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DRINKING AND BEVERAGES IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY TEXAS

DRINKING AND BEVERAGES IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY TEXAS. H. L. Mencken called the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War the "Gothic Age of American drinking," and Texas embodied the frontier excesses of the age. In 1840 British traveler Francis Sheridan remarked about Texas, "The passion for erecting grog shops supersedes the thirst of religious worship & Temples wherein to exercise it, for though we find every town plentifully supplied with Pot-Houses...we see neither a church or signs of building one." Many Texans came of hard-drinking Anglo-Saxon ancestors. They faced a life of rural hardship, tedium, and a diet of meats preserved by heavy salting. They also believed in the medicinal properties of alcohol. Moreover, people were often skeptical about drinking water, for in many cities and towns the water was often polluted. Selective readers of the scriptures "took their Bible straight, especially where it said: `Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts'" (Prov. 31.6). A traveler visiting Texas in 1837 claimed that the climate encouraged drinking. In 1838 Houston, one of the major "centers of vice," had forty-seven establishments for selling intoxicating drinks. The records at the clerk's office of Fort Bend County reveal that between 1838 and 1846 more licenses were issued for the sale of wines and liquors than for all other businesses combined. Many Texas frontier drinking establishments were elaborate, especially in the larger cities. Ferdinand von Roemer, a German traveler in Texas, described such a place in Houston in the early 1840s: "Upon passing through large folding doors, one stepped into a spacious room in which stood long rows of crystal bottles on a beautifully decorated bar. These were filled with divers kinds of firewater. Here also stood an experienced barkeeper in white-shirt sleeves, alert to serve to the patrons the various plain as well as mixed drinks." In contrast to fine establishments, a popular spot in Austin, Spicer's Tavern, was "made of logs covered with pine boards for the walls and rough-hewn pine planks for the floors." Drinking had its unwritten laws. One visitor noted, "Nothing was regarded as a greater violation of established etiquette than for one who was going to drink not to invite all within a reasonable distance to partake, so that Texians, being entirely a military people, not only fought but drank in platoons." Many women took pride in their homemade wines and cordials, but indulged with discretion. Most grogshops worked on a cash-only basis, and when times were hard they were forced to close.

The most common nineteenth-century drink was whiskey, sometimes called the "American wine." The liquor often took on the name of the region where lt was produced; bourbon, easily the most popular, came from Bourbon County, Kentucky. In addition to bourbon, Texas stores advertised a wide variety of liquors. In 1838 A. G. Compton's store on Main Street in Houston was selling "cognac, champagne, brandy, gin, Jamaica and Santa Cruz rum, Irish, Scotch and rye whiskey, claret, port, Madeira wine, hock, Burgundy, gold and pale Sherry, and London brown stout." In the better hotels fancy drinks were available at twenty-five cents each, including many we would recognize today-mint julep, gin sling, apple toddy, and a cocktail described as "a stimulating liquor composed of spirits, sugar, water and bitters." Other drinking establishments offered very elaborate drinks with even more interesting names. According to British traveler William Bollaert the drinks offered by a Galveston hotel in the 1840s included "Tip and Ty, I.O.U., Moral Suasion, Pig and Whistle, Silver top, Poor man's punch, Jewett's fancy, Deacon, Stone Wall, Siphon, Smasher, Floater, Negus, and Mulled wines." In the early nineteenth century Texans also drank fermented home-brews such as persimmon beer and potato beer. Later, Germans introduced lager brewing, and by the 1860s the Menger Brewery, at the time San Antonio's largest industrial concern, employed ten skilled Germans and brewed 8,000 gallons of beer annually (see BREWING INDUSTRY).

Like their United States counterparts, Texans were ardent coffee drinkers, and coffee was probably the most indispensable nonalcoholic beverage in Texas. By 1838 Houston merchants were offering coffee at fifty cents a pound. When it was not available, a substitute was made of parched corn, wheat, or okra seeds. Tea was also consumed, although not as widely as coffee. Apparently chocolate drinks were also popular in Texas. Even with the availability of nonalcoholic beverages Texans were serious drinkers, and drunkenness was common. A Texas newspaper editorialized on the illness resulting from drinking and noted that "the graveyard held scores of young men who died from intemperance." Perhaps in response to this problem, in 1839 the first meeting of a Texas temperance society was held in Houston, and ninety-eight "drunkards" signed pledges. Whatever its goals and motivation, however, the temperance movement did not become a social and political force until the late nineteenth century, when prohibition was becoming a national movement that set the stage for increased moonshining and bootlegging.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Ellen Garwood, "Early Texas Inns: A Study in Social Relationships," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 60 (October 1956). William R. Hogan, The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946; rpt. 1969). W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth L. Butler, eds., William Bollaert's Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956). Andrew Forest Muir, Texas in 1837 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958). Ferdinand von Roemer, Texas (Bonn: Marcus, 1849; trans., San Antonio: Standard, 1935; rpt., Waco: Texian Press, 1976). Francis C. Sheridan, Galveston Island, or A Few Months off the Coast of Texas, 1839–1840, ed. Willis W. Pratt (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1954). Telegraph and Texas Register, January 6, December 22, 1838, February 20, 1839. Kenneth W. Wheeler, To Wear a City's Crown: The Beginnings of Urban Growth in Texas, 1836–1865 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968).

Ellen N. Murry

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Ellen N. Murry, "DRINKING AND BEVERAGES IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY TEXAS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lgd01), accessed November 22, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.