Drinking habits: America’s drinking habits on display in London

For more than 300 years Americans have defined themselves by what they drink, and how. The nation’s drinking habits are featured in an exhibition entitled The Art of Drinking at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, which runs until May 23.

From the earliest American settlements, the tavern was the center of the community. Beer and ale were sold in government-approved measures in pewter and stoneware mugs. Drinking vessels were exported from England, often stamped with the initials of the owner.

According to the book published by the V&A to accompany the exhibition, “unfamiliar and harsher conditions made brewing beer very difficult for settlers. Ploughing for grain and corn was initially hard, and Indian corn did not produce good malt.” Although rum was readily accessible at seaport taverns, wine was less easy to come by. Cider was more readily available in country areas, while periodic wars between England and France prevented the import of good quality wines.

In the 18th century, affluent American householders of the period dined off mahogany tables made in New York, while sitting on Chippendale style chairs made in Philadelphia, with cutlery and tableware from Massachusetts. However, they still had to rely on England for their elegant wine glasses until later in the century.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1817: “The taste of this country (America) was artificially created by our long restraint under the English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain (former allies of England).” When he was appointed to represent the fledgling republic at the court of Louis XVI, he began spending heavily on buying in and cellaring bottles from the best of France’s vineyards.

As an interesting aside, and to demonstrate the power in the American mind that just an association with Jefferson can create, in 1988, four bottles of Chateau Lafitte, allegedly from Jefferson’s stock, and dated 1787, were put up for auction at Christie’s in London. They were sold to American businessman Bill Koch, who paid $500,000 for them. Experts later said that the president’s initials Th J had been engraved on the bottles by an electric power tool. Now the case alleging fraud against wine dealer Hardy Rodenstock is ongoing through the American courts.

In 1745, a tax was imposed on glass on the basis of weight. Manufacturers responded by making glass lighter. One method was to do away with the “folded” or reinforced foot. In 1777, the tax was increased for English-made glass, but glass made in Ireland was exempt from tax. This led to an increase in the import of Waterford-made glass into America.

The popularity of tea drinking was also increasing by 1700, and it was on sale in more than 500 London coffee houses by then. It became even more popular when Queen Anne (1655-1714) chose tea over ale as her regular breakfast drink.

Barred from direct trade with countries other than Britain, Americans were taxed unfairly, and were only able to buy British imports. Tea remained an expensive commodity throughout the century, so much so that servants would dry used tea leaves and re-sell them, a benefit in kind that their employers never knew about.

Whereas Jefferson bought French wines during his tour of duty as Minister to the French Court, Benjamin Franklin, who preceded him, had a passion for ceramics. He purchased tea and coffee services from Chantilly, Worcester and Bow.

This American passion with ceramics has never really abated. In the late 18th century, Toby jugs, produced in England, were finding their way to America. They were based on the character of a legendry drinker, known as Tony Philpot. He is portrayed seated in his 18th-century clothes, wearing a tricorn hat, a white stock round his neck, frock coat, knee breeches, buckled shoes and holding a tankard on his knee. Americans went crazy for him.

Early Tobys were painted in subdued colours. Later, the range of characters was extended to include personalities of the day; these are known as character jugs. While early jugs are difficult to find, later Victorian period jugs are fetching good prices, particularly if they have some unusual or eye-catching features. They have been underestimated for too long by collectors and the situation is due to change.

The increased spending power of the middle classes, linked to growing industrialisation in the 19th century, was to have a major impact on drinking vessel production. Technology transfer in reverse began in the 1820s when the New England Glass Co. invented a cast-iron mold for making pressed glass. A plunger forced the clear glass into the mold, which then took on the pattern of the mold. In the 1830s, the technology was taken up in England at Stourbridge. In 1864, a steam-operated press was patented in the U.S.

There is still a lot of Victorian and Edwardian glassware in circulation – much of it is relatively inexpensive. Items in rare colors or featuring unusual pattern designs are more desirable. Some specific areas, such as carnival glass, have increased in popularity, so watch out for fakes.

Prohibition movements began as far back as the early 1800s. By 1850, several states had passed laws that restricted or prevented people from drinking alcohol. These laws fell into disuse or were repealed as the nation became engaged in the Civil War. It took until 1920 before the 18th amendment to the constitution was passed, preventing the manufacture or sale of alcohol generally.

Between then and 1933, when prohibition was repealed, many ingenious devices were employed to evade detection. It was the period of the illicit drinking den or speakeasy. The “bottoms up,” a one-shot glass that could only be put down when the contents had been drunk, typifies the extremes to which dedicated drinkers would go for instant gratification. They sell for around $50 today.

Every movie enthusiast who is familiar with The Thin Man series of detective films made in the 1930s will be familiar with the ease with which the central character, Nick Charles, played by William Powell, solved complex murder mysteries, while imbibing martinis. According to The Art of Drinking book, “The martini, essentially gin with a splash of vermouth and garnished with a Spanish olive, became a classic American drink.”

Today, classic cocktail shakers, glasses and other paraphernalia from the Art Deco period are becoming increasingly collectible. They represent tokens of a period and lifestyle that few others could enjoy.