Prohibition in Theory
America officially went dry on January 17, 1920. The 18th amendment outlawed, manufacture, sale, or transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” and the Volstead Act provided details of enforcement. How, I have often wondered, did that ever happen in a country where drinking was not just celebrated but an almost necessary vice? The short answer: shockingly cogent political foresight and coalition building.
Historically, prohibition and temperance movements in the US dated to at least the early 1800s. Mirroring modern geographic and political divisions, those movements thrived in rural and religious areas; there was even a statewide liquor ban in 1880s Kansas. Meanwhile, saloons and drinking culture proliferated in urban centers. For the prohibitionists, with saloons came moral turpitude: domestic violence, political corruption, public drunkenness.
As a minority of the population, the prohibition movement could not affect their desired change through sheer numbers. Since most government revenue came from liquor taxes, prohibitionists recognized alcohol would never be banned when it was the government’s cash cow; subsequently they became one of the driving political forces behind the establishment of a federal income tax. They likewise supported women’s suffrage, though not for reasons of feminism, equality, or justice: most temperance advocates were women, and if they could vote, prohibition might be politically feasible. This is Illuminati-level political jujitsu.
The amalgam of groups and goals made for a coalition with strange bedfellows and weird divisions. For example, one group of temperance advocates sought not total abolition, but instead regulation of “bad” alcohols (to wit: liquor). Beer manufacturers aligned themselves with these anti-liquor, “prohibition-lite” groups thus avoiding the wrath of hard-line prohibitionists by opposing liquor, but boosting sales and eliminating competition by positioning beer as the morally acceptable alternative. This strategy might have worked, but as the movement built, “temperance” became “total prohibition, beer included.” And when Prohibition became the law, many brewers went out of business, their earlier attempts at ingratiation notwithstanding. Those that survived branched out, selling low-alcohol cereal/malt beverages, or, in one case, ice cream.
Prohibition in Action
If the realization of national prohibition owed to political acumen, the law itself was shockingly myopic. It’s common wisdom that Prohibition didn’t “work;” alcohol was easily available, the black market thrived, people still drank, enforcement was lax or ineffectual. But even that common wisdom understates just how fruitless was the endeavor. Take any estimate you have for the availability of booze in a country where its manufacture and sale is illegal, triple it, and you just might be getting close to reality. It wasn’t all just bootleggers and speakeasies.
The Volstead Act and 18th amendment did not outlaw possession or consumption of alcohol, and were so full of loopholes and exceptions that continued indulgence was almost assured. The wealthy, of course, had it easy: with a year’s notice they stocked immense cellars, stashing enough to ride out the storm. Other legal methods of acquiring alcohol required little more effort. Exemptions for home brewing allowed for up to four hundred gallons of cider to be stored annually by each family, surely enough even for the most overindulgent of drunken kinfolk.
The wine industry thrived. Many grape growers in California switched their farms over to other fruits, a seemingly pragmatic decision that ended up more like putting a winning lottery ticket through the wash. During Prohibition, grape prices went from a previous high of $30 per ton to 75, 105, and at one point, $375 (the Gallos, of 80s wine cooler fame, made their fortune here). Was this price spike because supply was low? Not at all: California was growing more grapes and more from South America during Prohibition than before. Wine’s low alcohol content made it too bulky for bootleggers, but a good legal option for the common man, and wine consumption more than doubled from 1917 to 1925. Semi-solid concentrated grape “wine blocks” were sold legally, with instructions warning people how not to make wine: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”
Alcohol could also be legally used and sold for religious services. A clever vintner did booming business peddling sacramental and kosher wines. A whirlwind ad campaign included endorsements from a cardinal, and to seal the deal, clerics and clergy could visit his vineyard for tastings, complete with a mock altar. Fake clergy were common in all denominations, but Jews bore the brunt of the backlash from media exposés about immoderate and impious impostor “rabbis” profiting from the (re)sale of their kosher wine to the faux-pious (“Jewish Rabbis Reap Fabulous Sums by Flouting Dry Laws”).
Still others turned to doctors for alcohol prescriptions. In theory these prescriptions were restricted with special numbered prescription pads; in practice, doctors and pads proliferated. Walgreen’s grew rapidly during prohibition and though they claim that growth was spurred by their development of malted milkshakes, they may have been getting fat on quasi-legal liquor profits. And milkshakes.
Even with no shortage of legal means to obtain alcohol, rumrunning, bootlegging, and speakeasy-ing were tempting for anyone who wished to dabble in the black market. Rumrunning was quite the operation; freight ships loaded with alcohol would anchor just outside US waters (three miles offshore), where small, fast cigarette boats would meet, load up with alcohol, and high-tail it back to the coast. The freight ships were not sporadically placed, but formed a veritable wall of ships ringing the coast at the exact edge of US territorial waters. (The “border” was subsequently pushed back to six miles offshore, where the small, speedy craft necessary to outrun coast guard boats had difficulty navigating the treacherous waters.) Bored hands on the freighters, free from the laws of the land, passed time by gambling on monkey knife fights:
Government attempts at enforcement were a combination of lax, resolutely ignorant, and as wildly shortsighted as the law itself. One shortsighted government effort to reduce alcohol consumption came through mandates to denature (essentially, poison) industrial alcohol, aiming to prevent its consumption. Chemists able to re-nature the alcohol into drinkable form were well compensated by bootleggers and black marketers. When denaturing didn’t work, the government mandated that industrial alcohol be mixed with the extremely poisonous methanol/wood alcohol. Thousands of people drank the poisoned goods and were left blind or dead because of it. In a related incident, the purveyors of a ginger-based and strongly alcoholic patent medicine began adulterating it to meet dry laws; tragically the adulterant turned out to be neurotoxic, leaving thousands of people with long-term hand and foot paralysis—the so-called “Jake leg“.
Prohibition in History
Prohibition lasted 13 years, but it was not like pressing pause and then picking up again a decade later. The changes to American culture and economy were lasting. Hard liquor had become much more popular, as the higher alcohol content made it more cost-efficient for bootleggers and faster to inebriate for speakeasy patrons. Mixers became common; they were nearly mandatory to cut the horrid taste of bathtub gins and adulterated liquors from suspicious sources. Beer drinking, almost a national pastime before the law, declined precipitously. Fewer than half the breweries that closed during Prohibition re-opened afterwards. The wine industry was changed too: most vineyards had replaced high-quality vines with thick-skinned and less tasty varietals, to better withstand shipping. Meanwhile, many upscale vintners left the country to ply their trade somewhere less morally upstanding. The entire structure of American drinking changed.