Tuesday, December 06, 2005


The anniversary of one our Nation's most paradoxical Constitutional achievements passed quietly yesterday. Not many noted that 72 years had passed since Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment and thus seal the repeal of Prohibition. The "noble experiment" in national temperance lasted only 13 years, but it has left an indelible mark on American society

There has been much written about the history of prohibition, about its origins and whether is "succeeded" or "failed." I won't go too deeply into that here, although it is a interesting study. Suffice it to say that from about 1860 through World War I, ours was a nation of drunks. Not all of us, mind you, but a sufficient number to raise deep concern among the semi-sober population... particularly among those of the feminine persuation.

Let's face facts, many men are complete brutes even when sober. Throw a little 100 proof whiskey down their throats and this type starts hurting people...like their wives and kids. So it was then, so it is today. The difference between then and now, however, is that most women didn't drink. Women saw their men waste away the family rent and food on alcohol, running the society deeper and deeper into abject misery. Reformers such as Stephan Crane and Jacob Riis wrote forcefully about the evils the saloon wrought on the poor of New York City:

All the evil the saloon does in breeding poverty and in corrupting politics; all the suffering it brings into the lives of its thousands of innocent victims, the wives and children of drunkards it sends forth to curse the community; its fostering of crime and its shielding of criminals--it is all as nothing to this, its worst offence. In its affinity for the thief there is at least this compensation that, as it makes, it also unmakes him. It starts him on his career only to trip him up and betray him into the hands of the law, when the rum he exchanged for his honesty has stolen his brains as well. For the corruption of the child there is no restitution. None is possible. It saps the very vitals of society; undermines its strongest defences, and delivers them over to the enemy. Fostered and filled by the saloon, the "growler" looms up in the New York street boy's life, baffling the most persistent efforts to reclaim him. There is no escape from it; no hope for the boy, once its blighting grip is upon him.

Thenceforward the logic of the slums, that the world which gave him poverty and ignorance for his portion "owes him a living," is his creed, and the career of the "tough" lies open before him, a beaten track to be blindly followed to a bad end in the wake of the growler.

Peer behind the "yada yada yada" and you can hear the true urgency of the times. Things were as bad as the crack epidemic of the 1980's-90's, but it was far more prevalent. There was no, or nearly no, regulation of alcohol. Sure, you might have to get a license from some corrupt city official. But generally the booze ran freely. And because of the competition among brewers (i.e. capitalism), more and more saloons were opened, and kept open around the clock. It was getting ugly. And untaxed. Imagine that.

In steps the Anti-Saloon League, the Women's Temperance League, the Prohibition Party (which, by the way, still exists), and a host of other pro-prohibition organizations founded by some of this nation's strongest women to take on the liquor interests and their friends in the government. In an era where women had no franchise, they were, at first, easily ignored or treated as a nusiance. As the womaen's sufferage movement gained stream, however, those politicians shrewed enough to see the train coming down the track were brought on board. The anti-German sentiment that rose from the First World War was a tool for the prohibitionist. It wasn't hard to stretch such obvious aryan names as "Anheuser-Busch" "Schlitz" "Scheaffer" " Blatz"or "Pabst" into symbols of subversion. Moreover, it is testament to the times that the Eighteenth Amendment establishing prohibition was ratified in 1919, just after the war, and one year before women received the vote. It was, in fact, a complete victory. The nation agreed.

And therein lies the paradox. For 13 years the nation's thirst for alcohol went unslackened... except in the speakeasies of the city, college campuses, and the nips joints fired by homemade liquor in the heartland. During this period, however, a curious development occurred: First, the price of liquor went through the roof and thus it cost a helluva lot more of the rent money for a man to come home stinking drunk; Second, women, freed at last from the shuttering confines of disenfranchisement and second-class status, started drinking themselves.
Hoo-boy. What a recipe for destruction.

Thus the repeal movement, which since the early 1920s had been a sullen and hopeless expression of minority discontent, astounded even its most dedicated supporters when it suddenly gained political momentum. What had not been articulated in 1928 was that the nation had been moving away from the concerns that from the beginning had lay at the heart of Prohibition. The postwar industrial society and the new lifestyles of individualism and personal freedom—apparent in Europe and America—were making the protection of the Victorian home and family seem less and less urgent. The powerful accelerators of change were mass production, the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the new literature, the movies—all with their stunning potential for broadening individual freedoms, including the freedom to use intoxicating beverages. But the most powerful accelerator was the Great Depression, which for many people everywhere marked the end of a cultural and social era, an era that had embraced Prohibition.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of all this is that, today, per capita consumption of alcohol is as high, or higher, than it was when prohibition was enacted. Of course, only the male population was imbibing then, so you can only imagine what a man was throwing down on a daily basis.

All in all then, Prohibition cleared the way for state/community enforcement of alcohol laws, and curbed abusive drinking tremendously. Given my own predilictions, I am hesitant to term it a "success." Nevertheless, it was a program of national "intervention" the likes of we'll never see again. Hopefully.

Happy Birthday all.


portia said...

Before Prohibition, my paternal grandmother from Alsace Lorraine (before it was lost again to France) was a charter member of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Women's Christian Temperance Union. She would travel from saloon to saloon pleading with owners to cease selling the ruinous evil, sing hymns to the patrons, read scriptures; and pray for their souls. If that didn't empty the place, she'd return the following week with reinforcements: a half dozen or so WCTU sisters to help her sing and pray some more. Rumors that she wielded a hatchet on her visits ala Carrie Nation were greatly exaggerated, although barkeepers throughout the Iron City swore she was singlehandedly responsible for the advent of Prohibition:) My maternal grandmother from County Cork was married to a bootlegger, lived in New York City, and was known to enjoy her Guinness...strictly for medicinal purposes, of course. The Irish genes prevailed.


KJ said...

Nicccce essay. *hic*

spd rdr said...

As soon as prohibition ended, my grandfather opened a liqour store in Tompkins Square. I still have an old wooden box from that store that once contained scotch.

Thanschk, Kla J..*hic*