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Prohibition Life: Politics, Loopholes And Bathtub Gin


Between the years of 1920, when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, and 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed the restriction, it was illegal to sell, transport or manufacture "intoxicating" beverages for consumption in the United States.

But Prohibition didn't stop drinking; it simply pushed the consumption of booze underground. By 1925, there were thousands of speakeasy clubs operating out of New York City, and bootlegging operations sprang up around the country to supply thirsty citizens with alcoholic drinks.

In his new book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent explores how a confluence of political and social trends led to America's dry era. Okrent explains how both the suffrage and anti-immigration movements helped in the shaping and passage of the 18th Amendment and how Prohibition served as a stand-in for several other political issues.

"Prohibition became the same sort of political football that people on either side would use trying to struggle to get it towards their goal, which was control of the country," Okrent tells Terry Gross. "You could find a number of ways that people could come into whatever issue they wanted to use and use Prohibition as their tool."

The temperance movement may have used these other causes to win support, but banning alcohol in the United States soon proved to be highly unpopular. Mobsters made millions of dollars from illegal alcohol sales. In addition to the rise of the mob-run black market, many citizens simply ignored the law. Loopholes — like obtaining a prescription to purchase alcohol from a pharmacy — kept distilleries in business. In 1933, Congress ratified the 21st Amendment, and America was again allowed to drink legally.

Okrent says that he sees echoes of the Prohibition movement in today's political landscape.

"Somebody said at the time of Prohibition that the difference between the pro-Prohibition and the anti-Prohibition groups in the years leading up to the passage of the 21st Amendment was that the pro-Prohibition people were out there marching and organizing and voting and the anti-Prohibition people were too busy drinking to do any of those things," Okrent says. "I think that's a joke of sorts, but not entirely. That is to say, we don't fight to keep things the way they are; we fight to change things. And I think we're seeing that again today. We're seeing groups that want to change the way we live our lives in America and very few who are defending existing means of government."

Interview Highlights

On similarities in today's style of activism that has descended from the temperance movement

"I definitely think that styles of activism and political agitation come directly from what happened in the years leading up to Prohibition. The issue wasn't entirely Prohibition; that was a stand-in issue for a whole set of issues. Just the same way today I think we can say same-sex marriage is a stand-in issue. If you tell me what you think of same-sex marriage, I can probably tell you what you think about 10 other things."

On the political beliefs shared by a majority of Prohibitionists

"It largely had to do with a xenophobic, largely anti-immigration feeling that arose in the American Middle West, that arose among white, native-born Protestants. It also had a strong racist element to it. Prohibition was a tool that the white South could use to keep down the black population. In fact, they used Prohibition to keep liquor away from black people but not from white people. So you could find a number of ways that people could come into whatever issue they wanted to use and use Prohibition as their tool. The clearest one, probably, was women's suffrage. Oddly, the suffrage movement and the Prohibition movement were almost one and the same — and you found organizations like the Ku Klux Klan supporting women's suffrage because they believed women would vote on behalf of Prohibition."

On how animosity toward German beer brewers led to the ratification of the Prohibition amendment

"This was the final thing that enabled the ratification of the Prohibition amendment. You needed 36 states to approve it, and this was happening just as the U.S. was entering World War I. And the great enemy was Germany — and the brewers were seen by the Prohibitionists as tools of the Kaiser. [Or] if they weren't actually seen as them [by the Prohibitionists], they were used for that purpose to make their political point. So you have a rising tide of strong anti-German feelings sweeping across the country, [and] the brewers got swept away with it."

On the connection between the suffrage movement and the temperance movement

"It largely had to do with the fact that in the 19th century, women had no political rights or property rights. So as the saloon culture began to grow up and we would see men going off to the saloon and getting drunk ... Susan B. Anthony, in the late 1840s, makes her first attempt to make a speech in public life at a temperance convention. This was before she connected with the suffragist movement. She rose to speak at a meeting of the Sons of Temperance in New York, and they said, 'You can't speak. You don't have the rights. Women aren't allowed to speak here.' And that's what pushed her into the suffragist movement. So in fact, you could say that the birth of the suffragist movement comes with the wish to get rid of alcohol."

On the people who advocated for Prohibition but drank anyway

"The wet-drys were people who had no problem perceiving themselves as moral in a public arena and less so in the private arena — or maybe they didn't see it as a moral issue at all. So you had many, many scores of [representatives] and senators who very openly appreciated their alcohol and continued to drink their alcohol but voted against [alcohol consumption]. [Wayne Bidwell] Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League said, 'I don't care how a man drinks; I care how he votes and how he prays.' That was the way that he kind of put the shine on people who may have been not so appealing. Warren Harding was a great example of it. Warren Harding loved his scotch and soda. He owned stock in a brewery. He also valued his political survival and he made a deal with the Anti-Saloon League that he would vote to support their cause if they would vote to support him when he ran for office. That's how he got elected to the Senate."

Prohibition loopholes

"The first was that [alcohol] enabled the farmer to preserve his fruit ... which is to say, to take the fruit crop and preserve it over the winter, which literally meant take the apple. Turn it into hard cider. And the hard cider into apple jack, which was legal in the farm districts across the country. Interestingly, the farm districts were the ones that most supported Prohibition.

"The second one was medicinal liquor. I have a bottle on my shelf at home — an empty bottle — that says Jim Beam, for medicinal purposes only. In 1917, the American Medical Association — supporting Prohibition — said there was no reason at all to use alcohol as a therapeutic remedy of any kind. Then they realized with this loophole that there was an opportunity to make some money. And capitalism abhors a vacuum. Within two or three years, you could go into virtually any city in the country and buy a prescription for $3 from your local physician and then take it to your local pharmacy and go home with a pint of liquor every 10 days. And this is really how many of the large distilleries in Kentucky and the middle of the country stayed in business throughout the Prohibition years.

"The third loophole is sacramental wine. Among the groups who opposed Prohibition were the Catholics and the Jews — very avidly — and not necessarily for religious reasons; I think more for cultural reasons. ... Tangentially to that, there was the reality that wine is used in the Catholic sacrament for Communion. ... The Jews needed their sacramental wine for the Sabbath service and other services. They were entitled — under the rules — for 10 gallons per adult per year. ... There was no official way to determine who was a rabbi. So people who claimed to be rabbis would get a license to distribute to congregations that didn't even exist. On the other side of that, one congregation in Los Angeles went from 180 families to 1,000 families within the very first 12 months of Prohibition. You joined a congregation; you got your wine from your rabbi."

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