10 Things About Prohibition

As I sat down to figure out what topic to research and write about this month (last month around this time my son had the flu, so priorities) my ADHD brain bounced around a lot. I thought about and did a lot of things before my wayward thought train made it back onto the tracks. So I can’t exactly tell you how I landed on Prohibition as a topic, because quite frankly I don’t really know. Welcome to my life.

In any case, knowing that this blog has been read around the world (I know, I’m shocked too), I’ll be a little more specific. In this case I’m talking specifically about the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol. Prohibition, as it came to be known, lasted from 1920-1933. However, whatever the motivations of the ban, people certainly didn’t stop drinking. And that made me think about how we write fictional societies with law breakers and smugglers. What do your fictional people groups deem worth the risk? How much effort is your law enforcement agency putting into enforcing unpopular laws and bans? What lengths will your characters go to in order to get something that’s considered a leisure item? How willing are your characters to risk incarceration to make a quick buck during a time of relative prosperity?

With all that to think about, I dove into the research. This time my ADHD brain was like a dog with a bone and I was able to find out quite a lot of information. Three cheers for neurodivergence! Hear, hear! Bonus trivium (the singular of trivia, so there’s another bonus for you), the common exclamation of “hear, hear” is actually short for “Hear all ye good people, hear what this brilliant and eloquent speaker has to say!” You can tell by the language that it is quite an old saying and was shortened to its modern interjection so long ago that most of us don’t even know that it is indeed “hear” and not “here”, much less what the rest of the phrasing is.

But I digress, as I am wont to do. Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know about Prohibition!

  1. It had been tried in the United States before. It should be noted that the first major sales tax implemented by the fledgling government after the Revolution was on “distilled spirits”. That should give you an idea of how common alcohol consumption was at the start of our nation. By the 1850s Maine was over it. In 1851, largely thanks to the burgeoning temperance movement and the “teetotaling” Quaker mayor of Portland, Neal Dow, Maine outlawed alcohol. Of course, a mere four years later when it was discovered by the working class crowd that Mayor Dow had approximately $1,600 worth (approximately $61,700 today) of liquor hidden away in his basement they stormed his home and that was that. Kansas made the ban a part of their state constitution in 1880 and the fight against it went all the way to the Supreme Court. The state did win out, but it made many other watching states decide that fight wasn’t worth it.
  2. With the general populace still so intent of knocking ’em back, what eventually changed? What did it take for Congress to turn off the tap? In short, wealthy women and war. The Temperance Movement was largely supported, advocated, and run by women and their organizations were backed by deep pockets. Their platform stated that alcohol made men violent drunks and that alcohol was a war against wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. It should be noted that as these women mobilized in their fight against the “liquid evil” other causes came to the front lines along with them: namely suffrage. It is not a coincidence that less than a year after the 18th amendment passed, the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote also passed. That had a little help getting the ball rolling though. During World War 1 the argument that gained the most traction against the manufacture and sale of alcohol was that crops used in the process were better served being used as food crops to feed families and soldiers at home and abroad.
  3. While women and war were definitely a part of the national conversation on banning alcohol, there was another party at the table. Prejudice. In the early part of the 1900s the largest poor immigrant groups also tended to be Catholic. African American communities and a lot of Native American communities were plagued by alcoholism as well (how that came about also has its roots in racism and prejudice, but that is a whole separate post that cannot be summed up in a single bullet point), so making alcohol illegal was just a legal and socially acceptable way to openly state, “We don’t want your kind around here.” Insert eye roll here. Another group being targeted, especially during and after the war was the Germans. Why? Most of the big name breweries were run by German immigrants. One politician in favor of the Temperance Movement, famously stated, “the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.” Recognize any names? Prohibition didn’t seem to have quite the effect on their businesses as that guy was hoping. However, there is one group that can thank Prohibition for their resurgence. Just when they had all but disbanded, the KKK came along to enforce the alcohol bans where state and local governments would not or could not. Since the most commonly affected communities were their punching bag of choice, law men and clergy began to purposely ignore their activities and existence so long as they solved the problem of enforcing Prohibition in the area. Gross.
  4. The 18th Amendment didn’t actually ban the consumption of alcohol. It banned the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol. You could drink what you had, you just weren’t supposed to buy more. Of course this meant that the wealthy stockpiled whatever money could buy before the ban went into effect. It was suddenly very en vogue to have gargantuan cellars packed to the hilt with bottles of everything imaginable. It was a little harder for the working class to shell out the kind of money that filled entire basements with booze, so as you can imagine the enforcement of Prohibition disproportionately (to put it mildly) affected poor and urban communities, mainly immigrants and/or non-whites (see point number 3). While the wealthy got away with what they wanted, as they do, it made it difficult enough for everyone else that the consumption of alcohol decreased as much as 70% during the 13 years that Prohibition was in effect and didn’t return to pre-Prohibition levels for many years.
  5. You can thank Prohibition for how waitstaff are paid in the U.S. Leading up to Prohibition the concept of “tipping” was something that was considered old-fashioned aristocratic nonsense. It was on the way out and waitstaff were expected to make a normal wage. However, during Prohibition when restaurants suddenly couldn’t count on alcohol sales to boost their revenue, cuts to wages were made to avoid bigger cuts in profit. Shocker. Waiter wages decreased so menu prices could somewhat stabilize, and paying customers were encouraged to tip in order to supplement the waiters’ income. And here we are a century later still following suit.
  6. The 18th Amendment put the ban in place, but left up the enforcement to the individual states. Some states were lackadaisical about their approach to enforcement, while others refused to enforce it altogether. Maryland famously refused to allot any budget money to the endeavor so nothing could be done. The White House wasn’t much of a role model (imagine that) during this time either. The 29th President, Warren Harding, voted *in favor* of Prohibition as a Senator (even after President Wilson tried to veto it claiming the government should be very cautious about trying to legislate private habits of the people–Congress overrode the veto). However, once in the White House in 1921 kept a fully stocked bar for his regular poker nights. He was still one of the most popular sitting presidents until his death in 1923 cut short his term. His final words were to his wife, who sat reading a newspaper to him in the hospital. He told her, “That’s good. Go on–read some more.” The official cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage, however modern medicine now better understands the symptoms of cardiac arrest.
  7. The Temperance Movement spawned its own political party, the Prohibition Party (which still exists today, but most people don’t realize it). While the Republicans have an elephant and the Democrats have a donkey, the Prohibitionists had a camel. Why? A camel can famously go days without drinking. I’m not even trying to make a bad “dad joke”, that is really the reason. Seriously.
  8. Alcohol was still allowed to be prescribed for medicinal purposes, and after 1922 was also allowed for religious sacraments. A lot of questionably credentialed rabbis, priests, doctors, and pharmacists suddenly sprouted up. Medicinally, prescriptions had to be limited to no more than a pint every 10 days. A famous exception to the limit was Winston Churchill. When he traveled to the US for diplomatic purposes he came armed with a prescription for unlimited alcohol, and a bare minimum of 8 ounces per day for his health. It should also be noted that many smugglers went through British controlled Nassau in the Bahamas. The US requested the British help crack down on the smugglers, but since the volume of alcohol through the port increased from 5,000 quarts to 10 million over a five year period and the British were collecting tariffs on all it, they politely and adamantly declined.
  9. The Temperance Movement knew how to spread misinformation long before social media came along. They told people that if you drank too much, your brain could catch on fire. They said your liver, which on average weighs about 3 lbs, would swell up to 25 lbs (alcohol does cause liver damage over time, but that 25 lbs was just bunk). Second hand inhalation of alcohol fumes (as in, being next to someone who is drinking) by pregnant women could cause birth defects in their children. Consumption of alcohol could turn blood to water. These claims were backed by the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. No bias there, of course. Honestly, reading some of their claims was a lot like reading the comment section of a Facebook post regarding anything involving modern medicinal practices.
  10. Most people didn’t expect Prohibition to last long, and it didn’t. Economists originally supported it because after the income tax was established (1913) the sales tax from liquor wasn’t as necessary to maintain a balanced budget. However, over time the loss of tax revenue had them changing their tune. When the Great Depression hit, income of any kind was better than the moral high ground. Desperate times and all that. Breweries simply changed their business tactics and waited it out. Many sold “malt extract for baking” that was actually used to make beer at home. One Ohio town purchased enough “malt extract” to bake 16 loaves of bread for every human being in their town if that gives you any indication of how people responded. Anheuser-Busch, Yuengling, and Coors began selling ceramics and pottery (y’know, like the kind of jugs that tended to hold alcohol). Coors and several others also began selling ice cream and made it a lucrative business. Wineries sold wine bricks that came labeled with explicit instructions about what *not* to do if you didn’t want to make wine. Most speakeasies were pharmacies that just served a lot of “patients” their whiskey prescriptions. In fact, if you’ve shopped at a Walgreens Pharmacy lately, you can thank Prohibition. They went from roughly 20 stores to 500 nationwide during the 13 year period thanks to whiskey sales. When the 18th Amendment was finally appealed, sitting President Franklin Roosevelt celebrated with a dirty martini and the city of New Orleans did so with 20 minutes of cannon fire.

Bonus 1: NASCAR started as a result of Prohibition because smugglers did whatever they could to make their cars fast enough to outrun the cops when they made beer runs. The racing of the modified cars followed closely behind.

Bonus 2: The government tried to prevent people from simply making their own alcohol in the privacy of their own home by adding toxic chemicals to the alcohols used for cleaning or other purposes. As a result, there was a chance of blindness or even death when consuming the homemade stuff. Estimates vary, but a common number I saw was 10,000 deaths due to tainted alcohol.

Bonus 3: A sharp rise in the use of slang in the American vernacular occurred during Prohibition. White lightning, moon shine, rotgut, bathtub gin, booze hounds, speakeasy, hooch, juice joint, etc were all popularized during the period.

Some of this was more serious, but a lot of this was ridiculous. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed this hard during the research for a topic. Maybe the time I wrote about snack food and found out why Graham Crackers and Corn Flakes were invented. I still giggle about that. But usually, I don’t laugh this much. It got a little more outlandish with every source.

Aside from the laughter and the cringing, hopefully this will spark some ideas about how the general populace in your world responds to overreaching laws or nonsensical “scientific” advice.