v28 #5 Collecting to the Core — Commodity and Alcohol Studies in World History

by | Dec 12, 2016 | 0 comments

by David M. Fahey  (Professor Emeritus of History, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio; World and Comparative History Editor, Resources for College Libraries)

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL)

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD

What did you eat for breakfast?  Coffee, milk, tea, orange juice, bread, butter, eggs?  These grown products are commonly considered soft commodities, while mined resources like gold and petroleum are labeled hard commodities.  Commodity histories provide a convenient way to explore world history, as studies into the production, exchange, and consumption of goods can help illustrate the complex economic, social, cultural, ecological, political, and transnational transformations of people and places.1  For those interested in the genre of commodity histories, an accessible introduction is that by the prolific journalist Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.2  Unlike most of those who write about commodities for a popular audience, Kurlansky is interested in producers as well as consumers, in this instance, fishers and buyers of fish.  Commodity histories seldom offer theory;  the few that do often use a Marxist framework.  Here are some examples. In 1985 cultural anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz wrote what may be the most influential commodity history, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.3  Mexican anthropologist Arturo Warman published a thoughtful history of maize in 1988 that Nancy L. Westrate later translated into English as Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance.4  More recently, the economic historian Sven Beckert published Empire of Cotton: A Global History, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was awarded the Bancroft Prize.5  Commodity histories often claim to be world histories and may flaunt an over-the-top subtitle such as the otherwise admirable book by Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton, and Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World.6  In Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World, David T. Courtwright provides a broad look at the global history — geographically and temporally — of the “big three” drugs (alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine), which today are mass produced and largely legal, as well as the illegal “little three” (opiates, cannabis, and cocaine).7

Alcoholic drinks are at the edge of the standard definition of commodities, since they do not have a standard price that prevails internationally.  They vary much more drastically in price than, say, kinds of crude oil.  Despite this distinction, historians definitely study alcoholic beverages within the history of commodities.  Reaktion Books’ “Edible” series publishes an array of short commodity histories, from bread to water, all with the subtitle “a global history.”  The “Edible” series includes volumes about virtually every alcoholic beverage consumed in Western Europe and the United States such as beer, brandy, champagne, cocktails, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, wine, and vodka.  In 2012, Gina Hames produced a pioneering work of synthesis, Alcohol in World History.8  She brought the perspective of a Latin Americanist to this laudable project, although as a very short book intended for undergraduates, her work unsurprisingly slights topics that many other scholars find important.  The work provides thoughtful analysis of the production, trade, consumption, and regulation of alcoholic drink, and relates alcohol to class and gender, religion and ethnicity, Western colonialism, and industrialization.  It also addresses how drink can enhance sociability while alternately producing disorder and ill health.

Recent reference publications underscore that historians, sociologists, and other scholars are focusing research attention on alcohol studies.  They include Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History; Alcohol in Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia; Alcohol and Drugs in North America: A Historical Encyclopedia; and The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives.9-12  There is an abundance of books about the history of alcohol, although they are unevenly distributed among geographic regions.  To learn more about alcohol’s archaeological origins and early history, the best guide is Patrick E. McGovern’s Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages.13  There are few English-language books about drink for Africa and even fewer for Asia and Latin America.  An exception is Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History, edited by Gretchen Pierce and Áurea Toxqui, which is most strong for its discussion of Mexico.14  There are a fair number of English-language books for France, Germany, and Russia.  Predictably, Britain has many more books, as for instance, Paul JenningsA History of Drink and the English, 1500-2000.15  Public Drinking in the Early Modern World: Voices from the Tavern, 1500-1800 is a notable multivolume collection of primary documents for which Thomas E. Brennan served as general editor.16  Books about drink and sobriety in the United States are innumerable.  A few are broad in scope, such as Christine Sismondo, America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies, and Grog Shops, but the best usually are more narrow, as for instance, Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.17-18

The remainder of this essay focuses on a single title, the Canadian historian Rod Phillips’ 2014 work, Alcohol: A History.19  Originally the University of North Carolina Press listed it as a world history of alcohol.  The more modest title of the book, as published, reflects its focus on Europe and countries of European settlement.  Phillips began his career as a historian of early modern France and, as a wine enthusiast, shifted his scholarly interests to the history of wine.  Between 2001 and 2016 he published a general history of wine and specialized wine histories for Ontario, Canada and France.  Phillips is more ambitious in Alcohol: A History, which looks at a variety of alcoholic drinks over the course of many centuries in Europe and its colonial settlements.  For most people alcohol was part of daily life.  It also was feared as endangering private morality and public order.  Consequently, it was regulated more than any other commodity.  After abortive experiments in prohibition, it is today almost always legal outside Islamic countries and a few Indian provinces.  The modern status of alcohol contrasts with that of illegal drugs like opioids, cocaine, and marijuana (although recent legislation to decriminalize and legalize medical and recreational use of the latter in the U.S. is a shift of note).

Although he traces the production of alcoholic drink to northeastern China thousands of years ago, Phillips focuses on the West, or what used to be called Western Civilization. Phillips hits his stride in the second chapter on the wine-drinking societies of ancient Greece and Rome.  In later chapters he addresses the relationship between alcohol and religious practice.  The Christian Eucharist combined bread and wine. In contrast, Muslims rejected alcohol (an Arabic word in origin).  In the Middle Ages beer became a common drink, and making and selling it an important business.  Alcohol fashions change frequently, but wine has always remained the prestige drink.  For the post-medieval world Phillips provides chapters on many controversies.  Distilled spirits, originally a medication, became a popular and highly intoxicating alternative to wine and beer.  Spirits aggravated elite concerns over lower-class drinking.  European racism made the introduction of alcohol in non-European societies contentious.  Women had always drunk, although usually less than men.  Perhaps because of mistreatment by drunken men, women played a large role in temperance reform during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in the United States, though in the twenty-first century women rival men as drinkers.  Phillips speculates that we may have entered a post-alcohol age as consumption of alcohol has fallen in many countries, with rivals including soft drinks and drugs.

Along with many of the commodity histories discussed above, Phillips’ Alcohol: A History deserves a place at all academic and public libraries.  No book with such a vast scope could avoid errors of omission and commission, but it immediately has been recognized as a standard work on the cultural history of alcohol.  It can be considered a preview of the forthcoming six-volume work for which Phillips is the general editor, A Cultural History of Alcohol.20


  1. Robbins, Bruce. “Commodity Histories,” in PMLA 120:2 (March 2005). See also Fahey, David M.  “‘I’ll Drink to That!’: The Social History of Alcohol,” in Choice 38:4 (Dec. 2000).
  2. Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.  New York: Walker and Co., 1997.*
  3. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.  New York: Viking, 1985.*
  4. Warman, Arturo. Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance.  Translated by Nancy L. Westrate.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.*
  5. Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.*
  6. Ellis, Markman, Richard Coulton, and Matthew Mauger. Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World.  London: Reaktion Books, 2015.*
  7. Courtwright, David T. Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.*
  8. Hames, Gina. Alcohol in World History.  New York: Routledge, 2012.*
  9. Blocker, Jack S. Jr., David M. Fahey, and Ian R. Tyrell, eds. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.
  10. Black, Rachel, ed. Alcohol in Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia.  Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2010.
  11. Fahey, David M., and Jon Miller, eds. Alcohol and Drugs in North America: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.*
  12. Martin, Scott C., ed. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2015.*
  13. McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.
  14. Pierce, Gretchen K., and Áurea Toxqui, eds. Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History.  Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2014.*
  15. Jennings, Paul. A History of Drink and the English, 1500-2000.  London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015.
  16. Brennan, Thomas E., gen. ed. Public Drinking in the Early Modern World: Voices from the Tavern, 1500-1800.  London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011.
  17. Sismondo, Christine. America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies, and Grog ShopsNew York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  18. Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of ProhibitionNew York: Scribner, 2010.
  19. Phillips, Rod. Alcohol: A History.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.*
  20. Phillips, Rod, gen. ed. A Cultural History of Alcohol.  New York: Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming.

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.


Sign-up Today!

Join our mailing list to receive free daily updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest