Boston has always been a drinking city, from the time of its earliest Puritan settlers — who urged moderation but enjoyed tankards of ale on the regular — right up to the Daily Beast’s recent declaration that the Hub is the drunkest city in America for the second year in a row.
In her new book “Drinking Boston: A History of the City and its Spirits,” author Stephanie Schorow treats Boston’s production and consumption of alcohol as an important part of its social, economic, and political history, one that has reflected changing times but also helped shape those changes.
Schorow, a former Boston Herald reporter and a freelance restaurant critic for the Globe, described some of that history in a recent talk at the Old South Meeting House, where about 50 fans of history, drinking, or both gathered to listen.
Colonial taverns in New England often served also as inns, Schorow said, and there were many in Boston, including the Dog and Pot, the Good Woman, and the Bunch of Grapes. They were gathering places for a wide range of activities, including the planning of the Boston Tea Party and later of westward expansion.
“The taverns weren’t just places to drink, but they [also] had this impact on exploration and these other things,” Schorow said.
In the 19th century, as waves of immigration brought increasing ethnic diversity, Schorow said, the conflict between established Yankees and newer immigrants from Ireland and southern Europe was visible in Yankee opinions about their supposedly upright and virtuous bars versus the dens of iniquity where immigrants took their drink.
By the late 19th century, downtown Boston was filled with bars — nearly 100 just in the few blocks around Old City Hall — but the city was also increasingly a home to the anti-alcohol Temperance Movement.
Schorow said the modern understanding of that movement is typically oversimplified.
Too often New England’s role in Temperance is overlooked, she said, and it is seen as a Midwestern movement. But there were many Temperance leaders across this region, and now and again local municipalities would temporary be declared “dry,” as Cambridge was 1887.
And though many Temperance leaders were women, men were also important in the movement, and some women became involved only because it offered an entry point into politics and public service they were otherwise denied.
It took decades, but ultimately anti-alcohol sentiment led to Prohibition, from 1920 – 1933, which initially reduced rates of drunkenness and related arrests, Schorow said, but failed to keep them low.
Speakeasies ensured that city-dwellers had access to alcohol, and there were plenty. Muckraking journalist Walter Liggett estimated about 4,000 speakeasies in Boston by 1930, Schorow said, compared to only about 1,000 licensed bars in the city before Prohibition.
One unintended consequence of Prohibition was that bars ceased to be the all-male enclaves they had usually been before. As speakeasies became trendy, even respectable women were willing to be seen in them, and women continued to visit bars and nightclubs after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
“It’s interesting that the very face, the very image of Repeal is a woman with a drink in her hand,” Schorow said.
Repeal ushered in the age of glamorous nightclubs like the Club Mayfair, Casa Mañana, the Silver Dollar, the Cocoanut Grove, and the Latin Quarter. These nightclubs, Schorow said, catered to men and women of all ages, unlike contemporary clubs frequented only by the very young.
Later, some bars and nightclubs served as places not just for enjoyment but for building of communities and movement toward social change.
The jazz clubs that once lined Massachusetts Avenue were among the few places that black and white Bostonians would gather socially in the mid-20th century, and downtown gay bars played an important role in the social life of the local gay and lesbian communities, Schorow said.
“Yes, they were places to pick up and meet other people, but they were also a place where you could go and be accepted.”