December 11, 2002, Episode Twenty-Eight:  Community Spirits

The history of alcohol consumption in North America is wrought with struggles between those who would assert their need for a time and place to relax with a drink and those who see alcohol as the root of many social ills.  Moral overtones to these debates colour practical considerations.  Race, class and gender are inextricably intertwined with this history as alcohol consumption symbolizes so much more than the drink itself.  We spoke with Shawn Cafferky, history professor at the University of Victoria about the history of drinking and drinking establishments in Canada.  

Alcohol may have contributed much to history, but one could also argue that, at least the production of alcohol has contributed to science and mathematics, as well.  A key moment in the development of quantitative methodology got it's inspiration from BEER. Student t and what every beginning statistics student will recognize as the t-curve was created by William Sealy Gosset to make beer quality better.

The local tavern used to be a social centre for many communities, serving as a meeting place for many gatherings and groups.  Pubs in Great Britain, Canada and the United States are beginning to re-assert the neighbourhood pub as a public meeting place.  We talked with John Hahn of The Upper Deck at the Travelodge in Victoria regarding their plans to make the pub more community minded.  Then we discuss this emerging grassroots approach to drinking establishments and ask where have all the meeting places gone?



Many of us between the ages of 30 and 50 spent the 1980s watching the American situation comedy, Cheers and wishing that we had a place where everybody knew our name. The consumption of alcohol in social settings has been a part of western society at least since the time of the Roman Empire and remains a part of many cultures throughout the world. The history of the consumption of alcohol, including the history of establishments where alcohol is served and consumed, is a history of social struggle, social control and respite from social alienation. In short, the concept of "social drinking" has more complexity than one thinks at first.

To be sure, pubs, lounges, bars, sports bars, wine bars, drinking clubs, taverns and saloons offer various forms of entertainment along with alcohol: darts, billiards, betting, trivia games, juke boxes, live music, sing-a-longs, karaoke, comedy nights, sports on television and other such events are considered natural activities to go along with a night of social drinking. One sports bar in Florida has bingo on non-baseball nights during the long, slow summer off-season for tourism. Of course, there are other drinking establishments that offer more, let's say, adult forms of entertainment, however, the alcohol consumption at these places become less complementary and more secondary to such entertainment activities.


Certain organisations and businesses go well with drinking establishments. Hotels catering to weary travelers often have a lounge or tavern. Fraternal clubs usually have a bar for their members. Restaurants with sports themes often have a bar area for those who simply want to drink and watch a game instead of eat. Dance clubs often have bars attached to them. Even college campuses usually have a club or bar on campus for students who have reached legal drinking age and for their professors. Stadiums, of course, are another place where bars and beer stands seem natural. Beer has been made available at a price at professional baseball games for years. Participation in the ritualized purchase and consumption of beer at these games was so enthusiastic, in fact, that it became common in the mid-1980s for concessionaires to curtail sales in the 7th inning of games. Otherwise, the behaviour of intoxicated customers could have created the general impression that the concessionaires benefited from an embarrassment of riches, with the emphasis on the embarrassment.

But this complicated social landscape does not even scratch the surface of the importance of drinking establishments and alcohol consumption in western culture. Who drinks, what they consume and where they consume it is a powerful sign of social class. Stereotypes of what drink goes with what status illustrate this symbology: Beer is for the working class. Sherry is for little old ladies after dinner. Cognac and expensive scotch are for discerning upper crust tastes. Wines are divided into categories that lead to class distinctions as well. Race and ethnicity are also stereotyped into alcohol preferences. Less true today, but certainly a part of drinking history is the distinction between men and women and their drinking habits. In Victoria, drinking halls still have doors marked "Ladies and their Escorts" from past days of segregation of drinking halls by gender. In fact, it was as late as the 1960s that women were not supposed to drink alone at bars. Men, on the other hand, were expected to drink well and drink often, buy each other rounds and then head home each to his respective missus, hopefully with enough money left over to take care of the family.


Controlling alcohol consumption has been vilified in the past. In North America, temperance movements led to legal prohibition of alcohol. Throughout Canada government ownership of the distribution of liquor has lasted for nearly 70 years with only recent privatization in some provinces. In the U.S., several state and local governments have controlled distribution outlets at various times since the repeal of prohibition. Drunk driving and alcoholism are considered as serious social problems that have generated many social claims leading to many social policies. Controlling alcohol consumption has been used as a way of controlling immigrant populations and minors. Controlling alcohol consumption has been at the centre of discussions on other forms of drug abuse. Controlling alcohol consumption has generated trillions of dollars, Canadian and American, in tax revenues for governments over the years.

But all these efforts at social control haven't made drinking alcohol go away. Many believe that is because of the alienating consequences of capitalism. Drinking establishments have served traditionally as places of connection for many workers, and consuming alcohol, even in moderation, seems to take the edge off the drudgery for many. But it is not the alcohol alone that succeeds in offsetting alienation. Community connections are increasingly being seen as an important aspect of drinking in these settings. In Europe, Canada and some of the larger cities in the U.S., the neighbourhood pub is reasserting itself as a place to connect with others in one's community. Pubs are positioning themselves as centres of more than entertainment beyond the mindless varieties, with seminars, salons, book reading clubs, and poetry nights joining the more traditional forms of entertainment. Publicans are seeking to put the public back in the Public House and cater to adults of various ages with various backgrounds. It is this effort towards connection and community that we want to examine today.


This trend may make taverns return full-circle to their place as central meeting halls for their communities. There was a time in North American history when even church congregations held meetings at the local tavern. Today, on "First Person, Plural," we talk with history professor Shawn Cafferky about the history of drink and drinking establishments in Canada. We also will speak later in the show with John Hahn, a public relations director for a Victoria pub that is trying to make its establishment a centre for its community. Join us as we examine the social history of social drink in an episode we call "Community Spirits."

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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