How dry was Prohibition? Some say the law did much to spike sales of alcohol.
Did you know that James Madison drank an entire pint of whiskey daily? Or that George Clinton, governor of New York, once served 261 bottles of alcohol at a dinner for 120 guests? How about the fact that in the 1820s, liquor was cheaper than tea in the United States, or that by 1875 one-third of all federal revenue came from alcohol? (All this consumption led an English visitor in 1839 to note, “I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without drink.”)Skip to next paragraph
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You undoubtedly do know that there was a backlash called Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. And you have probably read in history books that it was considered a disaster. But did you know that one of its most famous enforcers, Eliot Ness, himself died an alcoholic? Or that, during Prohibition, it was permissible to sell an alcoholism “cure” called Colden’s Liquid Beef Tonic – although it was 53 proof (26 percent alcohol)? How about the fact that New York City had 32,000 illegal drinking establishments at the height of Prohibition?
Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s remarkable new history of Prohibition is packed with fascinating anecdotes from this flirtation with government-mandated sobriety. But Okrent, an elegant writer with a sense of humor (formerly the public editor of The New York Times), goes deeper. He shows that Prohibition was not just about alcohol. He explains with clarity and gusto how “a mighty alliance of moralists and progressives, suffragists and xenophobes” led to the ratification of the 18th Amendment. Without belaboring the point, he argues that the Prohibitionists – a motley group obsessively adhered around a single aim – provided “a template for political activism” still being followed a century later.
Okrent paints a convincing canvas of a tipsy America, with alcohol production “at the very moment of its death, the fifth-largest industry in the nation. Most hard drinking was done by men; unsurprisingly, the earliest proponents of Prohibition were their wives and those concerned with the welfare of women.”
Among the female activists’ many strange bedfellows were Protestant nativists who associated the consumption of alcohol with the great unwashed Roman Catholic masses of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Much of their concern reeked of condescension. A muckraker in Chicago complained, “If a new colony of foreigners appears, some compatriot is set at once to selling them liquor. Italians, Greeks, Lithuanians, Poles – all the rough and hairy tribes which have been drawn to Chicago – have their trade exploited to the utmost.”