A Whole Lotta Beer

  • MELISSA: Ah, beer. People have been enjoying it for thousands of years. Lagers, ales, and stouts have all found their way into our cultural identity.

    What a hunk!

    I don’t always drink beer...

    More of a dark, biscuity flavor...

    MELISSA: But what’s the connection between these frosty beverages and art? Let’s find out. Have you ever thought about the connection between art and... well then, buckle up. Join me and your personal team of Smithsonian experts as we “Re:Frame” American art.

    Artist Doris Lee painted “Harvest Time” in 1945. This outdoor picnic features a little bit of everything. Chickens, ducks, apples, gravy, and you guessed it, a whole lot of beer. I wonder what these folks what have been drinking back in 1945 and what American beer culture was like back then. Amazingly, wonderfully, the Smithsonian has an expert for that. Theresa McCulla is a beer historian at the National Museum of American History, where she studies beer and its impact on American culture. So, what was beer culture like in the United States in 1945?

    THERESA MCCULLA: Well, to understand beer culture in the United States in 1945, you really have to first understand the history of prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, America banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating beverages. What this meant for the brewing industry was that when prohibition was repealed in 1933, it was primarily the very big breweries that were best equipped to look to the future to expand and modernize and serve American consumers.

    MELISSA: Who was doing the drinking in 1945?

    TM: Really from the mid-19th century into the 20th century, beer came to be associated with the working man, who was drinking outside of the home at a saloon or a tavern, and that was a problematic factor of the identity of beer that helped lead to prohibition. But even in the mid-20th century, it was still men who had become beer drinkers.

    MELISSA: If women weren’t doing the drinking, how did they feel about it? How did they feel about men drinking beer?

    TM: Well, interestingly, women were present in beer culture even if they weren’t the primary consumers, and you see this primarily in beer advertising at the time. Women were present as shoppers and also very clearly as the figures in the household who served beer to men.

    MELISSA: I see.

    TM: Following the repeal of prohibition, brewers felt like they really needed to reintroduce themselves, rehabilitate their image in the American mind.

    MELISSA: I wonder if “Harvest Time” was part of the push in the 1940s to normalize beer. Beer, scenes of rural life... I think I need to chat with SAAM’s Chief Curator, Virginia Mecklenburg. So, tell me about “Harvest Time.” What’s happening in this painting?

    VIRGINA MECKLENBURG: “Harvest Time” is an idyllic painting of noon day on a Kansas farm, so the workers have come in from the field; they’re all sitting around a table. It’s a very congenial, very friendly group of people who all work together.

    MELISSA: It looks like they’re having a good time.

    VM: They do! I mean it’s harvest time, so it becomes a celebration.

    MELISSA: I can’t help but notice there’s a whole lot of beer going on here.

    VM: This particular painting was commissioned by an advertising agency that was working for the beer industry. Let me show you something here. This is a picture of the painting in the context of the ad, and it makes a perfect ad because each one of the farm workers is sitting around holding a stein of beer, you know, with a frothy head on top. So, I mean, we’re talking good beer that seems to be coming out of a keg that’s over on the right side of the painting. I mean, so you can pour yourself a pitcher, and make sure everybody has plenty.

    MELISSA: Why do you think Doris Lee was commissioned to make this work?

    VM: A couple of reasons. One of them is she was a very prominent artist, and this kind of image worked well with her career. She was originally from Illinois. She grew up in Aledo, Illinois, which is, you know, a smallish town, and what she knew was the American Midwest. The great plain states, the farmlands near where she had grown up – it’s what she was known for, but I think a big part of it may well have been that she was a woman. Because the advertising companies and the beer makers also realized that women are the ones that go to the store, go to the market, and bring in whatever the family is going to eat. They targeted their advertising campaign to women. You get them convinced that beer is a good thing, healthy, nourishing. This is a good thing, and it’s not immoral. Then they would bring the beer home. I mean, it’s irresponsible if you don’t drink beer. You need to go buy beer if you’re going to be a true, responsible, American neighbor. They were very smart at this, and the painting conveys the feeling even more than the words possibly could.

    MELISSA: Yeah, it’s an ordinary part of life.

    VM: Exactly. What could be more normal than having a glass of beer at lunch?

    MELISSA: You know, I couldn’t agree more. Alright, I think I get it. After prohibition, American beer manufacturers needed a new image, one that would change opinions, particularly women’s opinions. But how to make beer appear wholesome and all-American? Enter, Doris Lee. Her painting situates beer squarely at the center of the abundant post-war American table, presenting the brew as a natural part of a life well lived. Cheers to that.

    Bye, art nerds.

    What do prohibition, ladies, and day drinking have to do with American art?

    SAAM's Re:Frame explores American art’s many meanings and connections with experts across the Smithsonian.

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