Born in the wrong century

Why don’t we have elevenses anymore?

You’ve had an excruciating work day. Your boss moved your deadline up, an irate customer yelled at you over an expired coupon, or maybe your desk mate smacked through an egg salad sandwich with his mouth open. Happy hour couldn’t come soon enough.

In the 19th century, you wouldn’t have had to wait. Start drinking before lunch, why don’t you? The tradition of “elevenses” meant it was customary for workers to take a break at, you guessed it, 11 a.m. In most cases, the respite was synonymous with a tug from the ol’ bottle.

This semester, most of my lecture classes are scheduled for mid-day, and I’ve got labs in the morning from 9-11. Eleven o’clock is the perfect time for a break, I’m realizing. I know how a hobbit would celebrate elevenses, but the American tradition is different.

Boozing wasn’t very taboo at first. In our new “alcoholic republic,” people (mostly men) passed the bottle at all waking hours. Employers were actually expected to provide hooch throughout the workday. It made sense that the mid-morning break now common in modern work environments naturally paired with whiskey. Thus, the American definition of elevenses was born.

Hmm. I should float this suggestion by the division chair, or even the chancellor. Except…this is a very bad idea in a commuter culture. Daily alcohol consumption before the drive home sounds like a catastrophe in the making, and it’s a good thing this custom faded away.

But wait! I don’t have a commute! I live across the street from my workplace. Surely nothing could interfere with a daily tipple for me, so maybe we can make an exception for people who live within walking distance of work.

Except then I’d become that “fun” professor who is oddly discursive and talks funny and occasionally falls down in class. So maybe that’s a bad idea.

I guess I’ll stick to 11:00 tea.


  1. benedic says

    I once had a colleague who lived near the place of work who had the habit of falling asleep in his labs. The students would come to express their dismay at their sleeping professor and were led to wonder at his consumption of orange juice- a bottle never left his desk. Needless to say it was fortified. He remained a member of faculty for many years having friends in the executive branch.
    So there’s hope yet.

  2. blf says

    Heh, that got me wondering about other meals I had thought were purely Tolkien inventions, such as second breakfast (the meal before elevenses). According to that linked-to Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge entry, there actually is a second breakfast.

  3. madtom1999 says

    When I entered the world of grown up work we often had a beer or two at lunch and definitely on Friday – sometimes not returning to the office till 3 or 4 in the afternoon. This was pretty universal.
    It doesnt seem to happen now – and productivity seems to be lower. This is purely down to Parkinson’s law.
    I used to work as a microchip designer in the UK and our employment contract was 37.5 hrs a week so I could leave early on a Friday if I got my hours done. So mornings involved getting things done as the afternoon was going to be compromised by beer. Friday was either leaving early to travel the country or beers with the boss at lunchtime followed by a sort of tutorial from one of us. We did long hours for short periods (weeks not months) and, due to the nature of the work you could get a good idea of productivity as the computer could tell you.
    I did some work in the US where we were developing some product with a silicon foundry there and was in the office from 7am to 7pm and saturdays too as it was the culture to be there in case the invisible boss turned up. Nothing got down, no lunchtime drinkypoos to encourage you to get things done early and urgency to do anything as there was always later. There was always bloody later.
    Now the culture seems to be not to drink at lunchtime in the UK and people work longer hours and productivity has dropped as there is too much time to get things done.

  4. marcoli says

    Back in ‘our’ day as a student, I think many of us knew a perfessor or two who was very much on board with the ‘elevenses’ tradition. Come to think of it, auditorium lobbies outside the big lecture halls were filled with cigarette smoke too. Things have changed for the better in at least some ways.

  5. says

    I knew of a professor with similar habits — it progressed to the point that he told students he’d just hold class at his house, a short walk from the university. They’d get there, he’d pontificate in his living room in his pajamas and a robe. Eventually it got to where that the students would arrive, and they’d have to wake him up to come down & lecture blearily at them.

    That didn’t last too long.

  6. dalemacdougall says

    You weren’t born in the wrong century, just the wrong country. I can remember many a team or group lunch in Calgary joining my boss and others in a beer, or two, or three. As long as you could work normally when you got back no one cared.

    When I moved to Louisville, KY I found there was an older guy on the team who was a self admitted alcoholic who didn’t start before 10 and never answered a page. At the first team lunch I attended he ordered ice tea. I was shocked. The US has some issues.

  7. jrkrideau says

    # 5 madtom1999
    While I believe the beer is optional there is a lot of data, with systematic studies going back 125 or 130 years, that long hours at work over the longer term reduce productivity.

    Just think how productive that US silicon foundry would have been if everyone had worked a 30hr week.

    On a slight tangent, in my province there are limits on professional drivers:
    Daily requirement*

    A driver must have 10 hours off-duty in a day.
    A driver cannot drive more than 13 hours in a day.
    A driver cannot drive after 14 hours on-duty in a day.

    Somehow I am not encouraged when I hear that medical residents in a hospital can have 24hr shifts.

  8. robro says

    PZ, I have had English tea with a shot of Jamesons…excellent. I’m sure kept in moderation…

    My first college was a Southern Baptist school. No booze tippling professors there, you betcha. My second school was a new state university where I never saw an instructor in class that I thought was drinking. Perhaps they were desperately trying to keep the job.

  9. Artor says

    I worked a job once where everyone on the crew smoked weed. We’d start the day passing a bowl while we discussed what needed to be done that day. Around 10am, we’d all pause for a “safety meeting.” When lunchtime came around, we’d smoke a bowl before we ate, and another after we came back. There’d be another “safety meeting” around 3pm, and of course we all observed 4:20. If by some miracle we managed to keep on the job past that, we’d smoke again at the end of the work day.
    We actually got good work done, if a bit slowly. My tolerance went through the roof. I’ve never been that much of a pot fiend before or since.

  10. TheGyre says

    I lived in Munich in my late teens and my summer jobs were in local factories (Germany was desperate for workers in those years.) When I was 17 it was at a Siemens metal shop. At 9:00 a.m. the coffee and pastries cart came around, which I thought was very nice. At 11:00 it was Bier Zeit and around came the beer cart. Everybody quaffed a half liter of strong Bavarian beer, ate wurst and sausage and rolls and then went back to work cutting sheet metal and pipes with a bleary smile. This was not office work. It was loud. It was dangerous. Saws were spinning. Grinders were grinding. Sparks were flying. But to my knowledge there were no injuries or lost fingers. I was very young and unused to drinking. There were times when my job passed in a boozy fog. Then came lunch in the Canteen. More beer. At 3:00 in the afternoon still more beer. I recall one very large man who could drink 3 liters of beer a day and still be able to measure his cuts down to the nearest tenth of a millimeter. On Fridays after work the guys would head to a local Gasthaus for more beer and socialize for a couple of hours. The Bavarians call it Gemütlichkeit. And I must admit that they were a friendly, eternally happy lot. Imagine my shock when I returned to the States and found that I couldn’t legally have a beer until I was 21. Man, talk about culture shock.

  11. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    As long as you could work normally when you got back no one cared.

    Excuse me, we’ve clearly just established in the preceding comments that it’s physically impossible to consume so much as a drop of alcohol without becoming incapacitated and needing a liver transplant. Please adjust your lived experiences accordingly.

  12. archangelospumoni says

    Dr. Myers (#8)
    2 items:
    1. I had a choral conducting class that met strangely enough on Sunday nights. (Don’t ask about the scheduling). The professor was a giant winter Olympics fan. So some of the “class” sessions were at his house on Sunday nights, watching the Olympics. Back then we thought this was cool, but maybe today the tuition would obviate such “class.”
    2. Up here in Washington the w**d stores also sell various additives such as oils, syrups, whatever. So holler and I’ll mail you whatever additive you might need for the 11:00 tea ration.

  13. blf says

    As long as you could work normally when you got back no one cared.

    Of course, everyone else was a bit wobbly as well, so the definition of “work normally” was also a bit wobbly.

  14. microraptor says

    jrkrideau @10:

    Somehow I am not encouraged when I hear that medical residents in a hospital can have 24hr shifts.

    My sister was a medical resident until a few months ago, when she rotated to work at the VA. For her 24 hours would be a short shift: often she was working 30-36.

  15. says

    Sure, the 19th century had booze during work, but they also had 19th century working conditions. I can see why bosses would want to keep the workers liquored up. Thanks to decades of union busting, we’ll be there again soon enough.

  16. Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says

    One of my lit professors in college always had a large vacuum bottle on his desk. He would, at the beginning of each class, pull a martini glass out of his desk, carefully pith an olive (with the red pepper in it), and pour a full glass. At the end of the class — be it a MWF 45-minute class or a TT 75 minute class — it — he finished his lecture of the day, downed the last swallow, and ate the olive. Every single class. Every day.

    We joked about donating his liver to the pre-med biology students.

  17. Rich Woods says

    For me elevenses has always consisted of a mug of tea and a biscuit, or maybe a sausage roll if I was lucky. These days elevenses are taken at 10.30am. Not sure how that happened: geographical culture change or summat.

    I don’t think I could get behind a daytime beer any more, at least not regularly. I used to like a refreshing lunchtime pint but gave it up a quarter of a century ago when the daily meeting tally started to rack up. Way too easy to doze off even without the help of alcohol.

  18. Rich Woods says

    @Ogvorbis #20:

    We joked about donating his liver to the pre-med biology students.

    Without any need for formaldehyde.

  19. mcfrank0 says

    “Except then I’d become that “fun” professor who is oddly discursive and talks funny and occasionally falls down in class.”

    But I always figured you were already that ‘fun’ professor! (Skipping the falling down part, that is.)

  20. rayceeya says

    I’m a 13 year veteran in the booze production industry and I will admit i’m not adverse to a bit of a “tipple” when you’re about 9 or 10 hours into an 8hr shift on a packaging line. You read that right, 9 or 10 hours into an 8 hour shift. Sometimes you’re having a rough day and you’re sick of fighting a production line that’s picked that day to be cranky, and you grab one of the bottles or cans you’re supposed to dump down the drain and toss a bit down your throat.

    It’s a very liberating, “to hell with this,” feeling.

    That said, the booze industry is no place for someone with a drinking problem. I’ve seen a few of them over the years. Some people just can’t leave it at a drink or two, and next thing you know they’re either showing up drunk at 8am in the morning or calling in with “bottle flu”.

    Believe it or not, the booze industry has little tolerance for alcoholism. But almost exclusively requires significant tolerance for alcohol.

    (See what I did there) :)

  21. konservenknilch says

    TheGyre @13:

    Just nextdoors in Austria, it’s still pretty common for people doing physical labor (construction, street cleaners etc) to have a beer for lunch. Seems to work out fine, at least we don’t seem to have a higher accident rate than similar countries.

  22. cartomancer says

    During my Masters year, when everyone I knew was living in college, we faced a nightly dilemma. Dinner in Hall tended to finish at about 8pm, and the Bodleian Library closed its doors at 11pm. This left about three hours of library time each night for productive academic use. The problem was that the King’s Arms pub was directly between Hall and the Bodleian and it too closed at 11. The general consensus was that we would all go to the library and put in two good hours, which we would then reward ourselves for with an hour at the KA. Then a late-night treat at Hassan’s Kebab Van on Broad Street more often than not.

    This taught us a lot about the dynamics of a group with varying levels of willpower. What usually happened was that the first of us to get bored and thirsty would roam the reading rooms trying to gather the rest to go down early. All too often this began at 8.30pm, and most of our arms were very easy indeed to twist. So if you wanted to prolong your reading hours before being found you chose the most isolated spot possible. The main drag of the Upper Reading Room was where you went if you wanted to be found quickly, because it was so exposed. The Lower Reading Room was only slightly better, though there were a few corners that you might remain undiscovered in if you kept your head down (building a fort out of Migne’s Patrologia Latina in the Patristics room sometimes worked). The Radcliffe Camera was quite a bit better, because you had to leave the main building and sign in again, but that didn’t put off determined shirkers who needed fellow drinkers to make themselves feel better about skiving off early. The best place was Duke Humphrey’s Library, where the medieval manuscripts were kept (you might have seen it in the Harry Potter films), but that shut two hours earlier than the rest and it took more than human willpower to relocate and reinstall yourself for the remaining pre-drinking hour, rather than becoming the pied piper of procrastination and gathering the others as soon as you left.

    On bad days we never even made it to the Bodleian, just went straight to the KA instead. Usually with protestations of “just one drink to settle, and then we’ll go and do some work”, which never ever happened. On really bad days we visited Hassans for second dinner first.

  23. KG says

    Daily alcohol consumption before the drive home sounds like a catastrophe in the making – PZM

    OK as long as your horse is sober.

  24. dangerousbeans says

    Being a non-drinker in a workplace with a drinking culture really sucks. At my current job at least i find it harder than being an out trans woman :|
    So there’s that problem to consider