The Birth, Life and Sudden Death of American Prohibition

What do you think you know about Prohibition? Maybe you’ve heard something like this.

Prohibition happened 76 years ago. A bunch of backwoods holy-rollers somehow rammed through a Constitutional amendment while all the drinkers were off serving in World War I. Breweries all made illegal beer, moonshiners made corn likker in the hills, and the police looked the other way. People drank more during Prohibition than they did before, and bought all their booze from organized crime. Then the Depression came, and booze was made legal again to stimulate the economy.

That turns out not to be the case. The amount of good information available on this important social struggle is curiously small, and the amount of misinformation is shocking. To begin with, national Prohibition was a massively popular idea. Many states had already enacted prohibition, but wanted a national measure to stem far remove, it is difficult to understand how a bar could be considered a national threat. Wasn’t this the golden age of drinking, a time of oysters, and cheap delicious beer, and cigars, and fine liquor, all served up in a dark, comfortable, wood-paneled saloon? Perhaps it was for the still-small middle class who had time to read the contemplative drinking reveries of H.L. Mencken, but the working-man’s experience was different.

The working man drowned his sorrows in taverns like those described in Sinclaifar remove, it is difficult to understand how a bar could be considered a national threat. Wasn’t this the golden age of drinking, a time of oysters, and cheap delicious beer, and cigars, and fine liquor, all served up in a dark, comfortable, wood-paneled saloon? Perhaps it was for the still-small middle class who had time to read the contemplative drinking reveries of H.L. Mencken, but the working-man’s experience was different.

The working man drowned his sorrows in taverns like those described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: seedy, stinking warrens of adulterated, mislabeled liquor and beer, salty ‘free’ lunches which stoked a raging thirst, rigged games of chance, and ready connections to prostitution. These excesses drained the pockets of the working man to a shocking extent, and were sometimes physically dangerous as well. They were repeated across the nation, from wharfside holes in New York to rough lumberman’s shacks in the Northwest.

The ‘three-tier’ system of separating manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer, developed after Repeal, was a direct attack on the ‘liquor trust.’ This octopus of brewer/distiller and retailer connections made it practically impossible for any saloon owner to run a ‘square house’ even if he wanted to. The taverns were symbiotically entwined with a web of political and police corruption. Calvin Coolidge made his national reputation by busting a Boston police strike which occurred when the saloons were closed during World War I and officers could no longer supplement their low wages with saloon bribes.

It truly was a bad time, by any objective standards. The temperance movement grew from the grassroots as a reaction to these excesses. The temperance movement began as just that, a movement encouraging temperate use of beer and wine. But extremists took over the movement and quickly turned it into ‘bone-dry’ prohibition. The bemused disdain and disorganized resistance of the Wets were no match for the conviction and intensity of the Dry regiments.

The Drys made some apparently convincing arguments. Absenteeism in the workplace, shoddy work, criminal and domestic violence, family problems would all disappear when the demon of alcohol was removed from the picture. Families would be able to save more, and to purchase more of the mass-produced goods now coming off American assembly lines. Farmland devoted to hops, grapes, and barley could be converted to ‘more wholesome’ use for food crops. Industrialists such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller became solid backers of the ASL, captivated by visions of healthy, happy, sober workers.

The concept and reality of prohibition was tightly entwined with money. Money that would be saved by eliminating alcoholism, money that would be lost in alcohol tax revenues, money needed to enforce Prohibition, money donated to and spent by the ASL in their campaigns, and, finally, the money in paychecks which were cashed and spent at saloons. The large sums of money spent on booze-costs, profits, taxes-went underground during Prohibition. All that cash greased the wheels of crime and the palms of corrupt officials. Asked why a man wanted the job of Prohibition enforcement officer (at its low salary), an unusually honest grafter replied “He wants the job to get his [cut], the same as the rest of them in this prohibition racket.”

 

The huge sums of money to be made and subsequent corruption of enforcement officers was but one factor in the failure to enforce Prohibition. America’s extensive land and sea borders made smuggling by boat, car, and airplane almost impossible to stop. The huge amounts of alcohol needed by burgeoning industries and the millions of barrels of ‘real’ beer destined to become near beer made diversion to the black market a near certainty. The simplicity of the brewing and distilling processes made illicit production easy and cheap. Most of all, ordinary citizens proved all too willing to break the law on a daily basis. This ‘criminalization’ of the populace had far-reaching social effects.

“Thirteen years of Prohibition. Americans turned to bootleg and home-brewed beers frequently made with corn which gave these brews a lighter taste and a sweet flavor. . . the only taste an entire generation of beer drinkers knew.” This recent Anheuser-Busch advertising copy puts the finger squarely on another lingering effect of Prohibition: a sea-change in American’s tastes for beer and whiskey. Gresham’s Law applied to booze as well as money: cheap low-quality booze drove out ‘the Real McCoy.’

‘The Real McCoy’ is a reference to a famous rumrunner, Bill McCoy. Noted for his honesty, McCoy dealt fairly and always delivered his liquor uncut and under its true label. This was so outstanding in a time of rampant fraud that ‘the real McCoy’ became synonymous with a fair deal and the genuine article. This also explains some of our lingering preference for imported booze over American: during Prohibition, imports were practically the only ‘real McCoy’ available.

Even when good quality booze did come into the country, it was ‘cut’ with water, industrial alcohol, and various noxious substances (creosote for ‘Scotch’, oil of rye for ‘bourbon’, and juniper oils and glycerine for ‘gin’) to the point where it was merely the figment of a drinker’s memory by the time it got to the bar. Beer was brewed as cheaply as possible, and using as few beer-related ingredients as possible: the less malted barley and hops used, the less likely it was that the ‘brewer’ would be traced and arrested. This is a major source of America’s turn to less-hoppy barley-poor beers, and the turn from American rye and bourbon whiskeys to light blended Scotch, gin, and Canadian ryes. After thirteen years of drinking these lighter-flavored products, Americans had developed a taste for them.

In the end it was not thirst that killed Prohibition, but a disgust with the hypocrisy it represented. Everyone knew that the law was being broken on an hourly basis by everyday people. The corruption it caused was painfully obvious. Far from keeping working-men sober, it was killing them with doctored rotgut. Repeal organizations gathered strength, and when pro-Repeal women’s groups appeared the Dry forces were staggered. The Depression put the final nail in the Dry coffin: Repeal promised both good jobs and tax revenues. It passed even faster than Prohibition.

Looking back, Prohibition was an extreme measure in the struggle to wipe out the saloon. Like all such simplistic laws (laws forbidding keg sales to private citizens come to mind), it merely pushed down a problem which immediately popped up in a different guise: the speakeasy. Post-Repeal liquor laws proved to be more effective, and more easily enforced.

The Drys did win a Pyrrhic victory. Saloon ‘culture’ was doomed by Prohibition’s glamorization of drinking, which brought women into the speakeasies. It was also left behind by the shift towards drinking at home. New York passed a law forbidding the use of the word ‘saloon’ in the name of taverns, but it was pointless. The saloon was as dead as the speakeasy.


References:

The Alcoholic Republic, W.J. Rorabaugh. Oxford University Press, 1979.

Ardent Spirits: The rise and fall of Prohibition, John Kobler. Putnam, 1973.

Deliver us from Evil, Norman H. Clark. W.W. Norton, 1976.

The Dry Decade, Charles Merz. 1931 (Americana Library, 1969)

The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition, Herbert Asbury. Doubleday, 1950

Pressure Politics: Story of the Anti-Saloon League, Peter Odegard. 1928 (Octagon, 1966).\

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