Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reflecting on Early Milwaukee's Drinking Culture

In an article published in the Milwaukee Sentinel on 21 February 1932, Gunnar Mickelsen offers what I consider to be a very insightful argument for the virtue of a robust and healthy drinking culture in a city.  I would highlight and reflect upon certain aspects of his argument, but I also recommend to the reader the whole article; it makes for good reading.  You can find it here.

Writing in 1932, Mickelsen is looking back at what he calls the "beer age," ie., the era when beer brewing and drinking were integral to Milwaukee life to a degree that was not possible during the Great War and then of course during Prohibition.  The reason for his lament is that, even though both of those two cultural atrocities were over, Milwaukee was still suffering their lasting effects.  From our modern, rather myopic, perspective, we are tempted to conclude that we are in a "beer age" of our own.  In many ways, Milwaukee did bounce back, and our culture certainly seems as beer-centered as ever.  Yet it is helpful to consider the voices from our past, with their clearer view of their past.  And when we do, we see that in Milwaukee's golden era of beer there was something more than merely the unbridled consumption of booze and brews.  The beer was part of an intellectually rich culture, one which we have today as well, yet not, I fear, to the degree in which it flourished in the post-World War I years.  More on that as we go along.

I love his opening line:
There was in the United States, in the beer age, no more delightful a city than Milwaukee, in which to spend a day, a year or a life.
But what exactly was so special about Milwaukee in those days?  Or, put it another way, what is so special about a culture that values drinking, and makes drinking part of its public life?  Mickelsen argues that the open exchange of ideas, which is necessary to the human spirit, and conducive to an intellectually productive culture, is encouraged and inspired by a robust social drinking atmosphere, and that without such an atmosphere, the exchange and expression of ideas is stifled, and therefore the overall happiness of a city is affected for the worse.  As Mickelsen writes:
Now, it is our theory that Milwaukee was happy because it talked.  The urge to hold conversation, to communicate ideas and experiences, is one of man's major motivations...Beer and wine make for communication.  There is in liquors of mild alcoholic persuasion that which quickens the flow of the thoughts in a man's cranium, loosens a notch the belt about his reticence and releases upon his tongue the fruits of his meditations.
Meeting together in public houses and talking about one's work, whether that work be physical or intellectual, is not a novel notion, but enjoys a noble history.  In theology we could think of the Black Bear Inn in Germany and the White Horse Tavern in England.  The myth of the Prancing Pony as a place where folks may gather to find refuge from the various troubles that may be brewing in the world, while enjoying some good brew in the company of friends, is believable precisely because it is rooted in a noble and endearing tradition of Western culture. 

And indeed, Milwaukee's cultural scene was far richer than we can appreciate todday.  It was known as the German Athens (Deutsches Athen).  It had numerous non-English newspapers (especially German), and the arts flourished.  It is fair to say that the American sense of free expression, artistic and intellectual, was appreciated and realized in this city.

The ravages of a world war, and one which particularly devastated a Germanic city like Milwaukee, followed by the culturally deadening effects of Prohibition, left Milwaukee a palpably different city.  Writes Mickelsen:
Those twin blights have robbed Milwaukee more finitely of its Germanesque mood of "gemuethlichkeit," than it seems possible could have been accomplished by any other agencies under the sun.
During Prohibition drinking was taken, all too literally, underground.  Of such establishments:
They exist in dank airs, away from the sun, under conditions of mummery and secrecy that smack of the reopened grave.
By contrast, consider the scene that flourished previously:
Pour beer out upon the locality and it won't be long till the ground is dotted with gardens.  They will grow and bloom so long as the beer continues to nourish them.  One of the first to take shape here was that of H. Kemper, built by him in 1850.
Under the affable personality of Pius Dreher, the garden came into its best days. Beneath its trees on the block between State, Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets and Prairie avenue, there were 500 tables and at least 3,000 persons could be seated there.
(Mickelsen goes on to describe many other beer gardens and taverns which were part of Milwaukee life in those decades.)

Men can adapt, and learn to drink and gather in speakeasies, and even learn to love such a covert arrangement.  (Today we even pay homage to that era with the Safe House.)  Likewise, there are times and places in which the Church has faced quite open and hostile opposition, necessitating her gatherings to be hidden from the world.  The Church can adapt, and conduct her most essential and sacred rites in the dank airs of the Catacombs.  Nevertheless, it is the open and free light of day that best befits the Church's liturgical proclamation; it is beautiful edifices that best befit her eucharist.  Likewise, it is in the open and free light of day, with society's full civil sanction, that the drinking community will enjoy its most wholesome life and have its fullest effects on the culture of a city.

Today, Milwaukee drinks like there is no tomorrow.  And there are some great beers, now that we are in the microbrewery age; and some great bars, I might add.  And yet, I think it is unfortunate that more and more of these places are filled with big screen TVs, and have become places to sit next to other people and, instead of interacting with them, watch a game on the screen, just as happens all too often with our loved ones in the home itself (which is a separate problem).  For entertainment in these gatherings, before there was TV there was communal singing.  For social interaction in these gatherings, there was once far more in the way of the intellectual expression of ideas and arguments, and perhaps a bit less of the meat market which prevails today.  Here's to hoping we can take our love of beer, and recapture some of that old Milwaukee sense of noble sociability.  If so, there may be hope for modern American culture.


Matt Carver (Matthaeus Glyptes) said...

I also mourn the lack of public houses or bars with environments that foster, not hinder, relationships and the exchange of ideas. I cannot think of one such place in my current city. Perhaps there are a certain few spots where one can get reasonably far from a screen or where the never-ceasing ambient noise is below the level commonly referred to as "deafening," but it is a difficult situation. There was once a place here frequented by British ex-patriots known as Sherlock Holmes Pub. It closed. (It did have a television-set that was rolled out of a closet for important "matches.") In New York City there is a place with the unfortunate name of Burp Castle which seems like an excellent place to enjoy a beer and book or (very) quiet conversation in peace. However, if one's conversation becomes too loud, one will receive a hushing from other customers as well as from the bartender. In San Francisco, the Red Room had no television-screens; it was all red inside, and Urquell was available on top. But I think it's high-concept design was off-putting. I wonder if there is a list or map of places without screens or loud noise or speakers. That would be beneficial.

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

I love your idea of some sort of database of TVless bars. Also, while I'd love to visit the places you mention, I also want to be sure to make clear that Milwaukee has some great taverns (one is literally less than a block from my apartment), though in some of them indeed it is easier to hold forth when it is an off day for the Brewers, Packers, Bucks, etc., though in many cases there is seating outside on the sidewalk, or in "beer gardens," to which one might escape. Nonetheless, I'd like to see more in terms of places that intentionally avoid electronic media, and thus do more to foster human interaction.