Prohibition – Thirteen Year Hiatus

In a popular World War 1 song, “The Alcoholic Blues”, a veteran laments:

“I wouldn’t mind to live forever in a trench,
if my daily thirst they let me quench.
But not with Bevo or ginger ale,
I want the real stuff by the bail.”

The tune was published just after the war in 1919. In January of the same year, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, forbidding production and trade of all alcoholic beverages was ratified. A year later, the Prohibition Act became law. It remained in effect until the amendment was repealed in December of 1933. This song, perhaps an over dramatization, is a pretty typical illustration of the “wet” reaction to Prohibition at the time and it fits the convenient narrative of prohibition’s facile association with the First World War. It is often suggested that the war and its social dislocations were the cause of the enactment of the Prohibition amendment. It is true that the war might have generated raw emotional images in its favor, but the historical facts steer us in a different direction; there was already a strong anti-alcohol sentiment in the country long before the nation entered the war in 1917. The Temperance movement, started in the early 1800s, had already culminated in local prohibition laws in a number of states several decades prior to the start of the war.

In the early nineteenth century, drinking constituted a large part of the American life; every occasion from sacred to profane called for copious amounts of alcohol consumption. Distilled spirits were plentiful and cheap in Early America. Farmers across the country found turning crops such as wheat and corn into whiskey and bourbon, rather than selling the crops themselves a lot more profitable. Furthermore, spirits were largely untaxed. By the middle of the century, whiskey was cheaper than tea, coffee or milk – the average price of a gallon of whiskey was just twenty-five cents. And unlike today, the sale of alcohol was not regulated. The minimum drinking age is a good example – it was not uncommon to see young adolescents in their early teenage years consuming alcohol. Similarly, the strength of bottled alcohol was not regulated; the alcohol content of whiskey varied from bottle to bottle, with some potentially containing twice as much alcohol as others. Brewery sponsored saloons mushroomed across the country. In short, the drinking culture of the time was nothing short of exorbitant – compare over seven gallons per person consumption of spirits in the 1820s to the current consumption rate of just over two gallons. The profligate drinking of the time led Lyman Beecher, the prominent Presbyterian minister, educator and eventually the co-founder of the American Temperance Society, to describe the populace as a “generation of drunkards.”

Adverse popular reaction to the evils of alcohol intoxication can be traced back as early as 1808. The initial movement was concerned more with attempts to reform the offending individual drinker, rather than the imposition of legal constraints on the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Nor did the Temperance Movement as it became known call for total abstinence. Moderation in consumption was their recipe. Temperance reformers tried to educate the people by drawing parallels between excess drinking and societal ills such as poverty and domestic abuse as well as physical illnesses. While the more radical wing of the Temperance Movement urged government legislation and absolute teetotalism, moderation carried the day until the 1830s.

The progressive societal decadence, despite a generation of temperance efforts, emboldened the radical wing, resulting in the formation of a national temperance organization in 1833. The first wave of laws was passed in the 1840s. A number of cities declared themselves “dry,” with Portland, Maine leading the pack in 1843. The Civil War was a temporary setback to the movement. Following the war, the radicals started pushing for state-level prohibition. The radical idea of amending the U.S. Constitution was first suggested in 1876. Kansas took the lead on the idea and adopted prohibition by constitutional amendment in 1880. Rhode Island followed suit and was soon joined by North and South Dakota. The process accelerated, when in 1913 Congress gave the Dry states the latitude to enforce their own laws on interstate commerce in alcoholic beverages. This was pretty much the last piece the prohibition zealots needed to aggressively push for the ultimate step – amendment to the U.S. Constitution. By the time America entered the First World War, some twenty-one states were dry with the arguments in support of total prohibition well ensconced. These arguments resonated conveniently well with the Progressive Era sentiments of the day – political action was the preferred way to fix societal concerns such as industrialization, urbanization and many of their other causes. Xenophobic and racist rhetoric was equally convenient for the advocates of Prohibition. Breweries were largely owned and operated by German Americans at the time. They provided an excellent target for the argument that money put into their pockets was funneled into the German war effort. At the outset of the war the anti-German sentiment was so strong to a point where sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage”!

By January 1919, the conditions were ripe for Congress to ratify the proposal put forward by the Alabama Representative, Richmond Hobson, which would later become the eighteenth Amendment. The Amendment which prohibited the manufacture, sale, transport and import of all intoxicating beverages in the U.S. was to be enforced by the National Prohibition Act, commonly called the Volstead Act, named after its chief designer, Andrew John Volstead.

From early on, all signs indicated that whiskey was the primary target of the Act. Winemakers desperately hoped that the distinction between distilled drinks and wine would be recognized by the prohibitionists and wine would be spared. Wine is a drink of temperance, not a drink of drunkenness, was their driving argument. This argument was articulated by the Italian winemaker Andrea Sbarboro when he opined: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits,” It was an echo of Thomas Jefferson’s words, who, a century earlier, had said:“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.” To no avail, wine was lumped in with spirits, causing serious damage to viticulture nationwide – most devastatingly in California, then and now the leading wine producing state in the nation. Despite the loophole in the Act, which allowed families to produce wine up to 200 gallons for their own consumption and the exception for wine for sacramental and or medicinal purposes, the wine industry came to a screeching halt. Prior to Prohibition, the U.S. wine industry was very well positioned to step in and fill the international wine deficit, after the European wineries were decimated by the Phylloxera epidemic. On the Eve of Prohibition, the country’s wine production was over fifty-five million gallons. By 1925 it dropped to below four million gallons. Greater damage was the loss of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. In order to survive, Californian winemakers swapped their high-quality varietals with inferior, but more productive varieties – growing table grapes and raisin grapes was the only way to put bread on the family table. Many were simply forced to close their doors. It took decades for the U.S. wine industry to bounce back from the earthquake caused by the Prohibition, as many Americans’ taste fundamentally changed to a preference for beer and mixed drinks over poor quality wine. The Great Depression and the Second World War compounded the woes of the wine industry it wasn’t until the 1960s, was there a glimmer of hope that good quality wine would ever be produced again in the country.

It was one thing to pass legislation, it was another to enforce it. As Mark Twain wrote: “prohibition only drives drunkenness behind doors and into dark places, and does not cure or even diminish it.” His sentiments were echoed by many other prominent figures of the time including Milton Friedman and Aldus Huxley. Indeed, despite the tremors caused by Prohibition, it accomplished none of its goals. Prohibitionists who thought banning alcohol was a panacea for all social ills, quickly came to realize how mistaken they were, as the Act ushered in an era of bootleggers, speakeasies, and a wholesale disregard for the law. Organized crime was rampant as bootleggers became suppliers of the illicit “moonshine” to a thirsty nation. Such was the rise in crime, that the ubiquitous Thompson Machine Gun, designed for use by the US Army in the Great War, was issued to law enforcement in their fight against organized crime. Ironically, Al Capone – the most notorious mobster of the time – and other bootleggers and rum runners also got their hands on the weapon the “Tommy gun” found its way in both the enforcement and the subversion of the law.

The thirteen-year travesty ended in December 1933.