Versions of alcoholic drinks have been around for thousands of years; early civilizations like Israel, Sumeria, Egypt, and China all showed evidence of having fermented drinks, using the grains available to their landscape. And as civilization grew and technologies advanced, later societies such as the Greeks, Romans, and Celts enjoyed cider or wine, using fruits native to those regions.
In some cases, like wine or small beer (a lower-strength beer), alcoholic beverages were consumed daily, whereas more stronger, expensive drinks were saved for celebrations and rituals. In many societies, you’d be hard pressed to not find any evidence of these liquids; they were a part of everyday life. So, regardless of its purpose or intent, the vital role fermented and alcoholic beverages served in different periods in human history is evident and prominent.
But, as time wore on and alcohol manufacturing became more accessible, documentation of overconsumption/alcoholism became more prevalent. Horror stories like the Gin Craze in London, an event which nearly destroyed the city, exercised the idea that consumption of alcoholic drinks should be controlled, with a series of Gin Acts between 1721-1751.
However, by this point, production of alcoholic beverages was already well underway, across the pond in the Colonies. Beer was expensive to import, so the colonists made due with fermenting apples or peaches, and often importing rum from the West Indies.
But once the American Revolution occurred and ties between the empire were severed, the new country found itself cut off from the British-ruled West Indies’ rum. To combat this, corn from the southern states proved fruitful in making whiskey.
Not only was nighttime drinking perfectly acceptable during this time, but so was day drinking, as historian W. J. Rorabaugh writes,
By 1770 Americans consumed alcohol…routinely with every meal. Many people began the day with an ‘eye opener’ and closed it with a nightcap…[And] Liquor tended to be taken in small quantities during the day, often with meals (Rorabaugh).
But, despite this being commonplace, this dependent drinking was opposed by a growing number of people, namely by Methodists and Quakers. So, as the United States gained its independence, so did it adopt its own opinions on alcohol.
While most Americans are familiar with Prohibition and the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, the amendment that prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” most would be surprised to know that Maine flirted with the idea of enforced abstinence long before it became federally illegal.
Five years before Maine’s adoption into the Union, in 1815, Portland became ground zero for the temperance movement with the Total Abstinence Society. Traction in the idea that the production, sale and consumption of alcohol should be banned, barring for medicinal purposes, slowly began to take hold.
By 1851, with the temperance movement headed by Neal Dow, former mayor of Portland, he and his followers helped pass a statewide abstention law, known as the Maine Law. Thus, this became the first law against alcohol in the states, and Maine became a champion for temperance throughout the country.
Dow, the Napoleon of Temperance, believed that alcoholic beverages were the root cause of many of society’s issues, and many people followed in his beliefs. So, over time, this laid the foundation for the Eighteenth Amendment and the nationwide ban on alcoholic drinks.
However, just because something is illegal, doesn’t mean people will be dissuaded from breaking the law – they only get more creative in their efforts to avoid getting caught.
Bar Harbor, situated in Frenchman Bay, was a prime place for the illegal distribution of goods. Close to Canada and with the Bay laden with fog during early mornings, it was relatively easy to smuggle alcohol into our waters – not to mention the area had over 70 years of experience and expert ways of eluding the authorities; they were well-equipped for the national prohibition already.
Like we tender boats to and from cruise ships today, similar tactics were used for rum running here; international ships would sit in international waters and tender alcohol to our shores, concealed by the darkness of night. Sometimes, as shown in our collection, the liquor would’ve been hidden in ordinary objects, like a tin labeled “Oatmeal.”
But even more creative ways were implemented to consume and distribute these illicit beverages. At least three speakeasies were created, hidden in plain sight in Bar Harbor. One, located in the basement of The Criterion, was concealed right under the noses of film and show patrons above. The second, once a seafarer boarding house but now established as Galyn’s Restaurant, had a downstairs speakeasy. The third was The Reading Room, fronting as a gentleman’s reading room, though it now serves as a private home.
For everyday concealment and consumption, however, we look to pieces in our collection again to tell us of the tactful ways people would hide their liquor.
On loan from Michael Hastings in our Head Housekeeper’s Room, we have a flask masquerading as a book and a cane with an inner tube that would hide the illicit liquids. With seemingly innocent, everyday objects, it just goes to show you the lengths people will go just to have a drink!
Though, they wouldn’t have to conjure up unique methods to hide liquor for very much longer, given the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the ban in 1933. But, as we are well aware today, alcohol still plays a role in society and the interpersonal relations people have with one another – take a walk down Cottage or Main Street in the summer evenings and you’ll see first hand the part it plays!
So, for thousands of years, we’ve seen just how much of an impact fermented and alcoholic beverages have had on the growth of civilization and how much of a foundation it has on society. As such, in the unlikely event that prohibition ever occurs again, it’s clear that alcohol consumption and the social aspects that come with it won’t go away – people will just find more creative ways to conceal it.
Want to check out our small collection of prohibition-era items? Join us when we open our doors on May 26th! For free admission for the year, consider becoming a member here. Hope to see you there!
Rorabaugh, W. J. “Alcohol in America.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 6, no. 2, 1991, pp. 17–19. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25162814. Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.