A Brief History of Raised Glasses (5 of 5)


Toasts were written for every imaginable institution and situation-cities, colleges, states, holidays, baseball teams, fools, failures, short people, and fat people. A British collection contained a toast, several pages in length, written for "The Opening of an Electric Generating Station." Occupational toasts were very popular, and some clubs and fraternal organizations opened their dinners with a toast to each of the professions represented at the table. Many of these incorporated one or more atrocious pun. Thus almost everyone was given his due:

The Grocer: Whosehonestteaisthebestpolicy! Or, May we spring up like vegetables, have turnip-noses, reddish cheeks, and carroty hair, and may our hearts never be hard, like those of cabbages, nor may we be rotten at the core.
The Paper Hanger: Who is always up against it and still remains stuck up!
The Conductor: May he always know what is fare!
The Author: The queerest of animals; their tales come out of their heads!
The Baker: Who loafs around all day and still makes the dough!
The Glazier: Who takes panes to see his way through life!
The Well-Digger: Always feel above your business, and be glad of the fact that you do not have to begin at the bottom and work to the top!
Undertakers: May they never overtake us!
Blacksmiths: Success to forgery!
The Painter: When we work in the wet may we never want for dryers.

And the humble shoemaker was blessed with a host of toasts: He's a stick to the last. . . . He left his awl. . . . He pegged out. . . . He was well-heeled, but lost his sole. . . . He was on his uppers.

This was also a time for longer, more elaborate toasts. Some were long, florid, and overblown, which no doubt put to sleep as many as were entertained. Some of these toast-essays, however, had some punch, such as this one that took first prize in one of the National Magazine's contests for 1911. The toast, entitled "The Way of a Woman," was submitted by Miss Saidee Lewis and went on for many lines until it came to this concluding paragraph:

"Of those marriageable misses, thinking life all love and kisses, mist and moonshine, glint and glamour, Stardust borrowed from the skies! Man's a gross and sordid lummox-men are largely made of stomachs, and the songs of all the sirens will not take the place of pies!"

There were also political and military toasts of near epic proportions. An anti-Teddy Roosevelt toast, "No! Teddy Don't Play Fair," drones on for eleven stanzas before it gets to the point:

But honest old Bill Bryan,
With kindliness will wear
Away all Republican lyin'
No! Teddy don't play fair.

Ironically, a number of toasts were written in honor of the teetotaler Bryan, who nonetheless managed in social situations. Bryan once found himself in a position where he was called on to toast the British navy. He lifted his glass of water and said, "Gentlemen, I believe your victories were won on water."

A toast written in honor of Alton B. Parker after his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1904 is also typical of the period-if nothing else, it rhymes:

It's a pardonable pride a Democrat feels
For Alton B. Parker, Court of Appeals,
He bore our standard last campaign,
And although his fight was in vain,
Alton B. Parker, you're alright.
Alton B. Parker, may your skies be bright.

When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, the drinking continued, but the customs changed. A writer who was trying to reintroduce toasting and other traditional drinking customs in 1934 after repeal put it this way: "When Prohibition placed its stranglehold on our nation, it doomed for more than thirteen years the real art and etiquette of drinking."

Not only were wine, beer, and spirits on the banned list, but so for all practical purposes were the formularies, books, ads, and magazine articles that helped carry the lore and customs of drinking. A good bootlegger could get a few bottles of champagne (or a reasonable facsimile) for a wedding, but no publishers were bootlegging collections of wedding toasts. Banquets, large open parties, and many of the other functions where one used to go to have a drink or two and launch a few toasts were now scarce and usually dry. Places where one would go for a leisurely drink to toast the health of a friend's new baby-the corner saloon, the cocktail lounge, and the hotel bar-were shut down for the duration and replaced by dank speakeasies where one would slink to have a fast drink of questionable origin.

All of this is not to say that people did not toast, but in many cases their toasts' substance had to do with the Volstead Act, the antisaloonists, and the quality of bathtub gin. For example:

Here's to Prohibition,
The devil take it!
They've stolen our wine,
So now we make it.

At the very moment of repeal there was a lot of toasting, which for the most part was addressed to the act itself; but after this initial flurry, the custom of the toast continued the decline begun during Prohibition. There were, of course, many who continued the tradition, and from time to time new toasts apĀ­peared as did these two examples respectively from the 1930s and 1950s:

Here's to the new radio-
Here's to our neighbor's loudspeaker
So loud we need none of our own
May its volume never grow weaker.

Here's to today!
For tomorrow we may be radioactive.

Fortunately, there have been a few who have gone against the trend, so all is not lost. Like those who carried the seeds of the Renaissance through the time of Darkness, and like others who have gone against the cultural tide, we have:

the mcelvy legacy. When New Yorker Douglas McElvy passed away in 1973, he left $12,000 for friends to toast him on the anniversary of his death. The cash lasted for three years, but according to reports in the papers his friends still meet each New Year's Day at the bar where the legacy was drained to pour him a memorial gin and tonic and toast his empty stool.

the cosgrovians. A society of self-styled bons vivants who for some years assembled each month in Washington, D.C., to honor the memory of an ardent Prohibitionist named Cosgrove who left water-dispensing monuments to the abstemious spirit. The Cosgrovian's toast: "Temperance. I'll drink to that!"

the mcgowan influence. If there is one place in the world today where the custom is doing well, it is Ireland. Jack McGowan, an affable man with the sponsorship of the Irish Distillers International in Dublin, has collected toasts and Irish blessings over the years. He shares this treasury with interested parties in so-called civilized areas of the world where the custom is presently out of style. Toasts from McGowan's collection have shown up in American newspaper columns and form the bulk of the section of this book containing Irish toasts.

summit talk. Then there is the business of glasnost and the changing relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union. This thawing and warming has been accompanied by so much toasting that the Washington Post's headline the morning after the historic October 1990 Gorbachev-Bush dinner at the Soviet Embassy in Washington was toasted inside and out at the soviet embassy. These toasts actually featured a degree of levity such as George Bush's to the two leaders' previous meetings anchored off the coast of the island nation of Malta: "[To] the memories of the days we spent in Malta-friendship, coop-eration, seasick pills ..."