Saturday, October 1, 2016

19th Century Booze News You Can Use

WHH never slept here
In the election of 1840, Democrat incumbent President Martin Van Buren and his re-election team attempted to smear his Whig opponent William Henry Harrison by portraying him as a hard cider drunk and a hayseed. It didn't matter that WHH was once a US Ambassador, US Congressman (both kinds), Governor of the Indiana Territory, Secretary of Northwest Territory, a US Army General and a celebrated war hero. He had an impressive resume, was college educated, and came from a wealthy family just like Van Buren and most politicians of that era.  I'm not entirely sure what Harrison’s drinking habits were as a younger man. Most men back then drank quite a bit. Supposedly he was a teetotaler later in life.

What Would WHH Do?

1840 campaign medal
Harrison's team embraced the attempted slander and adopted a log cabin as his campaign symbol, the symbol of frontier rustic-ness, and portrayed himself as a regular "Jebidiah the Blacksmith" every-man who enjoyed his Bud Light, I mean hard cider. This tactic was no different than politicians now that put on those plaid shirts for the camera and walk around a farm with their family or don a hard hat and shake hands with factory workers to connect with the common man. It's all political spin and 1840 was no different. Ironically this populist strategy is also what got former War of 1812 General and war hero Andrew Jackson elected as the 7th US President when he ran against incumbent John Quincy Adams. It was Henry Clay's Democratic-Republicans opposition to Jackson and his policies that gave birth to the Whig party in 1833.
The truth is, Harrison never once lived in a log cabin. His campaign team, again taking a page from Jackson, accented the old General's War of 1812 war hero status by coming up with the very first presidential campaign slogan and song "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" emphasizing his win at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign was on, complete with cups, plates, flags, and sewing boxes made with his image on them.

Booz...but not from the 1840s

Back to the booze...

Now it is known that there were variants of the word “booze” associated with drunkenness going back to the 14th century Dutch word “bĂșsen” and even in early America, adjectives such as “boosy” meant "drunk". It has been said that Harrison's Presidential campaign popularized the term again in 1840. It's serendipitous to note that Martin Van Buren was of Dutch ancestry and spoke Dutch as his first language. He later learned English in school.

As the legend goes on to say, WHH commissioned the E.G. Booz Distillery (erroneously listed as E.C. Booz at times) in Philadelphia to make log cabin shaped whiskey bottles with the “Booz” surname featured prominently. Harrison allegedly gave away this free booz(e) at campaign stops to potential voters. I've seen this mentioned in an antique glass bottle book from 1920. It's even in the 1941 biography William Henry Harrison, His Life and Times by James A. Green and repeated in many other publications. I myself believed the boozy tale and even wrote about it here*.

Not so fast...

It would be interesting to find the earliest mention of the booze story. I know for example that the Harrison speech/hat and coat/pneumonia story doesn't appear in print until 1939 in the Freeman Cleaves biography "Old Tippecanoe", long considered the go-to book on WHH which incidentally doesn't mention the "booz" story at all, whereas Green's 1941 book does. Hmmm.

Edmund G. Booz was born in 1824, which would make him only 16 years old in 1840. As it turns out, Edmund didn't start selling log cabin shaped whiskey bottles embossed with his family name until 1858. This was at a time when the brand new Republican Party, founded by former Whigs, was gaining popularity with another up and coming log cabin guy named Abraham Lincoln. Since Harrison, the first Whig President, had the famous Log Cabin campaign with lots of other swag, Mr. Booz likely stamped one of them with the 1840 year as a tribute...or possibly as a deception. Either way, this allusion apparently led folks to believe the bottle was from 1840 election and the tale developed from there. I've also learned that Clevenger Brothers Glass made reproductions of the bottles in the 1930s. Sometimes these are sold mistakenly as 19th century originals. This leads me to believe that the story originated not in the 1850s but in the 1930s, which is around the time Green wrote his book.
So while it is feasible Harrison gave out free booze or hard cider (in regular type bottles with no "booz") in 1840 to lubricate thirsty voters and E. G. Booz, with his convenient, name re-popularized an old term for alcohol in the 1860s, it’s just not possible that William Henry Harrison or his campaign had anything to do with it in 1840.

Myth.Busted.


*Note: This is a rewrite of a post from December 2011 that originally credited the 1840 Harrison campaign with popularizing the term "booze". As explained above, new information had come to my attention that indicates this wasn't true.