In 1918, an eerily familiar pandemic clenched a deadly grip on humankind. Erroneously referred to as the “Spanish Flu,” American state governments enforced business closures and issued stay-at-home orders to slow its spread. For essential outdoor travel, doctors prescribed the use of face masks, or “flu fences.” They might as well have been tackling an avalanche with a snow shovel. By the time the virus finally fizzled out in early 1919, an estimated 50 to 100 million lives had been lost worldwide. In America alone, the death toll reached an estimated 675,000 — more than every war in the 20th century combined. And yet, for the best part of the last century, this deadly killer went all but forgotten, and things would likely have remained that way were it not for our current quarantined existence.
The reasons for our collective memory lapse are as nuanced as they are numerous. A large portion of the blame can be attributed to the subjectivity of history, and the fact there was so much else happening at the time, from the First World War to a truly unprecedented period of wealth, innovation, and change best known as the Roaring Twenties. The way the virus hit, ravaging individual communities for a few weeks and then moving on, and the fact that scientists simply didn’t understand the nature of the illness, also played a part. But whatever the reasons, the deadliest pandemic in modern history was soon swept under the carpet of time.
By forgetting that the 1918 influenza ever happened, its influence on the subsequent decade — one of the most progressive and dynamic in American history — also goes ignored. But some who have studied the era believe the pandemic played a much greater role in shaping the Roaring Twenties than history textbooks give credit for. (As a benchmark, the Roaring Twenties is defined as the period between 1920 to the Wall Street crash at the end of 1929.)
With so many parallels between that outbreak and the circumstances surrounding Covid-19, one wonders whether a wafer-thin silver lining to the dark cloud of disease is that America may soon be ripe for another cultural renaissance. So VinePair reached out to drinks historians, university professors, and acclaimed bartenders to uncover the lessons we can learn from the past, and to speculate on what they might tell us about life after the coronavirus.
Examining the Historical Parallels
“It was who-gives-a-damn-we’re-all-gonna-die nihilism coupled with Prohibition in the U.S. that created the Roaring Twenties,” says Anistatia Miller, a British-based drinks historian and cocktail specialist. Framing the sentiments of the time, she adds: “Who cares if I drink bathtub gin and dance the night away? Another war could kill us, another pandemic could wipe us out.”
Had the pandemic not occurred, Miller believes that the end of World War I would not have had such a profound impact on society. “Look at subsequent wars: The Second World War, Korean War, Vietnam conflict, they led to conservatism, not blatant debauchery,” she explains. “Looking at the Roaring Twenties, the cabaret culture of the Weimar Republic, the cafe culture of the Bright Young Ones in London and Paris, they all had their twinge of decadence generated by nihilism.”
Others who have studied the era agree, but believe there are additional factors at play. “I would love to say [the 1918 pandemic] is the reason why women cut their dresses off at the knees and cut their hair, but I think that’s too simplistic,” says Dr. Jessica Spector, a Yale University professor of alcohol history, cocktails, and ethics, and a scholar of intellectual history and drinks culture.
Spector, who focuses on the ways in which cultural values are expressed through drink, is writing two papers on this specific time period. She instead describes the flu as “the preamble” to the Roaring Twenties. “The decade from 1918 to 1928 was one of radical change in almost every area of life you can imagine: home life, civil engineering, domestic and international relations, medicine, entertainment, politics, and civil rights,” she explains.
Women’s place in society drastically changed after winning the right to vote and gaining employment in roles that required professional certifications, like nursing. The introduction of the assembly line transformed the U.S. into a manufacturing powerhouse and global leader of industry. Newly available inventions such as radios, TV, and cinema forged significant cultural shifts. “You’ve got people listening to the same music and watching the same pictures; all of a sudden people can share a culture,” Spector says.
In some respects, one could argue we’re starting to see similar things happen now. Coronavirus has brought us together, figuratively speaking, in shared moments of appreciation for health care workers and via virtual happy hours and other online gatherings. These connections make the world feel smaller — so much so that one might question if “social distancing” is the correct term, or whether “physical distancing” might be more appropriate.
Other parallels with the lead-up to the Roaring Twenties can be drawn from the grave state of the economy. According to financial analysts, we are almost certainly entangled in a deep recession. “I feel like the 2008 financial crisis was just a dry run for this,” Harvard economist Kenneth S. Rogoff told The New York Times. At first glance, that sentiment doesn’t mirror the financial prosperity enjoyed throughout most of the Roaring Twenties. But just two years before the decade began, America was gripped by a seven-month recession that was soon followed by an 18-month recession between 1920 and 1921.
Of course, any resemblances sketched between the 1920s and now must take into account the most significant event in America’s drinking history: Prohibition. But just as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did nothing to curb the consumption of alcohol, the lack of sales restrictions on alcohol (Pennsylvania, notwithstanding) does not negate the chances of another cultural renaissance.
“One thing we have learned from the 1918 flu pandemic, its precursor the Black Death, and [are] beginning to see from today’s Covid-19 pandemic, is that when it’s over, people will see-saw from isolation into some form of mega-socialization once again,” Miller says.
But exactly where that “mega-socialization” takes place is another question. Will drinks enthusiasts return to the bars and restaurants that have slaked their thirst and proven to be reliable social venues in the past, or will it unfold in the very spaces where we spent the pandemic — inside our own homes?
A New Era of Home Entertaining?
Many have shaken their first Daiquiri or landed upon their preferred Martini proportions during this pandemic (thanks, in no small part, to bartenders themselves and social media platforms). Those folks won’t forget those skills overnight, nor the fact that they now possess them. And as for that barrel-aged Manhattan they just spent months perfecting? People will certainly want to share a taste of that, rather than just Instagram snaps.
Others, meanwhile, have passed the hours sipping batched, to-go cocktails from their favorite bars and restaurants. When the government relaxes social distancing measures, some of those establishments may conclude that the pursuit of on-premise profits is no longer viable in a changed hospitality landscape. Instead, they could turn to launching ready-to-drink cocktail brands — a category that was already gaining popularity. That would certainly strike another tick in the column marked “staying home” rather than “going out.”
In Shanghai, one bar owner is already innovating with a new business model. Daniel An just opened cocktail dispensary Ready To Drink (RTD for short) in the city’s Xintiandi neighborhood. Derek Brown, a Washington D.C., bar owner and drinks expert, describes the innovative setup as a mix between “Cinnabon and a cocktail bar,” serving up pre-packaged cocktails, like the Shanghai Mule and Coffee Negroni, and fruit juices on tap that guests can spike with a selection of spirits, all of which are available for takeout. Brown says it shows us the path going forward if American legislation will allow it. “Now that we’ve seen the light, how can we go back?” he says.
And there’s good reason to believe many drinkers may be less than eager to make a beeline for bars and restaurants. Dr. Michael Scherer, an assistant professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and a specialist in alcohol use and misuse, believes that the lasting societal effects of the coronavirus hinge on whether or not the virus is seasonal and if it returns in the fall, as many health professionals are speculating. “Come October, November, if it re-emerges, its impact on society and the hospitality industry will be more dramatic,” he says.
Scherer explains his theory using the analogy of a faulty car: Imagine you drive a car and it breaks down, he explains. After taking it to be fixed, the mechanic tells you, “It’s perfectly safe now, you have nothing to worry about.” But then, when you take the car out, it breaks down again.
“Two things are going to happen from that,” Scherer says: “You’re going to have less trust in the people that tell you that your car is OK, and even when you do go back out — you will again, eventually — you’ll always have some concern that your car could break down again.”
So just as many of us will be itching to get out and patronize our favorite eating and drinking establishments, many may continue to limit their trips outdoors to only the strictly necessary — even after stay-at-home guidelines relax.
There will, of course, always be exceptions to such rules. We’ve already glimpsed the nihilistic disregard of the 1920s in the form of drunken students “trying to make the most” of spring break on the beaches of Miami. “If I get corona, I get corona,” a particularly red-cheeked, glossy-eyed young man told CBS. “At the end of the day I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”
“Younger people tend to feel a little bit more invincible,” Dr. Scherer says.
A Renaissance for Drinking Establishments?
Others will feel that a healthy dose of IRL social contact will be just what the doctor ordered when this pandemic eventually ends. “The obvious result of everyone being stuck home is that everyone is being forced to become a more proficient cook and bartender,” says acclaimed bartender, journalist, and author Jim Meehan. “While one might surmise that this might lead to more home entertainment in the future, I think it will actually have the opposite effect.”
As soon as the coast is clear, he says, and as long as people have money in their pockets, “they’ll yearn to return to bars and restaurants.”
But this notion hangs on the same thread of bars and restaurants surviving enforced closures and a subsequent recession. It also assumes there will be no capacity restrictions on venues like the kind briefly imposed before the introduction of stay-at-home measures. If those make a return — temporary or otherwise — old business models will no longer be viable, and many venues will be permanently shuttered.
Such restrictions also threaten the very philosophy behind going out to eat or drink.
“As long as people have been around, we’ve gathered around the fire and the watering hole; and that’s what restaurants really are: You get a cold drink and a hot meal and you’ve got the best of both worlds,” says John Clark-Ginnetti, owner of the New Haven cocktail bar 116 Crown and Spector’s co-teacher at Yale University. “If this is going to make us stand six feet apart at the watering hole, it’ll profoundly change everything we do, and we’ll have to rethink life as we know it.”
For some, those safety measures will be regarded with the nihilistic abandon of a gleaming-toothed Jay Gatsby. Others, meanwhile, may turn their efforts to perfecting their own private speakeasies. There’s no question that we’re heading into uncharted waters, and all we can really know is this: As sure as the sun shines, a new dawn of drinking is peeking over the horizon.