Welcome Home: A Journey to Dr. Bob’s House

"Welcome Home": 855 Ardmore Avenue, Akron, Ohio

“Welcome home,” said the man who greeted us as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Craftsman-style house.  After a long and rainy drive that had begun early that morning, I was grateful to hear those kind words.  Along with a group of graduate students from the University of Michigan, I had driven to Akron from Ann Arbor to visit the home of Robert and Anne Smith.  As many readers undoubtedly know, Dr. Bob, as he is affectionately called, co-founded the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship with Bill Wilson.  We had come to see the house as part of a public history class I am teaching this semester, focusing on a proposal that Dr. Bob’s Home be designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL).  For me, this course has been a terrific opportunity to bring together two long-time interests, addiction history and the role of historic places in shaping public memory.  It has also been a wonderfully collaborative enterprise, and some of the reflections I offer below come out of conversations with students.

Students in the class have been learning a great deal about drinking practices, alcoholism, and the treatment of alcoholics in American history.  They have also had to become familiar with federal historic preservation programs—a steep learning curve all around.
Continue reading →

“Drunken Orgy” and the Perils of Social Climbing, 1909 Style

"A Fondness for Intoxicants"

So there I was in the back room of a small local history museum in North Dakota, watching the frail-looking director heft large bound volumes of early-twentieth-century newspapers on and off the shelf.  My friend and I were on the trail of a confusing 1909 event in a tiny community on the Great Plains that formed the centerpiece of a family story she wanted to untangle.  The details of that event are not at all relevant here, because this is a story about something else and the role serendipity often plays in research.  As the museum director flipped through the volumes, I noticed another headline: “Mrs. Gould’s Life At Home, Drunken Orgy.”  And below that: “Coachman, Carpenter, Footman, Maid, Florist and Clerk All Relate Instances When Mistress Was Intoxicated and Profane.”  My friend, who knows I also work on the history of alcoholic women, met my glance; she had seen it too.  Because I feared distracting the museum director, whose help was essential to us, I said nothing but scribbled down as much information as I could so that I could pursue Mrs. Gould another day.

As I later learned, this article was part of widespread coverage of the divorce proceedings of Howard Gould, son of railroad magnate Jay Gould, and Katherine Clemmons, an actress.  News stories that reported the trial in great detail were reprinted in regional newspapers such as the one I saw in North Dakota (that headline, for example, also appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 17, 1909).  While the reference to “Intoxication” had caught my eye, not to mention “Drunken Orgy,” I discovered as I read more about the case that Mrs. Gould’s drinking was presented as part of a cluster of characteristics and behaviors, including her background and class status, her actions toward servants, her (in)ability to manage money, her alleged pre-marital and extra-marital associations, and even her wardrobe.  Not surprisingly, I cannot conclude from existing evidence whether Mrs. Gould was actually an alcoholic.  But I can analyze this news coverage for what it tells us about early-twentieth-century attitudes regarding women’s alcohol consumption, social class, marriage, and respectability. Continue reading →

Teaching Points: “Hooked: Addiction in American Culture”: Commentary on the Class

In the second half of her post to the “Teaching Points” series, Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan reflects on how interdisciplinarity works–and doesn’t– in the undergraduate classroom.

“So how many of these drugs have you done?”  It was the first day of class, and the question came from a student who was clearly much hipper than I had been as an undergrad, or am now for that matter.

“Excuse me?” I was flustered but managed to rejoin, “Why do you want to know?”

“Because,” he said with a faint smirk, “I don’t see how can you teach about them if you haven’t experienced them.”

“Well, I didn’t live through the Civil War either, but I teach about that too,” I replied.

McClellan's Pedagogy: Take No Prisoners

Thinking back on that exchange from several years ago, I now realize that for me, teaching about addiction intensifies many aspects of pedagogy.  The classroom can be crowded: not just with ideas, but with emotions and backgrounds that are often invisible and therefore all the more powerful.  Many of these issues have been thoughtfully explored by Guest Blogger Eoin Cannon.  As the student’s challenge to me was meant to show, we instructors also bring a point of view into the classroom, whether we articulate it or not.  This is a useful reminder for me in all my classes.
Continue reading →

Remembering Betty Ford

“Have you heard the news?”  I received a flurry of emails like this from family members and friends in the hours and days after Betty Ford’s death.  They know of my work on the history of alcoholic women, so it was a logical question.  Of course, I was saddened to hear of her passing, and in the aftermath I have found myself grappling with questions of periodization and pondering the sense of ownership we sometimes attach to the issues and people we study.  On the one hand, Ford was “outside my period” as we say in the trade, since my research has concentrated on the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century era.  In fact, I was acutely uncomfortable writing about someone who was still living, and so I had relegated Ford to the epilogue of my book-in-progress.  On the other hand, I have found to my surprise that I have cultivated some proprietary feelings about her as well.   As a girl growing up in Michigan during the 1970s, I was aware that my mother and her friends—regardless of their formal political affiliations—admired Ford’s down-to-earth character as First Lady, believing it reflected a regional, gendered identity which they shared, that of the capable, unpretentious Midwestern woman.  This image, in turn, shaped Ford’s cultural meaning as a female alcoholic and addict.

Continue reading →

More Dispatches from Buffalo: Regulating Alcohol

H2: Regulating Alcohol in the 20th Century and I1: American Alcohol Policy

These two sessions at the Buffalo conference demonstrate how various regulatory systems—including law and policy but also market forces and spatial relationships—interact to shape the availability of alcohol, and also its normalization, in a specific time and place.  I found much to think about across the two sessions, and based on many thoughtful questions raised at each session, the rest of the audience did as well.

Session H2: Regulating Alcohol in the 20th Century

In his engaging presentation on the dramatic drop in the number of cafes in France during World War II, Scott Haine connected the Vichy regime’s enforcement of zoning regulations regarding the location of cafes with new visions for urban planning and concerns about population decline.  He also noted that the context of the war mattered, as competition among cafes increased sharply in the midst of shortages.  The Vichy campaign was not aimed at wine as such, but at cafes as institutions that were considered disreputable.

Dan Malleck analyzed the role of Ontario’s Liquor Control Boards in reconstructing the “citizen drinker” during the 1930s and 1940s, after prohibition ended in Ontario in 1927.  With snazzy graphics, Malleck focused on particular hotels in Toronto that applied for the authority to serve alcohol but were rejected.  Introducing us to both the interior hotel spaces and the streetscape, Malleck used these examples effectively to probe the nature of bureaucracy and its powers of surveillance, as well as to illuminate the “moral geography” of these drinking spaces and the “calculus of need” that underlay the applications.

William Rorabaugh provided a clear and incisive overview of U.S. alcohol policy as it emerged in the aftermath of national Prohibition, concentrating on Washington State.  He emphasized that repeal advocates did not want a free market in alcohol but instead sought strict state control; a preference in the law for lighter drinks; and a three-tier regulatory structure that would prevent vertical integration and forbid producers from becoming too powerful. Continue reading →

Who was the First Woman in Alcoholics Anonymous, and Why Do We Care?

Historians are often asked factual questions to which we don’t know the answer, questions which, moreover, we are often predisposed against answering in the way the interlocutor expects and desires.

Anonymous Woman, John R. Walker http://www.chromaonline.com

In my case, I have been asked with some frequency, who was the first woman in Alcoholics Anonymous?  I have spent a fair bit of time investigating that question myself, and I have come to the conclusion that in some ways the best answer is to ask another question: Why should we care?

Let me be clear – the initial query is fascinating and important, and I am not dismissing it.  When Alcoholics Anonymous was established in the late 1930s, the position of alcoholic women within the fellowship was complicated by many factors, including fears about the alleged sexual behavior of drinking women, and a gendered structure that assumed the alcoholic to be a man, with any women who participated expected to be the non-alcoholic wives of male members.  Given this context, alcoholic women who joined the fellowship demonstrated considerable courage, and their actions deserve attention for their own sake.  But trying to identify the “first woman,” in some ways a natural question, raises issues both practical and conceptual.

As a research question, how do we even tell who was first?  Various criteria could be invoked.  One could emphasize the date of a woman’s initial participation in the fellowship, but that raises the question of whether a “slip” or relapse requires the clock to be reset.  We might also note the roles that early women played in the fellowship, with leadership functions or exemplary commitment to the program—especially those that seemed consistent with conventional gender roles—buttressing the position of some women.  Given these complex variables, as well as the simultaneous growth of the fellowship in different geographic locations and a lack of membership records, we will likely never know with certainty who was “the first woman” in Alcoholics Anonymous.

We can, however, identify several early women whose varied experiences helped to structure the founding narratives of the fellowship:  Florence R., the author of the only woman’s story in the first edition of the “Big Book” (its very title, “A Feminine Victory,” underscored the difference of its subject); Ethel M., who joined AA with her alcoholic husband in Ohio; and Marty M., who became a celebrity alcoholic and well-known public health advocate.
Continue reading →

MADD as Hell: From Carrie Nation to Drunk Driving

Carrie Nation, with Hatchet, Bible, and Attitude

As I was preparing this post and already thinking about Carrie Nation, I learned from a student in a University of Michigan class I am teaching on addiction that the temperance advocate had come to Ann Arbor in 1902, where she was ridiculed by students at a rally only a few blocks from our classroom.   Then as now, Nation’s passionate activism—her “hatchetation,” as she called her campaign to close saloons—could easily be reduced to caricature.  Like other women involved in temperance efforts, Nation blamed the liquor traffic for destroying many men and causing hardship for their wives, children, and mothers;  Nation’s first husband, in fact, died from alcohol-related causes a few years after their marriage.  In 1899, Nation reported that she had experienced a vision calling her to demolish saloons.  Armed with stones, bricks, an iron bar, and eventually a hatchet, Nation smashed bottles, glasses, and mirrors in saloons across Kansas.  Jailed numerous times, Nation then embarked on a lecture tour, raising money which she used to pay her court costs and to establish a home for the wives, children, and mothers of alcoholic men.  Although her goals were shared by mainstream temperance organizations, her religious fervor and violent tactics caused most temperance advocates to keep their distance and brought derision from the media and the general public. (1)

"Home Protection": No Hatchets Necessary (LOC Prints & Photographs Division)

Nation’s methods may have been extreme, and today many dismiss her as a narrow-minded prude, but it is worth recalling that the issues for which she fought might appropriately be considered feminist—she and other temperance advocates linked the temperance cause to the legal and economic powerlessness of women in marriage and to the abuse we now call domestic violence.  For Nation, the solution to these interconnected problems might not be easy, but it was obvious: outlaw saloons and the liquor traffic. The temperance slogan “Home Protection” shows how neatly aligned—indeed, how mutually reinforcing—were ideas about gender and alcohol.

Although she died in 1911, Nation cast a long shadow, showing that despite important changes in both gender roles and American attitudes toward alcohol in the twentieth century, the intersection of these domains carried persistent and resonant echoes from the past.  More than three decades after Nation’s death, and more than ten years after the repeal of national Prohibition, descriptions in the media of Marty Mann, the polished and sophisticated public health advocate who founded the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, invoked Nation as a counterpoint.  One reporter wrote, for example, “No Carri [sic] Nation, Mrs. Mann, who is an ex-drinker herself, believes that a helping hand can do more to help alcoholics than all the axes in the country” (2).  Mann herself contrasted her campaign with Nation’s, emphasizing that her own organization was neither wet nor dry (a necessary insistence in the post-Repeal era).  Even when the comparison with Nation was used to highlight Mann’s difference, the fact that it was made at all demonstrates the cultural staying power of the gendered politics of temperance. Continue reading →