From Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here

‘‘Swell joint! Hello, Doc! How’s the Dutchman? How’s the antibody research going? These are Doc Nemo and Doc, uh, Doc Whoozis, the famous glue lifters. Great frenzh mine. Introduce us to your Jew friend.’’

(p. 169, Signet Classics)

Does anybody know what "glue lifters" means? (I couldn't find it anywhere.) By the way, the character is drunk.

  • It means they are well known for drinking with him (regularly raise a glass of something to get you high). – Yosef Baskin Jun 14 '17 at 13:17

The phrase 'glue lifter' means 'a drunk'. At the time Sinclair Lewis used the phrase, 'glue' was a slang term for 'beer' or, more generally, alcohol:

glue, n.
4. [1920s–40s] (US) beer.
5. [1940s] (US) alcohol.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

The use by Lewis in 1935 is probably an obscure reference to Ring Lardner's 1924 surrealist drama, "Triget of Griva" (title as given by George Seldes in 1933; the 'play' is also titled "I Gaspiri"; the title and content given by Seldes are corroborated in a 10 Aug 1924 review by Laurence Stallings; but see pp 283-7 and surrounding material in Donald Elder's 1956 biography of Lardner). Ford Maddox Ford, who reprinted Lardner's drama in Transatlantic Review, is reported to have called it "better Dadaism than the work of Aragon, Desnos, Soupalt, André Breton, et al.". Here's the "glue-lifter" act:

(The Lincoln Highway. Two bearded glue lifters are seated at one side of the road.)
Translator's Note: —The principal industry in Phlace is hoarding hay. Peasants sit alongside of a road on which hay wagons are likely to pass. When a hay wagon does pass, the hay hoarders leap from their points of vintage and help themselves to a wisp of hay. On an average a hay hoarder accumulates a ton of hay every four years. (This is called Mah Jong.)
First Glue Lifter: Well, my man, how goes it?
Second Glue Lifter: (Sings "My Man" to show how it goes.)
(Eight realtors cross the stage in a friendly way. They are out of place.)

From World panorama, 1918-1933, George Seldes, 1933.


JEL's answer is surely correct as to the meaning and very early instances of glue as a slang word for beer. As for why anyone might have made a connection between glue and beer in the first place, I suspect that it has to do with a fancied similarity between the containers used by workingmen (especially before and, in some places, during Prohibition) to carry the two substances: pails. Thus, J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) has this subentry for the noun glue:

glue n. ... 2. beer [Example:] 1945 Yank (Nov. 9) 15: I gotta ... get myself a few pails of glue before the bars all shut down.

Lighter's quotation from Yank: The Army Weekly, volume 4 (1945) appears in a mock interview consisting of reporters, an Army Air Force pilot (the "hero"), and an Army PR flak. It runs at greater length as follows [combined snippets]:

REPORTER: Lieutenant, how do you feel about being back in the States?

HERO: I'm plenty PO'd with the attitude here, and I—

PUBLIC RELATIONS: Let me explain that phrase, gentlemen. The lieutenant pays high tribute to the fighting skill of his comrades in arms in the air. ...

REPORTER: Is it true, lieutenant, that you're going to teach gunnery for a while before being discharged?

HERO: Yeah, somebody has to give the kids the ungarbled word. The stuff they taught me in training almost caused me to get the backs of my knees shot off several times—

PUBLIC RELATIONS: Er, gentlemen, let me simplify that. The lieutenant has high words of praise for the training program given our fledgling flyers, and—

HERO: Say, fellows, I'm sorry as hell, but I gotta get out of here and get myself a few pails of glue before the bars all shut down. See you!

Intriguingly, Lighter identifies another slang meaning of glue that is even older than the "beer":

glue n. 1. money. [Examples:] 1896 in Rose Storyville 127: Kate Soaked the Sloan Diamonds to Raise the Needful—Florie Davis Will Help the Partners to Raise More Glue. 1941 Kendall Army & Navy Sl[ang] 6: Glue...money.

But I see no connection between these two senses of glue—nor is it clear why money should be called glue, other than the rather cynical notion that money is what holds communities, families, etc., together. Still, it is noteworthy that the older glue = money was in use in the U.S. military at the same time that the somewhat younger glue = beer (or other alcoholic beverage] was.

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