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Punched Drunk: Alcohol, Surveillance, and the LCBO, 1927–1975 (August 3, 2010)

book review
by Dean Tudor, www.deantudor.com

Punched Drunk: Alcohol, Surveillance, and the LCBO, 1927–1975 (Fernwood Publishing, 2009, 222 pages, ISBN 978-1-5526-6319-6, $19.95 Canadian paper covers) is by academics Scott Thompson and Gary Genosko. It was published in late 2009, and to my knowledge, it has been ignored by the popular press, especially in Ontario. Indeed, it was not even published in Ontario. Conspiracy theories, anyone? Sure, it's an academic book, but really, how many times does a book about the LCBO get published, especially one that slags the bureaucracy that is behind its "moral" and "regulatory" nature?

It's also a book about early computer technology, to wit, the punched (or IBM Hollerith) card, which arose out of the necessity of tabulating the US Census of 1890. In 1944, punched cards were used to track permit holders and purchases, among other things.

The LCBO was established in 1927 to regulate the sales of alcohol after prohibition ended. But "if the government was expected to be returned at the next and succeeding elections they had to make their law effective." The government of the day could not permit "it to be shown that revenue was being generated from the ruination of families or creating drunkards." Thus was born the Interdiction List, from 1927 to its official end in 1990. A total of 79,000 names were on this list. These people had all been sent a letter from the LCBO: their privilege to purchase liquor had been revoked. Any purchase or possession of alcohol on their part would be considered a criminal act. These people now had a new status: known drunkard. However, they did not know that copies of these letters were going out to every police station, bar, beer store and LCBO in their region! And their names and descriptions were being added to a province-wide circulated "drunk list." It was a secret list, and once you were on it, you couldn't get off unless you died. It's an early example of citizen surveillance by the state.

By 1944, the list had moved over to the punched card. They were indeed punched drunk. In 1927, the LCBO also established the green permit book to track individual bottle purchases. My father had one: hey, it proves that he was not a drunk! By 1962 the permits were gone, and by 1975 nobody was being added to the List anymore (although the frozen List was still around in 1990). Ontario was not alone here: there were similar laws and regulations clear across Canada, in parts of the US, and in other countries.

Thompson and Genosko also wrote a couple of interesting sections here detailing treatment of women and First Nations drinking. It's an academic book with some arcane scholarly references, graphs, and charts, appendix (Interdiction records regression analysis, 1953–1975), end notes, and the like. The book can be tough slogging if you are not an academic, but an index could help pull out all kinds of references for easier retrieval and reading. What a shame that there is no index; it would have been extremely useful. But there is also much more material at their website, www.puncheddrunk.ca, and here you can do a word search to pull out all kinds of interesting facts and documents.

Audience and level of use: Historians of bureaucracy, consumer profilers, First Nations, those who enjoy histories of alcohol, libraries.

Some interesting or unusual facts: From the LCBO Annual Report 1928–29: "Strict sobriety and clean living is not only essential to business success, but also worthwhile citizenship."

The downside to this book: There is no index, which is a shame.

The upside to this book: There is a wealth of information about interdiction and attitudes. Also, the book serves as a partial history of the LCBO and its bureaucracy

Quality/Price Rating: 95.

 

 

 

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