Cincinnati Wines Sneak Past Prohibition In 1855: A Report From A Noted Humorist
At the height of his powers in the 1850s, Mortimer Q. Thomson (1832 – 1875) was the most popular humorist in America. Thomson was a colorful character, allegedly expelled from the University of Michigan for “too much enterprise in securing subjects for the dissecting room.” He became a journalist and was known for his humorous a slang-filled columns. Thomson wrote under the pseudonym “Q. K. Philander Doesticks” and in 1855 published a collection of his newspaper columns, titled Doesticks What He Says.
The chapter below (considerably shortened from the original) features Cincinnati at the time our grape-growing industry, fostered by Nicholas Longworth, was approaching its peak. You’ll find references to Longworth, his Catawba grape variety, Porkopolis and other local flavor in this piece.
The reference here to the “Maine Law” is a reminder the Prohibition was not invented in 1919. The state of Maine passed, in 1851, a law prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages. Other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania followed suit. Most of these laws were not repealed until the Civil War brought along a governmental hunger for sin-driven tax revenues.
Keeping the Maine Law
by Q. K. Philander Doesticks
By the enduring perseverance of the lovers of cold water, laws have been passed in most of the Western States forbidding the sale of those beverages which make men rich, happy, dizzy, and drunk, all in the space of half an hour ; so that now a good horn is not, as formerly, to be purchased at every corner grocery, and travellers are forced to carry a couple of ‘drunks’ in a willow-covered flask in their overcoat pocket.
Travelling lately through the thirsty State of Ohio, I had many opportunities of observing how they get round and over the letter of the Law. In that state the framers of the law, with a commendable regard for the commercial welfare of their constituents, many of whom are large vine-growers, inserted a special clause allowing the traffic in beer and native wine to remain unmolested.
Travellers will therefore find in this State now a greater variety of wine than is grown in any other one country in the world. Liquors which he, in another place, would recognise as brandy, rum, or gin, are partially disguised under transparent cognomens as native wine. Brandy-'smashes,’ rum-punches, gin-cock-tails, sherry-cobblers, mint-juleps, and every kind of desirable potable, are all manufactured from 'Longworth’s Sparkling, old corn-whiskey is known as 'Still Catawba’ and a vast deal of the 'lager-beer’ is put up in brandy casks, and tastes exceedingly like the genuine article.
Being in the vicinity of the Pork city (where they have a ham on the top of the tallest church spire in the place, pointing with the knuckle end to Heaven,) I had an opportunity to visit a large wine-cellar which belonged to Darnphool s uncle, who was to accompany us, and had also from him permission to taste the different vintages.
Got to the place, went down cellar, boy gave each of us a long stick with a tallow candle on the end ; got down; wine everywhere, in big casks, in long bottles, in small bottles, in tin dippers, in glass vials, and in little puddles on the floor.
Bottles ranged in regiments all wrong side up with cobwebs on the corks. Every one had the year of the vintage painted on the bottom, as if it was a British baby and its age had to be registered by the parish.
One cask was big enough to float a scow-boat or hold a common-sized church if the steeple wasn’t too tall. Damphool senior wanted to get in and swim - was afraid he’d get corned and couldn’t get out, wouldn’t let him try.
He would insist on getting on top of the reservoir had a glass pump in his hand pumped up wine for every body put the spout into his mouth, and pumped into himself for an hour, first fifteen minutes made him rich ; second quarter of an hour made him tearful ; at the end of forty-five minutes he was helpless but happy ; and when the hour was up he tumbled off the top of the machine and we stowed him away in a corner, where he lay until he revived sufficiently to be able to partake of some bread and butter which the Dutch housekeeper gave us, and which he insisted was lobster salad, and kept calling for boiled eggs, olive oil, and mustard to dress it with.
At last he was taken violently sick, and we took him out doors, set him on top of a basswood stump, when he looked like 'Patience on a monument smiling’ although he tried to convince us that he was D. Webster, Esq., and insisted on making a speech to convince us that he 'still lived.’
Never before had I seen wine of such tremendous power. One of our party was addressing a number of pint bottles alternately as 'Fellow citizens,’ 'Gentlemen of the Jury,’ and 'Ladies of the Committee.’
Another had seated himself in a small puddle of Still Catawba on the brick floor, and was calling out for soap, towels, and a black boy to scrub his shoulders.
A third had emptied four bottles of 'sparkling’ into his vest-pockets to take home to the children, and put the fragments of the glass into his hat under the impression that they were hickory nuts, which he tried to crack with the carriage lamps, evidently supposing them to be nut-crackers.
My most intimate friend was trying to feed the horse some oats, by which appellation he called a three-cornered harrow and a breaking-up plough, and had filled the buggy with wild flowers, as he supposed, but which were, in reality, two year old grape vines, which he had pulled up by the roots.
Did not allow myself to become affected in like manner, as I had to spend the evening with the family of one of the 'solid men’ of Porkopolis, an ardent supporter of the Maine Law, who always keeps a large variety of liquors in his cellars, and insists, whenever his friends spend an evening with him, on making them pass their time drinking whiskey-punch, with seven whiskeys to one water.
Passed a delightful evening, called the children by French names, mistook the piano for the hat-rack, hung my hat on the harp-pedal, and laid my gloves on the key-board. Met Damphool’s uncle as I was going to the hotel. He had brought home the glass pump, thinking it was our carriage-whip, but was otherwise sensible - Is going to sell his vineyard, and turn teetotaler.