Food History

The History of Happy Hour

September 20, 2013

In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.

Today: It's Friday -- head into happy hour with some new cocktail conversation.

Lemon Lime Margarita from Food52 

Shop the Story

The next time you grab cheap drinks and snacks at 5 o'clock with some friends, you may want to consider raising a glass to Prohibition. 

Ironically enough, the happy hour habit was a product of America's ban on alcohol. The Volstead Act of 1920 pushed drinking out of the nation's restaurants and into speakeasies and homes, where drinkers would gather to knock back a few before dinner. (We guess that meeting your future in-laws was just as stressful in the 1920s.)

The term “happy hour” originated around the same time period, but out at sea. The expression first appeared aboard US Navy ships to designate the scheduled time for on-board entertainment; an article in the Saturday Evening Post about life in the military introduced it into the public lexicon. And yep, happy is a winking allusion to "slightly drunk," not "very smiley," as the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture is happy to clear up. 

More: Make your own happy hour classic: the margarita.

Bubbly Manhattan from Food52 Michelada from Food52

The heyday of happy hour was the mid-1970s, when the term moved into wide circulation, as did the habit. But the next decade’s changing attitudes about casual drinking -- coupled with stricter laws against drunk driving -- caused alcohol consumption to drop almost 20 percent, from 2.75 gallons per capita in 1980 to 2.31 in 2007. 

"The big difference is people now eat around cocktails," Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who works in New York and San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle way back in....2004. "Before, people used to go in, have drinks and maybe stay for dinner. It fits with our lounging lifestyle." 

However, a couple hours of lower-priced drinks and appetizers isn't all fun and games: happy hour is currently banned in 26 states. Boston, despite securing a reputation as the "Drunkest City in America" (as voted by the Daily Beast, two years running) has also forbidden happy hour since 1984 -- not so much due to the city’s puritan roots, but to a horrific car accident caused by a driver who had had seven drinks at a happy hour event.

Kansas is the latest to drop their ban, joining the party in June of last year. Other states have also been loosening their ties: Pennsylvania bumped happy hours from two-hour times limits to four; New Hampshire now lets bars and restaurants publicly advertise specials on alcohol. 

Algonquin from Food52 Daiquiri from Food5

For much of America, discounted alcohol has become an after-work tradition, and even more so since the economy slumped in 2008: even big-name, family-style chains like the Cheesecake Factory and Ruby Tuesdays have started offering them to make up for declining sales. 

Turns out affordable drinking is just as American as capitalism, folks.  

Listen Now

On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Talia Ralph
    Talia Ralph
  • Pegeen
I'm a former Food52 Julia Child Food Writing Fellow now studying law so I can make food fairer, more delicious, and more sustainable for everyone. I was born and raised in Montreal (mostly on poutine and matzoh ball soup), but in my heart I am an Italian grandma—I live on pizza and make a mean eggplant parmesan.


Talia R. September 20, 2013
Gah, thanks for catching that! We're changing it ASAP.
Pegeen September 20, 2013
Interesting! It's actually the Volstead Act (, which I know from watching Boardwalk Empire. Cheers.