From Beer to Fraternity: Alcohol, Society, and Culture in North America

Module code: HS2359

Module co-ordinator: Dr Deborah Toner

Module Outline

During the era of national prohibition (1919-1933) - when the sale, transport, and production of alcohol was completely illegal in the United States – the notorious gangster Al Capone famously defended his role in supplying illegal alcohol to the American people: “I give the public what the public wants… Ninety percent of the people of Cook County drink and gamble and my offence has been to furnish them with those amusements.” When alcohol consumption is such an important, normal, even everyday part of our leisure time in twenty-first century Britain, it seems difficult to contradict Capone’s sentiment that Prohibition was a crazy, hopeless experiment that the American public never wanted. But is it really that simple?

In fact, alcohol regulation had been at the centre of major political, economic, and cultural debates for hundreds of years, not just in America, but around the world. In the colonial period, many Americans drank alcohol throughout the day as a normal part of everyday life, but they obsessed about the dangers of Native Americans and African American slaves consuming (much less) alcohol. Taverns were often the focal point of community life, and the whisky industry helped to propel the expansion of America’s borders. In the nineteenth century, saloons became an iconic feature of frontier communities and expanding cities, but at the same time hundreds of thousands of Americans joined temperance societies and decried the evils of alcohol consumption. Prohibition was implemented in 1919 with a huge degree of political and popular support, only to be rejected as the most stupid policy in history thirteen years later.

This module seeks to explore how and why alcohol has been such a controversial, yet popular and everyday feature of American society and culture. Key within the explanation for the different and conflicting attitudes to drinking at various stages in American history are the different “rules” of drinking that have historically applied to people of different genders, races, ethnicities, and social classes. We will also try to understand how ideas and practices involving alcohol change dramatically in different historical and cultural contexts, and use this idea to reflect on contemporary debates surrounding alcohol in our own society and our own lives.

Topics covered

The module follows a broadly chronological approach, starting with the place of alcohol in colonial American society, and tracing the evolution of American attitudes towards alcohol and their drinking practices throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Throughout the course we pay particular attention to the relationship between alcohol, the rules and regulations surrounding its use, and gender, class, and racial identities. In evaluating how the history of alcohol can inform contemporary debates, we will also explore when, how, and why alcohol became a medical and public health issue, focusing especially on controversies surrounding the idea of “alcoholism”.


The module is taught through a combination of lectures, workshops, and seminars, amounting to three hours each week. Lectures will introduce the main themes, ideas, and debates related to each topic, while students will break out into groups during workshops to work through tasks, discuss problems, and make presentations. Some workshops will ask students to debate the relevance of our historical themes to contemporary alcohol issues and public policy, while others will concentrate on comparing the American historical experience to other countries. Weekly seminars will allow students to discuss assigned readings and primary sources in greater depth, building on the introduction and development of each topic explored through the lectures and workshops.


Assessment is a combination of 1 essay of 2,500 words (weighted 50%) and 1 exam (weighted 50%).


Burns, Eric, The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

Cashman, Sean Dennis, Prohibition: The Lie of the Land (Macmillan, 1981).

Lender, Mark Edward and James Kirby Martin, Drinking in America: A History (New York Free Press, 1982).

Musto, D. F., ‘Alcohol in American History,’ Scientific American, 274:4 (1996), pp. 78 – 83.

Rorabaugh, William J., The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Rotskoff, Lori, Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in post-World War II America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Sismondo, Christine, America walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies, and Grog Shops (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).