no longer observing our usual OCD practice of “new content daily,” but instead enjoying a rather “slack-ademic” posting schedule.  This will certainly be the case for the next few days as we gear up to celebrate Independence Day– as Floridians your editorial team will observe the holiday by setting off massive fireworks displays in the backyard while drinking icy cold malt liquor.

This Is Not Your Points Editors, but It Could (Should?) Be

For those who simply must have some alcohol and drugs history to get them through the weekend, we suggest checking out the most recent episode of the excellent radio documentary, “BackStory with the American History Guys.” Its entitled “Cheers and Jeers: Alcohol in America.”  (Also available in podcast form at the itunes store.)  The History Guys have the following to say about this production:

The cliche may be  that apple pie is the most quintessentially American of foods but, in truth, hard apple cider might stake a more rightful claim to that title. Alcohol and our taste for it has shaped this country from its inception, when the founding fathers themselves played a role in encouraging our national hankering for the hard stuff: Jefferson loved his hard cider and wine, Washington had a thing for rum, and Benjamin Franklin loved it all so much he compiled a list of 228 synonyms for “drunk” into what is known as “The Drinker’s Dictionary.”

In this hour of BackStory, we’re all about the boozin’.  Along the way, we ask when and why consumption and production has ebbed and flowed. We  look at why rum became the drink of choice among revolutionary troops, explore why American Indians were rejecting alcohol two centuries before the rest of the country, and follow the long march toward Prohibition. Originally produced a few years ago, this episode has been revised to include new segments and reflect fresh insight into the subject.

Guests Include:

  • Sarah Hand Meacham, Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University
  • James Morone, Professor of Political Science and Urban Studies, Brown University
  • Peter Mancall, Professor of History and Anthropology, University of Southern California
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Pulqueras, Mezcaleras Y Meseras: Women’s Resistance to Mexico’s Anti-Alcohol Campaigns, 1910-1940

We here at Points are very excited to present the next (though, unfortunately, final) installment of guest blogger Gretchen Pierce’s three-part series on the cultural of alcohol in early twentieth-century Mexico (parts one and two may be found here and here, respectively). Gretchen is an Assistant Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. The work in this piece comes from Dr. Pierce’s extensive research in the Archivo General de la Nación, Archivo Histórico del Estado de Sonora, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Salubridad y Asistencia, the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, and the Biblioteca Nacional and Hemeroteca Nacional, both found at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

The Comité Nacional de Lucha contra el Alcoholismo (CNLCA, National Committee of Struggle against Alcoholism), an institution organized by the federal government to promote temperance during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940), called for women to aid in its campaign by joining temperance leagues and petitioning officials to close down bars in their neighborhoods.  As I mentioned in the second installment in this series, bureaucrats claimed that creating a sober society was not only in the women and their families’ best interests, but they would also be aiding the Revolution’s state-building project by helping to forge a healthy, modern populace.

On the surface, Camila Retes Vda. de García* would appear to be the antithesis of the CNLCA’s heroine.  This Alamos, Sonora, woman not only did not fight alcohol consumption, but she clandestinely sold mescal, a distilled beverage similar to tequila, from her home in 1929. Retes and other small-scale alcohol producers and vendors engaged in this line of work, however, precisely for their families.  Retes had three small grandchildren to support and she argued that she had no way to earn a living other than to sell alcohol.  She also understood that the Revolution was about social transformation, although she may have defined that transformation a little differently than did officials in the CNLCA.  Retes claimed to be a well-educated person from a respectable background who had simply fallen on hard times.  The Revolution was supposed to help the poor advance, and laws that restricted the sale of alcohol had the opposite effect for people like her.  Finally, Retes was not afraid to complain when her elected leaders seemed to fall short of revolutionary ideals, to that end, she did contribute to the state-building process.

Alcohol: An Opiate of the Masses?

Temperance advocates claimed that anti-alcohol measures were the height of revolutionary reform.  They argued that, for centuries, the rich and powerful had taken advantage of native peoples, peasants, and factory workers by supplying them with a beverage that weakened and impoverished them.  As my first two posts showed, excess alcohol consumption also supposedly contributed to the spread of disease, crime, and unhappy home lives, as well as a docile workforce.  These problems led the politician Dr. José Siurob Ramírez, to pronounce that getting rid of the alcoholic beverage pulque should be considered one of the main goals of the Revolution.

To reformers’ dismay, women continued working in a variety of positions in the alcohol industry, most of them small-scale, many of them clandestine.  As pulqueras and mezcaleras, women produced beverages such as pulque, the fermented drink made from the agave plant, or its distilled cousin, mezcal.  More commonly, women worked as meseras, or waitresses, in dispensaries like pulquerías, cantinas and small eateries called fondas.  Still others sold the beverage from their own homes.  Those from a slightly higher social position might own one of these small establishments.  More elite women (although they are not the subject of this post), might own the plantations that the maguey plants were grown on. Read More »

Doing Drugs in the Archives

The summer brings scholars from all across the United States and the world to New York City’s libraries and archives.   For the past three years, I have been introducing my undergraduate students to “doing history” with my former student Raymond Pun who is a librarian at the New York Public Library.  In some ways, teaching undergrads to use archives is my day job.  My other gig is that I have spent the last seven years doing drugs. . . . that is doing them in the archives and libraries in  the city. My collaboration with Pun, as well as other librarians and archivists, has given me an opportunity to mine historical and contemporary sources that I never would have found without their knowledge and assistance.  This list is not exhaustive, but rather it highlights a few public and private libraries and archives.

The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (SASB), the main research library, is the forth-largest library in the world and the second largest research library in the United States.  The stacks stretch under Bryant Park as well as onto offsite locations in New Jersey.  This lion guarded edifice is also full of drug paraphernalia in the form of novels, books, documents, images, maps, realia, and ephemera. The periodicals division where Pun is the librarian holds newspapers from around the world, but also Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs. It was in the pages of that publication that I found the some early photos of seizures including heroin-infused fibers, a skill that continues into the present.Read More »

Legislation With Bias

Len Bias realizing his childhood Dream

26 years ago this week Len Bias became the 2ndoverall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft.  A consensus All-American at the University of Maryland, Bias was headed for super-stardom, having met with Reebok officials regarding a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal the very night he was drafted.  After meeting with Reebok brass and representatives from the Boston Celtics—his new NBA team—Len and his father flew home to Washington D.C.  Eager to celebrate with his college teammates, Len returned to campus for the last time.

26 years ago this week Len Bias was pronounced dead at Leland Memorial Hospital from cocaine-related cardiac arrest.

A Dream Deferred

As Eric Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation has previously commented, something happened the day Len Bias overdosed.  The moment Len Bias, the basketball star overdosed on cocaine; Len Bias, the symbol, was born.  However, what Len Bias has come to represent simply depends on whom you talk to.  For many, Len became a reminder that life is short, nothing guaranteed.  For drug warriors, Bias became a walking anti-drug ad, warning children that drugs—particularly crack—can be both dangerous and deadly.  For reformers of amateur athletics, Bias came to symbolize the corruption of major college sports.  For Sterling, and for drug historians like myself, the Bias affair demonstrates the “danger that arises when a powerful symbol overwhelms careful judgment about what ought to be the law.”

Stories regularly appear about Bias on the anniversary of his death, particularly last year, the silver anniversary of his tragic overdose.  Most if not all cover typical narratives of lost promise, what might have been, and those influenced by his legacy.  Frequently, articles also include a feel-good excerpt about Lonise Bias, Len’s mother who now lectures school-aged youths about the dangers of drug abuse.  Lonise, Len’s college coach Lefty Driesell, and others still steadfastly regale the press with anecdotes of young people claiming that Len inspired them to kick their drug habit. Lonise has often said that she is pleased her son was able to do “more in death than he did in life,” by serving as a deterrent and cautionary tale for other potential users.  While there is no doubt that Len’s untimely demise has helped select persons particularly moved by the circumstances of his death, the story does not end there.  Lonise is surely right that Len has been able to do more in death—as a symbol—than he was able to accomplish in life.

As a symbol, Bias served as a primary vehicle in building the modern War on Drugs and its ugly stepsister, the Prison-Industrial Complex.  In this respect, Len’s legacy and the circumstances of his death became central for their reverberations amongst policy circles on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1986.  Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill—then Speaker of the House—returned from July 4threcess a man on fire.  “Write me some goddamn legislation,” he demanded.  In the 1984 election, Republicans had successfully accused Democrats of being soft on crime.  Not in 1986 thought O’Neill.  We have to beat Republicans to the punch here, if we move fast enough, we can take the issue away from the White House.  Having spent his recess at home in Boston (where Bias had been drafted), O’Neill understood the high-profile nature of the Bias tragedy offered a rare political opportunity.  He also understood that the people wanted blood.Read More »

Summer Re-Run: Weekend Reads– Ryan Leaf Addiction Edition

Editor’s Note: Last spring Points intern Alex Tepperman published this thoughtful piece on Ryan Leaf’s ignominious rise and fall.  With Leaf’s name once again in the news as details of his sentencing are made public, we’re honoring the summer tradition of re-runs and putting this back on the top of the page. 

On Friday, March 30, the name “Ryan Leaf” was the sixth most popular trending topic on Twitter. Most Points readers will have little or no familiarity with Ryan Leaf, a retired pro footballer whose moment of glory in the national spotlight came and went over a decade ago. This is to be expected, as even sports fans have little reason to hold on to their memories of Leaf’s four disastrous seasons in the NFL. So why was “Ryan Leaf” a trending topic? Because, for a relatively large proportion of the American public, Mr. Leaf is synecdoche of two wildly different obsessions, two different opportunities to hand-wring and chide and call for “personal responsibility.” Ryan Leaf is a nexus – one of many nexuses, actually – at which America’s national obsessions with drug addiction and athletic performance meet.

The story of Ryan Leaf’s rise and fall is well known to serious football fans, oft-repeated though unclear in its message. In 1996 and 1997, Leaf was the star quarterback for the Washington State Cougars, a team he took to the prestigious Rose Bowl. At the end of the 1997 season, he finished third in Heisman Award voting for best college football player in the nation and, prior to the 1998 NFL Draft, was deemed by most prognosticators a “can’t miss” pro-ready talent. NFL fans and pundits heatedly debated for months whether Leaf or University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning should be the first pick taken in the draft, an argument that seems silly in retrospect.

Draft day for Peyton and Ryan

On draft day, the Indianapolis Colts took Manning with the first pick and the San Diego Chargers, holding the second pick, gladly scooped up Leaf. The San Diego front office signed leaf to a four year contract for $31.25 million, at which point Leaf famously remarked “I’m looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego.” Needless to say, Leaf’s moxie did not go down well with either the conservative NFL establishment or skeptical fans, two groups that have come to expect mawkish false modesty from their sports idols. To that end, many fans and journalists watched with a certain contentment as Leaf flailed over the next four seasons, washing out of pro football by 2001. His career ended after just 25 unremarkable games, whereas Manning became one of the most successful, admired, and heavily marketed players in NFL history.

Leaf’s shortcomings as a professional quarterback were often – and continue to be – phrased in the language of moral failure. Rarely was Leaf’s inability to thrive in the NFL considered a case of scouts misreading his abilities, or a sign that he was talented enough to succeed at one level but not the next. Rather, Leaf was seen as too simple or lazy to learn how to raise his game to the next level, or too hubristic and entitled to accept coaching. Some of these critiques were understandable, as Leaf acted out in ways that people would be more willing to brush off as “fiery” if he was more successful. Because he wasn’t successful, though, when Leaf acted like a jerk, players, managers, and fans savored his fall. Leaf’s persistent critics eagerly followed the ex-prospect’s descent into anonymity, tracing him to Canyon, Texas where he started volunteering as the quarterback’s coach at West Texas A&M University, a job he held without incident for two years. Read More »

“Su Majestad, La Mujer”: Women’s Participation in Mexico’s Anti-Alcohol Campaigns, 1910-1940

We here at Points are very excited to present the second installment of guest blogger Gretchen Pierce’s three-part series on the cultural of alcohol in early twentieth-century Mexico (part one may be found here). Gretchen is an Assistant Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. The work in this piece comes from Dr. Pierce’s extensive research in the Archivo General de la Nación, Archivo Histórico del Estado de Sonora, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Salubridad y Asistencia, and the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada.

Supporters of the Revolution have long celebrated the role of women in shaping modern Mexican culture, as Sylvia Ji’s image, inspired by Las Adelitas de Azatlan, suggests.

In April 1930, Luis G. Franco, chief of the Mexican government’s Comité Nacional de Lucha contra el Alcoholismo (CNLCA, the National Committee of Struggle Against Alcoholism), gave a radio speech aimed specifically at women.  Addressing them as “su majestad” (“her majesty”), Franco beseeched females to play a role in the nascent anti-alcohol campaign of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and would continue until 1940.  According to Franco and the CNLCA, alcohol had destroyed the home, as drunken men physically abused their families and neglected their monetary responsibilities.  In this and other radio programs, pamphlets, and miscellaneous propaganda, reformers urged women to participate in the anti-alcohol campaign, believing women to be the primary victims of the country’s problem drinkers. In turn, many females responded enthusiastically to anti-alcohol campaigns, and in doing so, contributed to the larger state-building project of the Mexican Revolution.  Ironically, though, they faced many challenges in their battle to promote sobriety, thanks often to the leaders who they were supposed to be assisting.

Although there were some exceptions to the rule, Mexican temperance advocates in the period from 1910-1940 believed that the group most prone to alcohol abuse was working-class men.  This stereotype can be seen in a drawing from a pamphlet used to advertise a national anti-alcohol conference in October 1936.  At the bottom of this picture – which I will refer to as “Figure 1” – sits a goblet, presumably filled with an intoxicant.  Its noxious fumes snake upwards and wreak havoc upon the surrounding people: a man appearing to be in a drunken stupor (while the shadowy figure of death looms above him), another one who has passed out, and a third, knife-wielding one, who has been driven to crime.  The class and ethnicity of the men can be determined from the clothes they are wearing.  The figures in the top center and to the left (the passed out one and the criminal, respectively) wear overalls commonly associated with urban laborers, and the figure at the bottom center (the one in a daze) wears the white cotton shirt typically sported by peasants.

Figure 1: Anti-Alcohol Pamphlet Illustration, 1936.

According to government officials and members of the CNLCA, men composed the bulk of problem drinkers and women disproportionately suffered the consequences.  On the right side of the image is a sad-looking woman holding a sickly baby.  If she was married to any of the men in the image, she would have a number of things to worry about.  Drinkers, like the man holding the knife, supposedly engaged in high rates of crime, both on the streets and in the home.  Even if she were not being abused directly, she might have to worry about her husband being thrown in jail and having to pay his bail.  Should her husband avoid jail time, he still might be too besotted to work on a regular basis, limiting her ability to feed her child.  This child may have had a mental or physical ailment passed on to it by its alcoholic father (or so reformers at the time believed).  All of these problems stemmed from men’s abuse of intoxicating beverages. Read More »

The Points Interview: Dominique Tobbell

Editor’s Note: We’re more than a quarter of the way to one hundred Points Interview features today!  We dry out from our recent spate of alcohol histories to pop a few pills with Dominique Tobbell, our twenty-sixth interview subject and author of Pills, Power, and Policy: The Struggle for Drug Reform in Cold War America and Its Consequences (California, 2012).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

My book explains the complex relationships between drug companies, physicians, and academic researchers. During the 1960s and 1970s the American drug industry confronted a reform movement that sought to reduce prescription drug prices by securing legislation that would increase the government’s control over drug development, distribution, and therapeutic practice. This reform movement brought together congressional Democrats committed to protecting the economic interests of consumers and organizations dedicated to increasing Americans’ access to affordable health care. It also included state welfare agencies and hospital groups struggling to balance their budgets amidst rising costs, and a growing number of physicians who accused drug firms of spending far more on misleading and excessive marketing than on research, needlessly driving up the costs of prescription drugs. My book describes this reform effort and the historical emergence of a politically powerful pharmaceutical industry in opposition to it. In the decades following World War II, the industry developed extensive networks with academic researchers, medical schools, and government officials. These relationships underpinned innovation and growth in the U.S. pharmaceutical sector and formed the basis of the industry’s political support after the war. I argue that the shared interests among academic researchers and the drug industry and the industry’s responsiveness to the needs of the biomedical community led the drug industry, organized medicine, and leading academic physicians to join forces against reformers in the 1960s and 1970s. My book demonstrates the economic and intellectual influence of drug industry interests on research universities and medical schools in the second half of the twentieth century.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Because of its focus on pharmaceutical politics, my book explores the dynamic process by which drug companies, physicians, patients, and regulators debated, contested, and defined the regulatory framework for prescription drugs in the U.S. after World War II. As drug and alcohol historians have shown, this regulatory framework has necessarily had a determinative role in defining the legal status of specific of drugs, at the same time that these same groups—drug companies, physicians, patients, and regulators—have been the central actors in demarcating, maintaining, and contesting the boundaries between licit and illicit drug use. My book, I hope, will thus provide drug and alcohol historians with valuable context for understanding the political and politicized history of drugs in American society in the second half of the 20th century.

Read More »

The Alcoholic Weepie that Ended D.W. Griffith’s Career

D.W. Griffith’s last film as a director was The Struggle, the story of an alcoholic’s decline and eventual reform. After a series of commercial and critical flops in the 1920s, the pioneering filmmaker — best known for the hideously-racist-but-formally-groundbreaking Birth of a Nation in 1915 — had seemingly begun to restore his reputation with his first full talkie, the reverential Abraham Lincoln in 1930. The biopic was critically admired but commercially mediocre, so his next effort needed to hit, if he was to secure continued access to outside funding and the respect of the newly dominant Hollywood studios.

The Struggle put an end to those hopes. It told of Jimmie Wilson, a bright young steel mill foreman whom Prohibition, Griffith suggested, had made a regular binge drinker of hard liquor. Jimmie marries the adoring Florrie on the promise that he’ll never touch another drop, but small setbacks and anxieties soon send him back to the bar, including a memorable challenge to his manhood for ordering a sarsparilla. (“What do you think this is,” the barman mocks, “a pansy bed?”) Jimmie’s binges get longer and harder, and then he drinks to dull the shame of the resulting career failure and family misery. His wife and daughter stand by him resolutely, until he blows his life insurance on a bootlegging scam and disappears into the streets. His daughter Mary eventually finds him, holed up in an abandoned building and suffering the d.t.s. Delusional, he tries to kill her, but Florrie arrives just in time to save them both. She nurses him back to health, and he works his way back to prosperity, in the final scene signing over ownership of his successful new foundry plan to Florrie, “my new boss.”

Despite framing it as a hot-button Prohibition thinker, and despite hiring au courant husband-wife writing team of John Emerson and Anita Loos, Griffith horrified critics with this hackneyed subject matter and his melodramatic treatment of it. “The beating was savage and relentless,” Richard Shickel wrote in his Griffith biography, from which some other details below are drawn. The reviews “may well be the worst that any director of his standing and post achievement has ever had.” The focus of this critical ire was its old-fashioned rendering of the drunkard’s tale as a “pitiably stupid homily,” an “antique” better suited to the 1870s than the 1930s. Worse still, audiences ignored it.

Griffith was humiliated. After holing up in his hotel room for a six-week drinking session — more on that supposed irony below — he began the long process of winding down his deeply indebted production company. No one else hired him again, except as a name brought in for the credits.

But the film remains intensely interesting, as a viewing experience and as an episode in the cultural history of alcoholism.

Read More »

Magic Trip’s Druggy Sixties Origin Story (or, Why Historians Should Think About Selling Out)

When people tell me the 1960s aren’t history, I try to convince them otherwise by describing the process of transcribing decades-old audio from a reel-to-reel tape player. Gingerly string the tape onto the player and try to avoid mangling a piece of history. Miss a word and a say a prayer that the tape doesn’t get gnarled when you rewind. The headphones are like a phone line to another time; if you accidentally splice the tape, you’ll need to ask the archivist to patch you through again.

The Bus
(Source: Magnolia Pictures)

Filmmakers Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood had an infinitely more difficult job. Working with UCLA’s Film and Television archive and an illustrious group of funders, they had the opportunity to take day-glo canisters of footage from Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip and craft a coherent chronicle out of them. What they made with the film—some of it shrunken, lost, or reassembled in a variety of alternative narratives—is Magic Trip, a historical argument riding on an origin story about where the “Sixties” began.

The movie’s press kit wants you to know that the film’s guiding metaphor is the collision between the Pranksters and the Happy Plastic Family, featured in Dupont’s musical The Wonderful World of Chemistry at the 1964 World’s Fair. This collision “gave us the sixties.” Read More »

Pirates and Cocaine: The Buccaneer Spirit and the Psychoactive Revolutions

In January 1681 an English buccaneer ship, the Trinity, appeared on the coast of Spanish America. The intended target of the pirates was the port town of Arica, now in the north of Chile close to the Peruvian border. At that time Arica played a vital role in the economy of Spanish America, as port of exit for the silver from the Polosi mines where Indian slaves toiled for the riches and glory of Spain: a prime target therefore for “the Brothers of the Coast,” as the buccaneers called themselves.

Buccaneers appearing on the coast

One of them was an educated and intelligent observer whose journal of the voyage was subsequently published. Basil Ringrose was a pirate with more interests than gold and silver.  While the pirates landed on the island of Iquique to prepare for their attack, Ringrose observed the ‘poor Indian inhabitants’ of the island. They were forced by the Spaniards to carry fresh water from a river on one side of the island over a path over the mountains to a barque on the other shore that brought the water to the mainland. Exhausting work, and the Indians were treated as beasts according to Ringrose. And he noticed that they ‘eat much and often a sort of leaves that are of a taste much like our bay-leaves in England, insomuch that their teeth are dyed a green colour by the continual use of it.’

The leaves were obviously a species of coca, and were distributed to keep the Indians fit to work.Read More »