Semantics, Addiction, and Rubbies: The Historical Language of Habit

By the 1930s, the language of addiction was applied to drinkers only when they were using something unusual, something dangerous.

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When it was formed in 1927, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) was nothing new. It was but one of many government liquor control agencies that emerged after prohibition legislation began to be rescinded in various North American jurisdictions in the first half of the 20th century. It was loosely based upon the Gothenburg system of government regulation, the "disinterested management" model of beverage alcohol sales. It instituted government sale of spirits, and tightly regulated the private sale of beer and wine. In 1934, when legislative change allowed for the sale of regular strength beer and wine in licensed parts of hotels (beer in "beverage rooms" and beer and wine in "dining rooms") it expanded its regulatory gaze accordingly, attempting to ensure that hotel beverage sales were as "disinterested" as possible within a private hospitality industry. Yet, compared to what was going on across Canada by this time, the LCBO was, in so many ways, merely one of many.

And yet (and you knew there was an "and yet" justificatory statement coming) a study of the LCBO can be informative. Set up in the most populous province in Canada, with the second largest land mass of provinces (the Northwest Territories are not included here) the LCBO had to reach far beyond its offices in Toronto to regulate the drinking activities of a diverse population. Moreover, the province of Ontario borders several of those United States, which, after 1933, each had their own much more liberal liquor regulatory regimes. So the board had a challenge: to create a regulated, orderly drinking environment that was good enough to keep Ontarians in the province, out of illegal drinking places, and drinking in a way that did not result in what the temperance forces maintained would be total social chaos.

That is all well and good, and you can read my book when it comes out later this year.  Yet, with the book in the can, I still have some unfinished business and it is a little embarrassing. When I applied for a grant to support this research, I sought a history of medicine grant. I argued that the work of the LCBO would give us insight into the perception of addiction, of how notions of biomedical dysfunction were affected by government regulation, and I aspired to explore the role of government in the medicalization of inebriety. There was certainly some grounding for these expectations. Historian James Nicholls directed me towards the work of the U.K.'s wartime Central Control Board - Liquor Traffic.

Outdoor-Trade-Poster.jpg Among other things, the board investigated the biological effects of drinking, and its investigations were bound in a volume nearly a decade before the LCBO came into existence. Although it concluded that moderate drinking was still OK, it certainly went a long way in exploring various arguments relating to the intersection of immoderate drinking and ill health. But this was the British model, where they paid some serious attention to the doctors.

I was surprised to find that my research material had almost nothing to say about addiction itself. I read the files of about 1,000 licensed hotels in the province, spread throughout six different communities, along with the reports of the LCBO's central office, and rarely was the word addiction even mentioned. Moreover, there was nary a sign of physicians' opinions in the matter, apart from the occasional doctor who might write in to endorse or condemn a beverage room application.

Sterno_ad_1915.jpg Sometimes it is such absences that make you begin to dig deeper. In the case of the LCBO, when I did see the term addiction being used, and it was quite infrequent, it was not usually related to what we might call normal drinking, that is, the consumption of beer, wine, or spirits. Addiction was applied most frequently by far to the consumption of substances like rubbing alcohol, canned heat (gelled alcohol products like Sterno), and other non-potable products.

Presented by

Dan Malleck is an associate professor in the department of community health services at Brock University. He is the editor-in-chief of The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, the journal of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.

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