four sheets to the wind


A story of Prohibition…

Organized prohibition and temperance movements have existed in the US since the early 1800s, and mirroring modern geographic/political divisions, those movements thrived in rural, religious areas—achieving a statewide liquor ban in 1880s Kansas—even while saloons and drinking culture proliferated in urban centers.

How did a rural movement become a constitutional amendment in a country that loved it some drinking? Mostly due to shockingly cogent political foresight and the support of two seemingly unrelated political causes. Since most government revenue came from liquor taxes, the prohibition movement cannily recognized that alcohol wouldn’t be banned while it was the government’s cash cow; they subsequently became one of the driving forces behind the establishment of a federal income tax. They also supported women’s suffrage, not for reasons of feminism or equality or justice, but as a cold, hard political calculation: most temperance advocates were women. If women had a voice, prohibition became possible. Both of these things are terrifying, Illuminati-level political jujitsu.

The amalgam of groups and goals and interests made for strange bedfellows and weird divisions. For example, one group of temperance advocates sought not total abolition, but regulation of “bad” alcohols (to wit, liquor). Beer manufacturers were smart enough to know which way the wind was blowing and aligned themselves with the anti-liquor, “prohibition-lite” groups. In theory, the beer makers could have their cake and eat it too: avoid the wrath of a vocal temperance moralists by opposing liquor, but boost sales and destroy the competition by positioning beer as an acceptable, moral alternative to liquor. The strategy worked only until “temperance” became “total prohibition, beer included.” When the Volstead Act went into effect, many brewers, unable to produce what had been their only product, branched out to sell low-alcohol cereal/malt beverages, such as Anheuser-Busch’s “Bevo”, Pabst’s Vivo, Schlitz’s Famo.

If the push for Prohibition owed to political acumen, though, the law itself was shockingly myopic. It’s accepted wisdom that Prohibition didn’t “work,” as alcohol was still available, the black market thrived, people still drank, and enforcement was lax or ineffectual. That likely understates just how pointless the whole endeavor was; take any estimate you have for the availability and use of booze, triple it, and you might be getting somewhere close to the reality.

And it wasn’t all just bootleggers and speakeasies. The Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment banned sale, distribution, and manufacture (but not possession or consumption) of alcohol, and were full of loopholes and exceptions that virtually ensured continued indulgence. The wealthy, of course, had it easy: they stocked immense cellars before the law went into effect, planning to stash enough to ride out the storm. Other legal methods of producing, distributing, or acquiring alcohol required little more effort than that. For example, America’s long tradition of support for the family farm—as long as monsanto is not in any way involved—led to exemptions for the home brewing and storage of cider. Each family could store up to four hundred gallons per year, which is probably sufficient even for the most overindulgent of drunken kinfolk.

Many grape growers in California had continued to grow their crops on the assumption the law would never actually take effect. Others bailed and switched to other fruits, an apparently pragmatic decision that ended up more like accidentally running a winning lottery ticket through the wash. During Prohibition, the price of grapes went from a previous high of thirty dollars per ton to 75, 105, and briefly, 375 dollars per ton (the Gallos, of 80s wine cooler fame, made their fortune here). Was the supply dwindling? No: California was growing more grapes and the US was importing more from South America than ever before. Because of its low alcohol content, wine was too bulky for bootleggers, but presented a legal booze outlet for home vintners. Wine consumption more than doubled between 1917 and 1925; semi-solid concentrated grape “wine blocks” were legally sold, with instructions on the back 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/sold for religious services. One savvy vintner did a booming business selling sacramental and kosher wines, including a whirlwind marketing campaign with endorsements from a cardinal; he had assorted clerics 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, there were more than enough doctors and pads to keep anyone with the money or desire in the drink. 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. Okrent describes these freight ships not as being sporadically placed, but instead forming a veritable wall of ships ringing the coast at the exact end 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. Luckily, because they were in international waters, workers on the freighters were able to pass time by gambling on monkey knife fights:

subject only to the laws of the high sea

Government attempts at enforcement were usually a combination of lax, resolutely ignorant, and as wildly shortsighted as the law itself. I suspect the more pious of the drys were shocked to discover that people didn’t magically stop drinking once it became illegal, but it’s not as if most of them had any reason to fear being arrested. One shortsighted government effort to reduce alcohol consumption came through mandates to denature (essentially, poison) industrial alcohol, to prevent people from drinking it. Chemists were highly sought after (and highly compensated) by bootleggers and black marketeers for their ability to re-nature the alcohol into a drinkable form. After trying a couple of different rules, the government finally required that alcohol be mixed with extremely poisonous methanol/wood alcohol. Rather than reduce the number of drinkers, this approach simply made drinking more dangerous, as 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 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“.

• • •

We might tend to think of the effects of Prohibition as restricted, a weird detour in the history books with no lasting consequences. But it wasn’t just like pressing pause and then picking up again 15 years later when it was repealed. Had liquor became much more popular, as the higher alcohol content made it more cost-efficient to bootleg and faster to inebriate. Mixers made their mark, becoming almost mandatory to cut the horrid taste of bathtub gin and other adulterated liquors. Beer drinking was basically a national pasttime before the law, but beer consumption declined precipitously. Fewer than half the breweries that closed during Prohibition re-opened afterwards. The wine industry changed, too. Even while profits skyrocketed, most vineyards replaced high-quality vines with thick skinned and less tasty varietals to better withstand shipping. Many “good” vintners simply up and left the country to ply their craft somewhere less morally upstanding, and the wine industry regressed.


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