From the Archive — From the April 2016 issue

Swedish Snaps

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In 1930 we went to live in Sweden. Before we had unpacked, and while I was still in that baffled mood that always comes on me when forced to tackle a new land and a new language, I noticed my husband struggling over a long, legal-looking document.

“The police are after our life history?” I asked with pale interest.

“It isn’t the police,” he answered in a resigned voice. “It’s my application for a liquor book. Chuck the unpacking and help me — won’t you? In Sweden your liquor book is your badge of respectability, your rating in society.”

The document was a marvel of thoroughness. It started with a simple request for the complete name, date and place of birth, occupation, and address of the applicant. Followed a series of what struck me as indelicately personal questions on his social qualifications — had he received poor relief, had he paid his taxes, had he been reported as an alcoholic or punished for drunkenness or been guilty of crimes which would render him unworthy of purchasing alcoholic beverages? The quiz wound up with a hearty man-to-man inquiry as to why the applicant had not asked sooner for a passbook and exactly what quantity of spirituous liquor per month and per year he himself considered necessary to his well-being.

In Sweden previous to 1909 the sale of liquor was largely unrestricted, and, as with us, the evils connected with the liquor traffic had become unbearable. In 1909 a plebiscite on prohibition was held, and this resulted in a vote of ninety-nine to one in favor of total prohibition. Then certain Swedes, among them Dr. Ivan Bratt, cast about for some means of coping with the situation — some middle way.

After we had been in Sweden a few months, my dominant reaction to the Bratt System was still surprise — but surprise mixed with a good deal of real admiration. The scheme is so many-sided and above all so amazingly human. In the first place you receive your motbok more or less as a reward of merit, and you are expected to hold it as a sacred charge. The aim is not to remove liquor from the place it has held in the social structure since the beginning of time, but merely to control liquor so that each citizen may be able to buy only as much as he can comfortably pay for and comfortably carry.

An amusing feature of the Bratt System is its sex distinctions. A woman is not supposed to drink as much as a man, and, indeed, is not allowed to drink as much as a man. A lady snaps is legally only half the size of a gentleman snaps. Furthermore, there is something slightly disreputable about a lady snaps, a fact which I did not discover until I had lived in Sweden for many months and had publicly dashed off countless centiliters. A polite Swedish lady sips a little Vermouth while the gentlemen take their snaps; but this forbearance is due not so much to the Bratt System as to public opinion and is an exemplification of what I have for years contended — which is, that manners have more influence on morals than morals have on manners.

In Sweden it is bad form for women to drink; therefore, Swedish women don’t drink. There was a time when it was bad form for American women to drink, when the whisper “She drinks” damned a woman. Now it is perfectly good form to drink, and not only do we drink but we take place beside our British sisters as the world’s champion female drinkers. All of which points to the fact that no legislation can do as much as the trend of current fashion in enforcing temperance.

From “Drinking in Sweden: An American Woman’s Experience with Liquor Control,” which appeared in the December 1933 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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