Dry Humor

The Gist: 100 years ago, Congress voted for Prohibition. 14 years later, they voted for Repeal. It might not have happened but for the Great Depression and the inflexibility of Prohibitionists.

Part 2 of a review of Prohibition: a Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh and Last Call by Daniel Okrent. See Part 1, “The Drinking Age” here.

The primary verdict on Prohibition is that it didn’t work.

Pig

Figure 1. We might think of the real entrepreneur who did not sell alcohol but instead gave a free drink to anyone who paid to see his blind pig. Pay for swine, get some wine, if you will.

 

The verdict is true insofar as alcohol was available for sale, especially in large cities, during the time it was legally prohibited – and, perhaps more importantly, alcohol began to lose its social stigma, prompting a totally unexpected increase in women’s drinking. At the same time, alcohol consumption dropped around 70% in the years after the passage of the 18th Amendment and remained lower than before World War I for decades after Prohibition ended. 

How Prohibition ended is not really remembered. Modern Americans might guess that people just came to realize it didn’t work. That’s only part of the story. Bear in mind that there are dozens of dry counties today where you can’t legally buy a drop of liquor. Oklahoma voted five times to keep Prohibition until finally repealing it in 1959. Mississippi didn’t repeal statewide alcohol Prohibition until 1966.

Ultimately, America’s liquor drought lasted 14 years – it was drier than opponents remember, but wetter than supporters wanted. As noted in my last email, W.J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History lives up to its promise with a pithy overview. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call expands on the subject – perhaps a chaser to Rorabaugh’s shot. In today’s edition of Sober History, we’ll explore how national Prohibition worked (and didn’t) as well as how it came to be repealed.

Prohibitionists were wildly optimistic in their cost projections – something they share in common with practically every advocate of a government program. According to Okrent, the Anti-Saloon League’s (ASL) normally astute Wayne Wheeler in 1920 suggested “that five million dollars would be a sufficient appropriation for all federal enforcement of Prohibition (by way of comparison, the sum wouldn’t even have covered the payroll of Columbia University that year).” Only 1,500 federal agents were supposed to enforce the law across the United States while less than 60 vessels of the Coast Guard were supposed to patrol America’s “5,000 miles of saltwater coastline, plus another 1,450 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River” – a problem exasperated when rumrunners hired the same shipyards as the government to build faster boats.

Fence

Figure 2. If we’d only built the fence on the northern border, we’d know know how to do it again.

 

The federal government wasn’t the only available enforcer but Prohibitionists, who had used federalism so effectively on the way to achieving their national goal, ultimately lost the war locally. Concurrent jurisdiction allowed states to enforce the law but, as Okrent notes, “only eighteen states bothered to appropriate as much as a dollar for enforcement… By 1927 the dwindling number of states still spending any money on Prohibition enforcement together appropriated less than 15 percent of what they allocated for the enforcement of fish and game laws.” Maryland never even passed a law to enforce Prohibition and it wasn’t before long that others, most notoriously New York, repealed their local regulations. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the highest-ranking woman in American government up to that time, reflected that “It cannot truthfully be said that prohibition enforcement has failed in New York. It has not yet been attempted.” Without the armies of local law enforcement officers in cities, counties, and states, Prohibition could never really be tried.

Fish

Figure 3. In many states, you could drink like a fish so long as you didn’t fish like you drank.

 

But, even with the power it had, the federal government was either corrupt or stingy. Sometimes both. Warren G. Harding typified the corrupt: his Attorney General, one of two Cabinet officials designated to enforce Prohibition, ordered that seized liquor be delivered to himself and his friends. Calvin Coolidge typified the stingy: Walter Lippmann described Coolidge’s attitude toward government as “far from being indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity.” The other Cabinet official responsible for Prohibition was the Secretary of Treasury, and one man held the position for most of the era: Andrew Mellon. Mellon shared Coolidge’s stingy attitude toward government but also opposed the law in principle because he detested the income tax and liked liquor. The 1920s were a glorious era when Republicans not only said they wanted to spend little money, but actually did. That being said, the stinginess was odd in one respect: enforcement brought back to the government in fines, penalties, and taxes more than three times its cost.

Coolidge

Figure 4. Keep cool with Coolidge, whose determined inactivity made him an underappreciated government executive.

 

Relatedly, federal patronage was crucial to Prohibition’s political support but counterproductive to actual enforcement. The ability to dole out jobs was useful to reward loyal politicians but the men who filled the roles were often incompetent or corrupt. Willebrandt complained that she only had preachers and wardheelers to enforce the law. When they finally tried to professionalize, becoming the famous Untouchables, the loss of patronage undermined Congressional support.

Chicago Way

Figure 5. “You wanna know how to continue Prohibition? They advertise on billboards, you advertise on radio. They win a sheriff’s race, you win a majority in Congress. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you continue Prohibition. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

 

There were gigantic loopholes in the law but Prohibitionists stringently stuck to blocking beer and wine from general distribution. As mentioned in my last email, the phrase “intoxicating” had been left intentionally undefined by the 18th amendment. Many believed that the drys were only targeting hard liquor and were surprised by Congress banning the distribution of all alcohol, which was in keeping with the Prohibitionists’ fears about substance abuse but seriously reduced political support. 

At the same time, the law provided for ultimately immense exceptions. Apple cider was allowed to appease the rural base. Whiskey prescriptions were allowed and soon reached over 10 million ailing patients a year, keeping some distilleries like Jack Daniel’s open while making Walgreen’s a national brand. Rorabaugh reports “Though state law controlled the amount of alcohol that could be purchased at one time, patients could buy liquor from multiple stores. Physicians could write unlimited prescriptions, and druggists had a powerful incentive to maximize total sales.” Some states were more honest than others. Okrent tells us: “Twelve forbade [medicinal alcohol] entirely, and nine more allowed doctors to prescribe only pure, tasteless, undiluted alcohol—no medicinal Old Grand-Dad, no therapeutic Jack Daniel’s, no curative ‘Rare Old Jamaica Rum / Imported in Wood / Exceptionally Fine.’” Wine exemptions were allowed for religious use, which worked fine for the centralized and hierarchical Catholic church but prompted a massive increase in the number of self-identified rabbis, many with suspiciously Irish surnames, some of whom opened up wine stores – “A typical one had a sign in the window reading ‘Kosher Wine for Sacramental Purposes’ and a rabbi behind the counter signing up customers to ‘join’ a synagogue at the same time they picked up the goods.” And, of course, these were just the legal ways to acquire alcohol. The courts did Prohibition no favors by insisting that alcohol passing through the U.S. from one foreign destination to another was necessarily permitted by treaty obligations – a boondoggle for rumrunners. 

And yet despite the unfunded, uneven, unenthusiastic, and unscrupulous enforcement, “To Wheeler, the law worked well enough in small-town America that it deserved to remain in place. He was optimistic that education and proper assimilation of immigrants to the standards that he espoused would dry out the cities in another generation,” reports Rorabaugh. Or, put another way, “Ultimately, drinkers with entrenched habits would die off, while a new generation would grow up abstinent under the salubrious influence of prohibition.” Tracking alcohol consumption in this era is fraught with difficulty but multiple independent analyses point to a drop of about 70% from before World War I to the early years of Prohibition, approximating when the movement against alcohol hit its pitch. While that left plenty of people drinking, that is still a dramatic decline! Harvard professor Mark Moore cites some related statistics:  “cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922.” Edward Behr claims that work absenteeism dropped 70%. Still, Cato’s Mark Thornton eloquently illustrates why the law in one way encouraged harder drinking: “Prohibition made it more difficult to supply weaker, bulkier products, such as beer, than stronger, compact products, such as whiskey, because the largest cost of selling an illegal product is avoiding detection.” In later years as the law was more openly defied, alcohol consumption rose but was still, according to analyses, more than a third lower than before World War I.

Wheeler

Figure 6. Wheeler believed time was on his side. It wasn’t. 

 

Whatever Wheeler’s optimism (or cynicism) about enforcement, his political acumen remained generally sharp, as Okrent relates: “a minority that has lost something will register its protest, he warned his fellow drys, but ‘the majority who have won the fight turn to other tasks.’” But the movement was shifting in a direction away from majority support, starting with their stringent “intoxicating” interpretation. Another permitted use of alcohol was for industrial purposes but, to prevent consumption, the government poisoned the product (a practice that continues today). Rorabaugh recounts the ensuing controversy: “After several New Yorkers died and hundreds were sickened by bad liquor in late 1926, Wayne Wheeler said, ‘The government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable, when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this alcohol is a deliberate suicide.’” 

Prohibitionists only got more extreme when Wheeler died in 1927 and as 1928 delivered a smashing electoral victory against the outright wet presidential candidate Al Smith. The ASL long had two factions, one dedicated to changing hearts, the other dedicated to changing laws. Wheeler had effectively managed the two but his successors did not. Spurred by the enthusiasm of controlling the machinery of law while facing embarrassment from the exposure of personal and family vices, they alienated donors like John D. Rockefeller, who withdrew support. Wheeler had always insisted on making dryness a bipartisan issue but it was threatened on both sides: urban wets became increasingly powerful in the Democrat Party as Republican financiers began funding efforts to repeal Prohibition in hopes that restored alcohol taxes could replace again the despised income tax. Nevertheless, emboldened by the 1928 election results, the ASL pushed for more aggressive enforcement than ever.

The drys were especially overconfident because the political system seemed so tilted in their favor. In order to repeal the 18th amendment, a process that had never happened in American history, the wets would need 2/3 of both houses of Congress AND the approval of 36 states. Every decade, the United States is supposed to go through a process of reapportionment in which some states get more Congressmen and some states get fewer based on population growth and decline. Partially because doing so in 1920 would have given more power to urban wet states, Congress did not bother – an unprecedented and never repeated act in American history. Okrent vividly illustrates why this mattered:

“Detroit provided an outstanding example of the inequities. Its population had doubled between the 1910 census and the unacknowledged 1920 census, but its congressional representation had remained constant; as a result, its two House members represented 497,000 people each, while in the House as a whole the average congressman stood for 212,000. As the decade stretched on, the imbalance only grew worse. By 1929 one of those Detroit districts was home to more than 1.3 million people, while at the same moment ten separate districts in Missouri contained fewer than 180,000 people each.”

So getting 2/3 of both houses of Congress was going to be difficult. But so was getting 36 states: 5% of Americans could block repeal. Rorabaugh recounts “As late as September 1930, the dry senator Morris Sheppard (D-TX), author of the Eighteenth Amendment, boasted, ‘There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.’” And so what? The drys had their law and the wets would have their liquor. Why wasn’t everyone happy?

1929 turned out to be a doomsday year for the drys, even if Prohibition limped along for four more years. Like the lead up to Prohibition, three crucial events would lead to its end.

First, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre horrified Americans and helped build the narrative that Prohibition empowered violent gangsters. The brutal murder of seven bootleggers, conducted by men in police uniforms, was publicly blamed and probably actually conducted on the orders of rival Al Capone. Capone courted publicity more than any other gangster of his era and contributed to a growing outrage that criminals, rather than taxpayers, profited from Prohibition. As alluded to above, the desire to get Capone (and others like him) led to some professionalization of related federal law enforcement that reduced patronage opportunities for Congressional supporters. Somewhat ironically, James Q. Wilson observed “there is not much evidence that crime (except for a few well-publicized gangland killings) went up during Prohibition.” Relatedly, Emily Owens finds that “on average, murder rates did not increase when alcohol markets were criminalized. Observed crime trends during the early 20th century are primarily explained by demographic changes.” Still, federal courts were flooded with Prohibition cases, prisons jumped in population, and crime probably became better organized. Regardless of the truth, the feeling, perpetuated by Hollywood, was that Prohibition drove crime – and was not the panacea to solve social ills that advocates had promised.

Nucky Thompson

Figure 8. “First rule of politics, kiddo: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” – Nucky Thompson

 

Second, the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform was founded by a well-heeled well-organized wet Republican who destroyed the image that women were universally for Prohibition. More than anything, the WONPR leadership was fed up with hypocrisy and disrespect for law. And yet “to avoid the charge that it favored saloons or drunkenness,” Rorabaugh recounts, “the WONPR stressed that it wanted rigorous government regulation of the alcohol industry.” This gave politicians substantial room to maneuver, though they still managed some ambiguity, with many insisting that they would vote to send a Constitutional amendment repealing the 18th to the states for the people to decide. Over the coming years, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (which labeled the WONPR, not inaccurately, a bunch of snobs) and the ASL (without Wheeler) would be politically outmatched.

Third, and most importantly, the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Depression and a government extremely thirsty for alcohol tax revenue. Relatedly, “previously dry newspapers clamored for the bill because they needed alcohol ads to survive the Depression.” Appropriate for such a deft politician, FDR was ambiguous about his feelings on Prohibition for as long as possible. As a state senator FDR had been feted by the Anti-Saloon League for pushing liquor controls. His wife Eleanor was “a committed dry whose father and brother had died of alcoholism.” When seeking gubernatorial reelection, “He said that he favored law enforcement, a hollow promise considering that Smith had repealed New York’s state enforcement law in 1923.” When seeking the presidency, “Whenever Franklin Roosevelt was asked about Prohibition, he stressed that the economy was a far more important issue.” Finally elected President in a landslide, FDR aggressively deployed patronage to repeal Prohibition (and help pay for his programs) in 1933. Instantly, alcohol taxes constituted 9% of federal revenue.

Had the drys been as nimble and flexible during Prohibition as they had been in achieving Prohibition, had there not been a Great Depression, Prohibition may have gone on for decades. Even with a continuous liquor clientele and women voting similarly to men, the Constitution’s strict requirements for amendment are very hard to meet (hence why we have only 27). But because of federalism and that liquor clientele making the business profitable whether legal or not, there would always be something available. The worst part of Prohibition repeal is that we didn’t also get a repeal of the income tax!

There are some interesting side effects of Prohibition: Coca-Cola sales had tripled and the drink became a national pastime; NASCAR evolved from fast cars to escape law enforcement; the cruise industry developed in order to serve liquor in international waters. But the biggest surprise of Prohibition was that alcohol’s social stigma somehow declined in its illegality. Women had drank 1/6th of men in the 19th century and did not frequent masculine saloons unless they were prostitutes but were very welcome in speakeasies. Okrent reports “A scholarly survey of 115 films released in 1929 established that drinking—virtually all of it illegal, of course—was depicted in 66 percent of them, more often than not favorably.” Rorabaugh suggests: “Because the safest place to drink without being arrested was at home, the middle class invented the home cocktail party.” One fascinating counter-factual: if the drys had continued their progress in social ostracizing of liquor without banning it nationwide, what would have happened?

Nerds

Figure 9. Nerds reading this history, eager for social acceptance, pledged to make Dungeons and Dragons illegal – and therefore cool.

 

The biggest surprise after Prohibition is that alcohol consumption remained depressed for decades afterward. Consumption slowly climbed to a number approximating that immediately before Prohibition in 1973 but declined again in the 1980s, such that our per capita consumption today is 20% below our ancestors immediately before Prohibition (and 67% smaller than our ancestors before the Civil War).

There are a few theories on this. First, Prohibition changed the culture. Rorabaugh points out that “an American born in 1900 could not drink legally until age thirty-three, past the age when use normally peaks.”

Second, ironically, alcohol was potentially harder to procure after Prohibition than during. As Okrent pithily puts it, “what was formally illegal was necessarily unregulated.” Rockefeller aggressively distributed reports to journalists and legislators, instructed lawyers to draft model laws, and lobbied to get them passed, such that many states that repealed Prohibition nevertheless tightly regulated the flow of alcohol very close to ASL preferences in the lead-up. In the 1980s, there was a fresh (and successful) push from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to raise the legal drinking age to 21. 

Third, Rorabaugh attributes the decrease to America’s changing demographics. An older America is a sober America: “Consumption drops with each decade of adult life, and by age sixty-five a majority of people are abstainers.” The drop in the 1980s may have been due to “women entering the professional workforce in large numbers” and changing boozy work habits. Women generally drink less than men but have been even more disinclined after the federal government began publishing warnings that alcohol consumption was a danger to pregnant women (somewhat relatedly, it’s notable that infant mortality appears to have risen after Prohibition’s repeal). Ironic for the nativists who supported Prohibition, immigrants are reducing America’s drinking: 

“Mexican American men drink about as much as their Anglo counterparts in their twenties, but they drink much less after marriage because more than half of Mexican American women are teetotalers. When one partner in a couple does not drink, the other partner drinks less… Many Asians have the alcohol flush gene, which causes small amounts of alcohol to produce an unpleasant hot flash. Persons with this gene or from areas where the gene is common tend to be abstainers. African Americans continue to be light drinkers, and half of black women do not drink. Muslim immigrants are unlikely to drink for religious reasons. Members of certain Native American tribes drink heavily, but the country’s heartiest drinkers are white Americans who remain true to their European origins.”

Per capita consumption can also be a misleading statistic. According to the U.S. Justice Department, about half of Americans have less than a drink a month. If that surprises you, it may be because of your social circle: higher education is correlated with alcohol consumption. But, to return to the earlier data set from the 19th century, what that really means is that those who drink can drink a lot. 

There was a report in the early 20th century that “calculated that alcohol was responsible for 50 percent of crime, 45 percent of desertion of children, 42 percent of broken homes, and 25 percent of poverty.” Before we think we’re well-past that, we should acknowledge the continuous problem society has with alcohol, where one expert today says that most people in prison today were drunk when they committed their crimes.

Alcoholics Anonymous is an organization that calls on members to acknowledge their problem and then come to believe that a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity. To AA, that power is God. To Prohibitionists, it also included the government – and it didn’t work out like they hoped.

Prohibition is a fascinating history of political machinations but also of what people find worthy of righteousness – it was very easy to think that opponents of Prohibition were on the “wrong side of history” in 1920, when 46 out of 48 states had 80% of their elected representatives cast their lot with Prohibition. For anyone who cares passionately about persuading the public of some great good, the story is worth knowing from beginning to end.

Prohibition book

Figure 13. Click here to buy Prohibition: A Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh. 10/10. I’m obligated to Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution for recommending these books and providing lots of interesting thoughts on the subject generally. Cowen says about this book: “Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.”

Last Call

Figure 14. Click here to buy Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It’s longer and thus includes more material, has some excellent turns of phrase, but isn’t quite as good.

 

Thanks for reading! You can find part 1 of this series, about how Prohibition ended, here: Dry Humor. If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

    The Drinking Age

    The Gist: 100 years ago, Congress voted to ban America’s 5th largest industry (and the source of ~40% of government revenue). It took a cultural movement, an income tax, women getting the vote, and World War I.

    Part 1 of a review of Prohibition: a Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh and Last Call by Daniel Okrent. See Part 2, “Dry Humor” here.

    I don’t drink alcohol but I socialize often “over drinks,” as the time immediately after work is called. Meeting at a bar, new companions often ask if it’s okay if they indulge. “Go ahead,” I say. “I am a teetotaler, not a Prohibitionist.”

    Prohibition today is little more than an (unspiked) punchline or a hazy memory. But in the middle history of America, Prohibition was a cause embraced with as much fervor (and by many of the same people) as the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage. Frederick Douglas, pledging never to drink again, claimed “if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery.” Susan B. Anthony entered politics to fight for temperance.

    Figure 1. Were the world sober, we might face other problems: a significant downturn in the tattoo industry. Underpopulation. Or, most significant of all, jokes would have to be funnier.

    Figure 1. Were the world sober, we might face other problems: a significant downturn in the tattoo industry. Underpopulation. Or, most significant of all, jokes would have to be funnier.

     

    W.J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History lives up to its promise with a pithy overview. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call expands on the subject – perhaps a chaser to Rorabaugh’s shot. In today’s edition of Sober History, we’ll explore the extraordinary story of how Prohibition came to be (despite the fact that alcohol was America’s fifth largest industry and provided around 40% of federal government revenue.)

    Before the Civil War, the average adult white male drank nearly two bottles of whiskey a week – about 90 bottles a year. By modern accounting, that amount of daily consumption, even spread over an eight hour period, would be more than twice the legal limit for driving – and more than three times the average consumption today.

    Figure 2. A properly trained horse was the self-driving car of its day. Your trusty steed “Uber” could get you home but couldn’t do anything for your liver.

    Figure 2. A properly trained horse was the self-driving car of its day. Your trusty steed “Uber” could get you home but couldn’t do anything for your liver.

     

    There was an economic rationale as “whiskey cost less than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk, and it was safer than water.” But that explanation isn’t entirely satisfactory: men drank nearly six times as much as women, who suffered the consequences. Drinking was cultural: George Washington lost his first election when he failed to distribute enough alcohol to voters. Sam Houston stated with some contempt that his teetotaling Tennessee contemporary (and eventually America’s greatest president) James K. Polk was a “victim of the use of water as a beverage.”

    Figure 3. New theory for why Sam Houston left for Texas: the Tennessee Constitution explicitly forbids the distribution of drinks for votes and bans violators from office for 6 years.

    Figure 3. New theory for why Sam Houston left for Texas: the Tennessee Constitution explicitly forbids the distribution of drinks for votes and bans violators from office for 6 years.

    While plenty of alcohol was homemade, notoriety centered around the saloon. Rorabaugh relates: “The unemployed or unemployable drunkard abandoned his family so that the wife and children sometimes faced starvation while the husband and father debauched himself.” Spousal and child abuse, assault, even murder was committed under the influence of alcohol, which soon earned the credit. The margins on alcohol weren’t especially good for proprietors so they turned to additional offerings, including “gambling and prostitution, which brought financial ruin and sexually transmitted diseases.” Okrent paints the sorry picture: 

    “A drunken husband and father was sufficient cause for pain, but many rural and small-town women also had to endure the associated ravages born of the early saloon: the wallet emptied into a bottle; the job lost or the farmwork left undone; and, most pitilessly, a scourge that would later in the century be identified by physicians as ‘syphilis of the innocent’—venereal disease contracted by the wives of drink-sodden husbands who had found something more than liquor lurking in saloons.”

    Figure 4. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, things go terribly unbearably wrong. Stay sober, my friends.”

    Figure 4. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, things go terribly unbearably wrong. Stay sober, my friends.”

     

    Evangelical Christians were horrified. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. At first preaching only against whiskey, they eventually demanded teetotal abstinence, lest drunkards trade one poison for another, and began a debate about whether the wine mentioned in the Bible was actually grape juice. Evangelicals managed to persuade a few states to change their laws but were far more effective at changing hearts: “by 1840, nearly half of Americans had taken the pledge” to quit drinking altogether, resulting in the fact that “between 1825 and 1850, the amount of alcohol consumed per person in the United States dropped by half.” With that stupendous success, less people were drinking but those who did were as boozy as ever.

    Figure 5. Water into grape juice was not a miracle greeted with nearly as much enthusiasm

    Figure 5. Water into grape juice was not a miracle greeted with nearly as much enthusiasm

     

    Still, you can almost understand that contemporaries thought that alcohol abstinence was going to be easier and happen sooner than abolition of slavery. Some “reformers saw alcohol as the greater problem: Drinking took place throughout the country, while slavery was relegated to the South.”

    As Rorabaugh relates, they were changing the culture! 

    “The use of alcohol became socially unacceptable, particularly in middle-class circles in small towns. Middle-class employers refused to employ anyone who drank. To advance in business or society, a person found it necessary to abstain. Advice books and novels, which were beginning to circulate among the middle class, told young women not to marry any man who drank,” 

    including such slogans as “Lips that touch wine shall never touch mine.” Henry Ford would go so far as hiring detectives to check “garbage cans at workers’ homes for liquor bottles.” One of the first major credit rating agencies included in their evaluation business owners’ drinking habits, reserving the highest rating for teetotalers while “anyone with an interest in the liquor industry was all but eliminated as a borrower.” Desiring places to gather and socialize beyond the saloon, teetotalers built their own, including Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the eventual home of the Grand Ole Opry.

    Figure 6. Country music would not always prove to be the tribute to sobriety that Ryman might have hoped, where lyrics like “If You Like Whiskey, Let’s Get Frisky” have become more common.

    Figure 6. Country music would not always prove to be the tribute to sobriety that Ryman might have hoped, where lyrics like “If You Like Whiskey, Let’s Get Frisky” have become more common.

     

    The temperance movement was especially remarkable because it was the one area of public life in which women could participate as equals – and even leaders. The struggle for women’s suffrage was linked closely in the public mind with the abolishment of alcohol, as Okrent suggests: “They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. They wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect their children from being terrorized by them.”  

    A great spark was the Women’s Crusade, a civil disobedience movement in 1870s Ohio. Responding to a call to arms from churches, women began to surround saloons, singing hymns, praying on their knees, and insisting they wouldn’t leave until the dens of deceit closed for good. Amazingly, many did! But even when the movement died down, saloon proprietors were increasingly social pariahs. And, so long as we’re on the subject of direct action, we should introduce to Carry A. Nation. Decades after the Women’s Crusade, unsatisfied with mere prayer, Nation took a hatchet to any illegal liquor she could get near, prompting many a bar to display a sign that said “All nations welcome – except Carry!”

    Most women were not inclined to violence; in the spirit of the Crusade, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded to organize against alcohol with speakers, materials, and lobbying. Frances Willard was the long-time leader and her slogan was “Do everything.” And the WCTU did, to the harm of their core cause against liquor. Her “Protestant nuns,” fighting for “Home Protection,” were naturally for getting the vote “but also for prison reform, free kindergartens, and vocational schools” while simultaneously being against “gambling, tobacco, opium, pornography and prostitution.” When Willard became a “Christian socialist,” she began “agitating for the eight-hour day, workers’ rights, and government ownership of utilities, railroads, factories, and (she was nothing if not eclectic) theaters. Along the way she also took up the causes of vegetarianism, cremation” and other unrelated topics, previewing the fact that women were not one-issue voters. Eventually, they would even coin the phrase “equal pay for equal work.” Simultaneous to their almost comically broad agenda, however, was a deadly serious opposition to compromise, refusing to sanction anything but total abstinence from alcohol.

    Stringent and unfocused, the WCTU could only get so far – but they did manage one significant coup: a substantial takeover of the public school system. Rorabaugh reports that “WCTU members interviewed candidates for teaching positions, and school boards were pressured to hire only abstainers.” Over half of American public schools used textbooks approved by the WCTU and by the end of the 19th century, Okrent reveals “twenty-two million schoolchildren in a given year were administered their three-times-a-week serving of temperance education.” Willard warned Congress: “The day is surely coming when from the schoolhouses all over the land will come trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon.”

    Figure 7. Compare to today, when students go to school to learn how to drink, such as at Μπύρα fraternity house.

    Figure 7. Compare to today, when students go to school to learn how to drink, such as at Μπύρα fraternity house.

     

    But perhaps the most powerful special interest group in American history was the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), ably led by Wayne Wheeler. The ASL was ruthlessly focused on alcohol, tactically flexible in accepting any progress toward their goal, and merciless in punishing opponents. Marketed to the general public as opposed to the worst excesses of alcohol consumption found in the saloon, they were financed by membership dues, church offerings, and a guarantee from the richest man in America, teetotaler John D. Rockefeller, that he’d contribute 10 cents for every dollar they received elsewhere.

    Figure 8. America’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos, is unlikely to finance a prohibitionist organization given the amount of drunk online impulse buying.

    Figure 8. America’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos, is unlikely to finance a prohibitionist organization given the amount of drunk online impulse buying.

     

    The WCTU cared about everything. The ASL cared about one thing. The WCTU refused to work with anyone who drank. The ASL was happy if politicians voted as they prayed, rather than as they drank. The WCTU was excited about the dismally performing Prohibition Party. The ASL wanted majorities of all parties dry and were indifferent to partisan identification. In elections, the WCTU chose only the driest possible candidates. The ASL chose the driest candidate who could win and hold a seat for the long term – and then backed them to the hilt with training, volunteers, cash, and endorsements from the dry press and the church pulpits.

    The ASL’s strategy was to systematically dry out America. “In 1910, half of all Americans lived on farms or in towns with fewer than two thousand people.” The ASL started by pushing states to allow counties to ban alcohol. Once large majorities of counties had banned alcohol – and weakened the local liquor lobby – they pushed statewide prohibition. If they couldn’t get a ban, they’d heavily regulate the industry by “stopping sales on Sundays, imposing closing hours, limiting the number of liquor licenses, creating dry zones around churches and schools, setting age restrictions, or banning sales to known alcoholics.”

    Figure 9. The last step before Prohibition was to allow alcohol only to be purchased exclusively with penny rolls every other Friday but only 2 hours after the last business closed and before any other opened from the one retailer who was 100 miles from any church or school, so long as you were over 35 and never purchased any alcohol before. Still, given the extraordinary strength of the 19th century dollar, you could get quite a bit for your penny rolls.

    Figure 9. The last step before Prohibition was to allow alcohol only to be purchased exclusively with penny rolls every other Friday but only 2 hours after the last business closed and before any other opened from the one retailer who was 100 miles from any church or school, so long as you were over 35 and never purchased any alcohol before. Still, given the extraordinary strength of the 19th century dollar, you could get quite a bit for your penny rolls.

     

    With plenty of experience in local regulation, what the ASL desired more than anything was to continue the social ostracization of liquor:

    “Some drys naively believed that if the law were passed, it would be honored, but this proved to be untrue in large cities, mining districts, seaports, or logging areas with large numbers of single young men. Other drys were more cynical. They knew the state laws would not be enforced; however, their main concern was not to stop individual drinkers but the alcohol industry. By making the industry illegal, everyone connected to it could be made odious. This would force respectable people out of the liquor business.”

    Eventually, the ASL concluded America was sufficiently arid to push for a national constitutional amendment. They directed their allies in Congress to hold a vote in 1914. They lost. But that was the point: they wanted the names of everyone who opposed them. After all, the group’s founder stated their mission: “the Anti-Saloon League is formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.”

    Figure 10. Not to be confused with the Anti-Salon League, which was formed for the purpose of opposing dying - an objective that often required clarification for cryogenic freezing enthusiasts seeking to join.

    Figure 10. Not to be confused with the Anti-Salon League, which was formed for the purpose of opposing dying – an objective that often required clarification for cryogenic freezing enthusiasts seeking to join.

     

    The ASL had certainly set the stage but they could not have achieved their goal without three events and the support of an unruly coalition. It’s easy to think in the modern era that Prohibition was imposed on America by conservatives but some of the earlier referenced positions of the WCTU – led by a Christian socialist – reveal the odd politics. Against the liquor lobby and its consumers were feminists suspicious of men drinking; nativists suspicious of immigrants drinking; racists suspicious of minorities drinking; rural voters suspicious of urban drinking; patriots suspicious of beer manufacturers; commercial interests that sought to benefit as substitutes to alcohol; prayerful Evangelical teetotalers convinced that alcohol was poisonous to the soul; and, new on the scene, Progressives convinced by contemporary science that alcohol was poisonous to the body and to society.

    And yet Okrent calculates that the alcohol industry was America’s fifth largest in the lead up to Prohibition – and controlled or owned 70% of American saloons, themselves centers of political power in urban machines. The fight was bound to be brutal – in Tennessee, statewide Prohibition only passed after the leading dry, the editor of the Tennessean, was gunned down on the streets of Nashville.

    Three events enabled Prohibition: women receiving the right to vote, the income tax, and America’s entry into World War I.

    The funny thing about women earning the right to vote is that they voted fairly similarly to men on Prohibition but, because of temperance propaganda, were thought to be militantly for it. The alcohol industry was perhaps the largest opponent to women’s suffrage, pushing arguments like: “God pity our country when the handshake of the politician is more gratifying to woman’s heart than the patter of children’s feet.” With women’s suffrage imminent, politicians perceived a great wave of support for Prohibition and promptly voted for their own political survival. That women were not of one mind on politics would prove significant soon enough.

    The second major event that prompted Prohibition was a constitutional amendment that allowed an income tax. Until the 20th century, America financed its government primarily through tariffs, land sales, and alcohol taxes. Alexander Hamilton thought the alcohol tax ideal, especially for the size of government he envisioned: Uncle Sam could get revenue from (and discourage) a popular unproductive activity roughly evenly distributed across states! In the lead up to Prohibition, up to 40% of federal government revenue (not to mention local revenue) came from alcohol taxes. Prohibitionists saw that number as an embarrassment – a testament to the tax’s ineffectiveness in suppressing alcohol consumption – but needed a revenue replacement. They successfully proposed an income tax, which had the dual political advantages of not only being concentrated on the rich but also geographically: in the first year, 44% of income tax revenue for the entire country came from New York. The tax issue, too, would soon prove significant.

    Figure 11. Most Americans even today would probably be very comfortable giving about half of the burden of paying for the federal government to New York.

    Figure 11. Most Americans even today would probably be very comfortable giving about half of the burden of paying for the federal government to New York.

     

    And what about World War I? There are some interesting smaller reasons: there were food shortages in Britain and France and so people reasonably thought foodstuffs should go to eaters rather than drinkers. Protestant congregations had set aside their theological differences to mobilize America for war and briefly kept united for Prohibition. But the main reason World War I mattered was an earlier decision by the brewers. 

    Most politicians did not want to be seen to be taking money directly from the liquor lobby so the industry decided to launder their money through a tangentially related cultural group with 2 million members. Unfortunately for them, it was the German-American Alliance, founded by Kaiser Wilhelm II. When America entered the war, it was suddenly scandalous to have ever taken money from them. But it wasn’t merely a laundering operation, Adolphus Busch, the leading brewer in the United States had personally “been decorated by the Kaiser,” had two sons-in-law in the German army, and owned a million dollars of German war bonds. His son “threw annual parties at his Missouri farm in honor of the Kaiser’s birthday” and his widow, vacationing in Germany when war broke out, decided to stick out the war there – and cared for German wounded at her villa. The liquor lobby, long internally divided and inherently controversial, was now under Congressional investigation and unpopularly associated with America’s enemies.

    Figure 12. One disadvantage of winning the Cold War so soon is that the Soviet Union made a very appropriate endorser of big government.

    Figure 12. One disadvantage of winning the Cold War so soon is that the Soviet Union made a very appropriate endorser of big government.

     

    So, when the Prohibition amendment came up again, times had changed. Even more popular than supporters realized, it sailed through Congress and passed through the necessary 36 states in less than 400 days. All but 2 states ended up supporting the amendment, and within the 46 supporting states, more than 80% of state legislators voted for it. Some context is notable here because legislative districts up until the 1960s were not of equal size – so “in New York, for example, the legislature was configured in such a fashion that an urban assemblyman might represent seven times as many people as the rural representative at the next desk.” But it was still a huge victory for the ASL, whose leader Wayne Wheeler frequently noted “God made the country but man made the city.”

    The popularity for the concept overshadowed some thorny legal issues:

      • Should the alcohol industry be compensated for their losses? No. Poison-peddlers were thought to be in the same category as slave-owners. But they were given a year to dispose of their goods.
      • Would Prohibition empower the federal government at the expense of the states? Southerners were hypersensitive about this but mollified by language granting federal and state governments concurrent jurisdiction. But federalism would ultimately be a major contributor to Prohibition’s downfall
      • Should consumption of alcohol be banned? Nope, though the Amendment banned the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating beverages. You could store and drink as much as you wanted – which the rich did, including the Yale Club, which ended up having enough to last the entire 14 year period of Prohibition. 
      • What beverages qualified as “intoxicating,” and therefore banned from commercial use? TBD. The ASL in particular embraced this ambiguity, leaving some people to believe only whiskey would be affected by the amendment. Stringent interpretation would ultimately undermine popular support.

    And then there was the fact that the Constitution was primarily a document that limited government, not citizens. Were there any who opposed Prohibition because it took away freedom? Prominent Republican Elihu Root was one, saying that Prohibition “takes away the chief pleasure in life for millions of men who have never been trained to get their pleasure from art, or literature, or sports, or reform movements.” Yet his primary contribution was to argue before the Supreme Court, passionately but comically, that the new constitutional amendment was unconstitutional. He lost. And predictably, when the public rejoinder to his plea for pleasure came from Wayne Wheeler: “Did you ever hear of a man eating so much pie or cake or anything of that kind that he’d go home and shoot up the family?”

    So, alcohol was banned! (More or less). Prohibition was the result of decades of concern and agitation about how the heavy consumption of alcohol had led to America’s problems, Evangelical social isolation of alcohol’s users and providers, and an especially adept lobbying organization in the ASL that mobilized a heterogenous coalition with perfect timing.

    A new popular song typified the mood: “I Never Knew I Had A Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry.” Now social ills could be cured, men could be good husbands again, and everyone could be a good American! And yet problems lay ahead as clear as vodka. More to come in my next email.

    Prohibition book

    Figure 13. Click here to buy Prohibition: A Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh. 10/10. I’m obligated to Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution for recommending these books and providing lots of interesting thoughts on the subject generally. Cowen says about this book: “Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.”

    Last Call

    Figure 14. Click here to buy Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It’s longer and thus includes more material, has some excellent turns of phrase, but isn’t quite as good.

     

    Thanks for reading! You can find part 2 of this series, about how Prohibition ended, here: Dry Humor. If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!