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Artifacts associated with drinking alcohol are common on nineteenth-century urban archaeological sites. Archaeologists find not only beer, wine, ale, cordial and liquor bottles, but also delicate glassware, sturdy tumblers, pitchers and decanters.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a time of great upheaval in American culture. Large numbers of immigrants were arriving from Europe, adding to the social tensions created by industrialization and the rapid expansion of America's cities. The choice of alcohol and beverages became one of the ways in which people expressed their sense of class, ethnicity and ambitions. Take beer for instance. Americans drank very little of it during the early 1800s, preferring whiskey, liquor and cider. Beer was popularized by German immigrants who introduced improved brewing techniques to America. By 1890, half of all the alcohol drunk in America was beer.

Most beer was consumed not at home, but in the all-male environment of the working class saloons that dotted the street corners of towns and cities. For working class men, the saloon was the center of their neighborhood's social world. Jack London called them the "poor men’s clubs". The preference of working class men for drinking in saloons may be reflected in archaeological deposits associated with working class households, in which it is common to find very few alcohol bottles.

Beer was shunned by many in the middle class because of its associations with immigrants and working class men. Middle class reformers during the 1870s and 1880s campaigned to close saloons, and promoted temperance or the abstinence from alcohol. Did members of the Victorian middle class drink or did they respond to the temperance campaigns? Archaeological evidence suggests that they did drink, but in ways different from the working class. Rather than drinking beer in the public saloon, the middle class favored wines, cordials or liquors consumed in the privacy of their homes. Moreover, these drinks were expensive, and serving them to guests in appropriate glassware allowed the middle class host and hostess to demonstrate their sophistication and wealth.


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