Great Book: Last Call, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Cover of "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of...

Cover via Amazon

This isn’t really a book review. I like reading history books about niche topics. Give me a book about the history of the Vietnam War and I’ll be snoozing before I get through the preface. But faced with a book about, for example, salt, or the Black Death (here, and here, and here), or science-y stuff (like longitude or chemistry), I’m happy.

I wanted to read Daniel Okrent‘s recent book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition so much I accidentally bought two copies. I enjoy his writing style, and had found this heavily footnoted book to be full of cultural and historical tidbits. Most of what I previously knew about Prohibition before reading this book can be summarized in a few words: Temporary amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Al Capone and the Untouchables. Speakeasies. Deborah Blum‘s great book Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

Carrie Nation

So, in lieu of a review, here are some random tidbits and factoids I found. Note: some of these observations are my distilled synopses of rather lengthy treatments. YMMV. Seriously, read the book.

  • The temperance movement gained momentum in the 19th century, at a time when hard cider was commonly the drink of choice for farmers – even the children. The movement started as a way to protect women and children from being left destitute by alcoholic husbands and fathers, who drank all their earnings at the local saloon.

    Wife begging for money from her drunken husband – a powerful image at the time.

  • A handful of people were able to influence school books to the extent that a generation of school children learned that even one drink could cause life-long alcoholism, disease, infertility, cancer, and a host of other evils. This generation had come of age when Prohibition was voted into law.
  • In the early 20th century, one of the most powerful organizations in the US was the Anti-Saloon League. Few politicians dared to vote against the interests of this group, in fear of losing their seats. The head, Wayne Wheeler, was at one time a person that even Congressmen and the President would not refuse to see. Almost no one today has heard of him.
  • The Republican party was a progressive party who pushed Prohibition and women’s suffrage, which were linked. They knew that giving women the vote would help to pass Prohibition.

    From Free Methodist Feminist

  • The modern (post Civil War) Ku Klux Klan originally became re-activated in the early 20th century as a temperance organization.
  • Racism played a part in Prohibition. The “other” – Catholics, Irish and Italian immigrants, Jews, eastern Europeans, and especially Germans – all drank as part of their culture or liturgy. The advent of World War I helped demonize the brewers, who were all Germans. Beer went from being a healthy (liquid bread) alternative to liquor to being suspect and aiding the enemy in a time of war.
  • The Volstead Act gave exemptions to sacramental wines, which were used mostly by Catholics and Jews. The clergy had to provide church rolls to obtain their allocations of wine, and therefore the church rolls swelled. Priests and rabbis became known suppliers, where for a fee you could join a church or synagogue and be able to get wine, even if you never attended services.
  • Grape growers in California would package bricks of grape pulp for sale as grape-juice starter, with “warnings” to not add sugar and  to leave in dark places for extended periods of time. Get it? Don’t do this unless you want it to ferment.
  • The ‘cruise to nowhere’ industry got its start because the great transatlantic lines, like White Star, were prohibited from coming into US ports if they had any alcohol on board. People quit taking transatlantic cruises, which prompted ships to stop outside the US waters and dump all un-drunk liquor and wine. Cruises to the Bahamas – a great rum-running center where the guests would stay on the ship and drink – became popular. Which accounts for Carnival Cruise Line, I think.
  • At one time, nearly one-third of Canada’s tax revenue was from Canadian distillers paying export fees on liquor that was (cough, cough) going to Mexico through the US but never making it to the destination, or simply driving it across the border and paying off US officials to look the other way. Huge amounts of liquor entered the US across the Saskatchewan border, ending up in Chicago and Detroit. The Canadian Bronfman brothers made a fortune buying liquor ahead of Prohibition and then reshipping to the US after. Sometimes they sold “scotch” what was cheaper neutral spirits colored with creosote. They ended up buying Seagram, and denied their participation in smuggling for a couple of generations.

    English: A police raid at Elk Lake, Ontario, 1...

    English: A police raid at Elk Lake, Ontario, 1925 Français : Une descente de police à Elk Lake, Ontario, en 1925 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Some of the unintended consequences of Prohibition: the rise of the Mafia and organized crime, the popularization of drinking by women, widespread corruption by police forces in every large city in the US, overwhelming court systems. In ever restrictive additions to the Volstead Act, for a short time the possession or drinking of alcohol was a federal crime (one strike, you’re out) which meant the NYC courts, alone, had thousands of cases every month. Thousands of people died drinking industrial ethanol to which the US government added ever more toxic chemicals in order to defeat the bathroom chemists who attempted to distill the product into safe beverages. The government’s view was “Well, you should not have been drinking. It is illegal.”
  • The US government tried to pressure other countries, especially Canada and Great Britain, to crack down on shipments of booze into the US from their countries. Winston Churchill remarked that Prohibition was an affront to all of mankind and that Britain would not help the US enforce ridiculous laws.
  • The cost of enforcing Prohibition ran into millions of dollars. Some states and larger cities (like New York) simply quit enforcing the law, as the cost of compliance, the increase in crime, and the wide scale police corruption cost more than the federal fines.
  • The income tax amendment was pushed through as a way to replace the tax revenue liquors sales had supplied. Big industrialists such as the DuPont family worked to repeal Prohibition in the belief that the repeal of Prohibition would lead to the repeal of the income tax. When you write your tax payment this year, or look at your shrinking pay stub, blame the Baptists.

Map showing dry (red), wet (blue), and mixed (yellow) counties in the United States. Now you know why Kentucky is famous for moonshine.

As people became more appalled by the results of Prohibition, the ‘wets’, mostly white Democrats and dry-in-public Republicans, led the fight to repeal. The Anti-Saloon League soon faded into obscurity, but many of the effects of the long fight by Temperance workers and Prohibition itself have resulted in a view by some that alcohol is inherently evil or “sinful”, and has led to a mis-match of laws throughout the country, resulting in liquor laws that vary from county to county and sometimes even in cities that are adjacent to each other. When I lived in the Fort Worth area a number of years ago, a one mile stretch of road near my house had three grocery stores, each one in a different incorporated cities that were often separated by only a street. In some, I could buy only 3.2 beer or wine. In some, you could buy regular beer, and wine, but not port, since port is a fortified wine and sometimes has an alcohol content higher than wine. But I could buy port two miles away. For hard liquor, I had to drive about 20 miles into the city limits of Fort Worth. In some restaurants, I could buy a drink with my meal, while a couple blocks down the street, I might have to join a private club at the restaurant in order to have that same drink (usually free).

A close friend of mine lost two children and a grandmother to a drunk driver, in a single accident. I was a member of MADD for many years, and like most people I have alcoholics in the family. However, drinking is not a moral issue. And even if it were a moral issue, it is not the government’s job to legislate morality. Prohibition was doomed to fail for these reasons. A lasting effect of Prohibition and the anti-alcohol campaigns of 100 years ago, however, is that the per capita consumption of alcohol is about one-third of what it was 200 years ago.

Categories: History, Science

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6 replies

  1. Great picks and I love your description! Two of my favourite books!
    In August we took a road trip to Butte, Montana and on a whim we decided to take a tour of the “Underground”. A fantastic tour that takes you under the sidewalks of downtown Butte. It was a quiet Sunday, so it was only the two of us and the guide. First, he took us to a “Barber Shop” located under the sidewalk – yes, it was a working barber shop, well, until you went behind the back door and to discover numerous rooms and a stairs leading to the building above. “Open” during Prohibition, this was possibly a hiding spot for many “things”. We continued to a jail – yes, located under the street, and finally into an old “speakeasy” where “Carrie Nation” visited and ranted and protested! What great history! Love it!

  2. Since I love reading all history books this would be a great read for me. Hadn’t seen it before.


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