Old Spirit Sellers

Old Spirit Sellers

It can be difficult at times to fully appreciate exactly how much things have changed. I’m not talking about changes in our lifetime, but instead how things have changed from the way they were done a century or more ago. Take the simple act of buying a bottle of whiskey. These days, most states have dedicated stores for wine and spirits, with a few that can sell it in grocery stores. That’s not how it used to be.

 Booze in the Past

Booze was a part of everyday life in the past far more than it is now, mainly because we only drink for the sheer pleasure of it these days. People in the past used it as a general medicine for almost every ailment from teething babies to arthritis. Liquor also had a utilitarian function in society. Farmworkers and other laborers had drinking down to a science. Working the soil or in a sweltering factory in the middle of summer was hot, dirty work. They coped by drinking the perfect amount of whiskey not to get drunk, yet still be numb just enough so that the heat didn’t feel like it was killing them. This role made spirits a commodity that almost everyone used.

What does booze have in common with wi-fi?

The closest thing I can think that in modern terms equates to the prevalence of whiskey and other spirits a century or more ago is wi-fi. Both are a product that most people need or use on a daily basis, and many places provide it. Granted, most sites offering public wi-fi aren’t selling it as a standalone item, but as exemplified by popular coffee shops, it is very much a part of their overall product. People will stop in and get the coffee because they need to check email or post snark on Facebook while they sit. The same applies to merchants of long ago. Whatever they were selling, someone buying it would also need a little whiskey.

The most obvious outlet in everyone’s minds were general stores. They had everything else a pre-20th-century family would need. Those weren't the only places though. Other significant sellers were inns and taverns, sometimes called ordinaries. This is especially true in the days before the railroads reached everywhere. Travelers still needed their whiskey, and in the more isolated areas or the frontier, general stores might not be close by. Remember, even a three-mile detour would take a serious chunk out of the day’s travel time.

Private Sellers

The other main way to buy spirits was through a private seller. Many farmers supplemented their income by selling moonshine. It was a great way to make use of any extra grain that they didn’t need or couldn’t sell – or selling the alcohol was more profitable than selling the raw grain. The spirits made by farmers tended to stay local, and using it to barter with their neighbor wasn’t uncommon. Once these communities grew and became less isolated, some of these farmers went into distilling full time to fill the demand.


Finally, we have the bootleggers - -i.e., the people who literally smuggled in the booze and sold it out of their boot. With civilization comes laws, and some of those laws either place taxes on liquor that not everyone wants to pay, or moral busybodies who think they know better when it comes to someone making their own choices. And someone will always be there to fill this artificial void.

Oddly, it seems like it was more convenient to find liquor way back when than it is today. Not counting for the convenience factor of the car, of course. Much of that is us still dealing with the fallout of prohibition with things like state-run liquor stores and dry counties. It's enough to make a man drink.