The Drinking Habit

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

Francis Underwood’s Quabbin, The Story of a Small Town, is a remarkable account of ordinary life in the community of Enfield, Massachusetts 1830s and 1840s. Here, he provides a vivid and highly favorable account of the anti−alcohol campaign that swept Enfield, under the leadership of theCongregational minister, when he was a boy.

Transcription of Primary Source

The drinking habit had been universal, and though there were not many notorious drunkards, true moderation was rare. People who wanted it, got rum at the store, and kept it at home, or in their workshops. As we have seen, it appeared at the pastoral call; it refreshed the ecclesiastical council at an ordination; it was glorious at a house−raising when neighbors came to give a lift, and indispensable at the annual training. When heads were heated, the usual consequences followed: sometimes the machinist talked foully; or it was the shoemaker who declaimed politics while he slit the upper leather in trimming a shoe; or it was the butcher who argued upon theology as he bled a calf; or it was the blacksmith who had grown oblivious of a waiting customer, and let his fire die out on the forge. As has been already stated, the indications of intemperance among the farms met the eye at the first glance, in dilapidation and ruin. There were carts without wheels, and wheels without carts, and all manner of broken tools, cumbering the yards. The grass plots were defiled by geese. Petticoats and old hats were stuffed in broken windows. Fences leaned, gates were off their hinges, and walls were tottering. Lean and discontented cows got into the growing corn. Colts went about with manes and tails full of burrs. Pigs disported in the vegetable garden. Orchards lapsed into wildness, and bristled with useless shoots. Untended pastures were nibbled bare, and dotted with clumps of bushes. Mowing fields were overrun with sorrel and white−weed.

Meanwhile there were accidents, woes, “wounds without cause,” falls from wagon or cart, stumbles in ditches, and a sorry show of bleared eyes, cracked hands, and unshaven faces. Voices on such farms were under no control; men shouted, women screamed, and boys replied: there was one from which the high−pitched voices were often heard for half a mile. Wives struggled long on the downward slope, striving to keep up an air of respectability, but at length gave way to despair, and to their husband’s level, or lower, and became frowsy, loose−haired, and sharp−tongued. Scolding only deepened the common misery. By knitting stockings they procured tea or snuff, if they wanted it, or a bit of calico. The daughters when they wanted gowns or ribbons paid for them by braiding palm−leaf hats. The boys had a hard time to get their schooling, and were glad to trap muskrats, mink, partridges, or rabbits, and to gather wild nuts or berries, so as to buy hats, boots, and books.

On! those farms! What misery did they not witness. Love had flown long before; self−respect was dead, and comfort a rare visitor. Sordid poverty was in possession, with ignorance, ill−temper, and brutishness. But there was always a supply of hard cider and of rum; the store−keeper gave liberal credit, on conditions; and, until the length of the tether was run, the farmer’s nose continued to glow like a dull ruby. But the end came sooner or later. The sheriff’s officer was no stranger, and sometimes a debtor or trespasser was carried away to the county jail.

What was political independence, or ownership of land in severalty, or the education of town meetings, or the preaching of the gospel, or any other blessing, to men sunk in such degradation?

The minister saw that half measures would not do; he threw his whole soul into the work of inducing the church to take a stand upon total abstinence, and at length succeeded. Intemperate brethren were warned, and, if necessary, excommunicated. To be a church−member was to be an abstainer.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Quabbin: The Story of a Small Town
Francis H. Underwood
Lee and Shepard
Place of Publication: 
Old Sturbridge Village