Goodness Gracious, There’s A Whole Lotta Drinkin’ Goin’ On

Many people who didn’t live through the 1960s, and who watch the popular TV show, Mad Men, ask whether the proliferation and excesses of drinking portrayed in the show is accurate. For those of us who lived through the decade, even though we were children ourselves, the answer has to be a resounding “Yes!”

In the 1950s and 1960s, drinking was an inherent part of the culture. Some might say it was the golden age of the cocktail, as images of a man coming home from work to find his wife greeting him at the door with a freshly-made mixed drink were prevalent. The earliest baby boomers wouldn’t reach the age of 21 until 1967, but advertising images, TV shows, movies and most important of all, personal observation, showed that virtually everyone of legal age was drinking something, and often. Like the show Mad Men illustrates today, drinking made its way onto TV and movie screens as well. It was, in a phrase, part of life.

When “Bond … James Bond” became an instantly recognizable fragment of the cultural landscape in the early 1960s, “shaken not stirred” entered the vernacular. He was the epitome of cool onscreen, imbibing vodka martinis, smoking incessantly and taking any woman he wanted, all the while saving the world. The vodka martinis never slowed him down, but rather seemed to be his own personal rocket fuel.

It was not unusual for comics to tell jokes about drunks, and for TV hosts to drink during their shows. Jackie Gleason had a running joke about his “coffee” on his variety show. Ricky Ricardo and Lucy, and Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were known to sip a few on screen, too. Then there were hosts like Dean Martin, whose very TV persona was built around a drinking ethos.

Drunks, so we were told, were funny. One comedian in particular formed the basis of his career around portraying a drunk man: Foster Brooks. Known as the “lovable lush,” he got his big break when Perry Como saw him perform, and asked him to be his opening act in 1969. In the ’70s he became a fixture on The Dean Martin Show (1965-’74). Can you imagine such skits being accepted on national TV today?

It may have been boomers who inadvertently had a hand in changing the cultural acceptance of excessive drinking. As the Vietnam War escalated in the late ’60s, early boomers were being drafted. A common refrain from drafted men was that they could be ordered to kill at age 18, yet could not vote or drink. Instead of seeing the peace message these men were trying to send, the societal response in the late ’60s and early ’70s was, in several states, to lower the drinking age to 18. The result was an increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths among young people. It took until 1984 for Congress to enact legislation that withheld federal funds for highway construction if the state had not adopted a minimum drinking age of 21. By 1988, all states had complied and raised the age back to 21.

In Mister Boomer’s home, there was always liquor, though you wouldn’t find cocktail shakers or a credenza to hold a tray of glasses and decanters. As a blue-collar household, beer was the number one drink of choice for Mister B’s father, but he wasn’t above having a shot of whiskey along with it. His mother would have a drink when company dropped over, whether friends, relatives or neighbors. Her drinks of choice were gin and Squirt (a grapefruit soda) or a highball (whiskey and 7-Up). By the time Mister Boomer bought his first drink in a bar, he was 21 and the drinking age in his state had already been raised back.

Despite the avalanche of drinking exhibited on screens and in homes, teenage and underage drinking in the 1960s was a fraction of what it is today. For example, in the 1960s, 7% of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 admitted to drinking, where today that figure is at 31%. The average age of teenage drinking has dropped from 18 in the 1960s to around 16 today.

So the question is, boomers, what was it that stopped us from drinking more — either at an early age or even once we came of legal age — when the culture practically glorified it at every turn? Some point to the fact that liquor was relatively more expensive then, and harder to procure. Others point to the widespread introduction of marijuana in the suburbs. Or could it be our generation’s desire to be whatever our parents weren’t?

Whatever the reasons, we made it to adulthood and beyond with, statistically speaking, lower percentages of abuse and excess than the generations that followed. Were we too lenient on our children because of what we observed, or is something else at work? Does this suggest that advertising and entertainment may not play a major role in whether a person will take a drink or does it mean the opposite?

We witnessed a whole lotta drinkin’ goin’ on in our formative boomer years among our friends, families, neighbors and relatives. What did drinking mean in your families in the 1960s, boomers, and what role does it have in your families today?