Prohibition: Speakeasies, Loopholes And Politics

Last Call: Cover Detail

hide captionDuring Prohibition, underground speakeasies sprang up in cities across the United States. One estimate says that for every legitimate bar that closed during Prohibition, six speakeasies opened in its place.

Simon & Schuster

This interview was originally broadcast on May 10, 2010. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is now available in paperback.

Between the years of 1920, when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, and 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed the restriction, it was illegal to sell, transport or manufacture "intoxicating" beverages for consumption in the United States.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

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.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
By Daniel Okrent
Paperback, 480 pages
Scribner
List price: $17

Read An Excerpt

"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."


Daniel Okrent i i

hide captionDaniel Okrent served as the first public editor of The New York Times. His book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Courtesy of the author
Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent served as the first public editor of The New York Times. His book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Courtesy of the author

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."

Excerpt: 'Last Call'

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
By Daniel Okrent
Paperback, 480 pages
Scribner
List price: $17

Read An Excerpt

Prologue

January 16, 1920

The streets of San Francisco were jammed. A frenzy of cars, trucks, wagons, and every other imaginable form of conveyance crisscrossed the town and battled its steepest hills. Porches, staircase landings, and sidewalks were piled high with boxes and crates delivered on the last possible day before transporting their contents would become illegal.

The next morning, the Chronicle reported that peoplewhose beer, liquor, and wine had not arrived by midnight were left to stand in their doorways "with haggard faces and glittering eyes." Just two weeks earlier, on the last New Year's Eve before Prohibition, frantic celebrations had convulsed the city's hotels and private clubs, its neighborhood taverns and wharfside saloons. It was a spasm of desperate joy fueled, said the Chronicle, by great quantities of "bottled sunshine" liberated from "cellars, club lockers, bank vaults, safety deposit boxes and other hiding places."

Now, on January 16, the sunshine was surrendering to darkness. San Franciscans could hardly have been surprised. Like the rest of the nation, they'd had a year's warning that the moment the calendar flipped to January 17, Americans would only be able to own whatever alcoholic beverages had been in their homes the day before. In fact, Americans had had several decades' warning, decades during which a popular movement like none the nation had ever seen — a mighty alliance of moralists and progressives, suffragists and xenophobes — had legally seized the Constitution, bending it to a new purpose.

Up in the Napa Valley to the north of San Francisco, where grape growers had been ripping out their vines and planting fruit trees, an editor wrote, "What was a few years ago deemed the impossible has happened." To the south, Ken Lilly — president of the Stanford University student body, star of its baseball team, candidate for the U.S. Olympic track team — was driving with two classmates through the late-night streets of San Jose when his car crashed into a telephone pole. Lilly and one of his buddies were badly hurt, but they would recover. The forty-gallon barrel of wine they'd been transporting would not. Its disgorged contents turned the street red.

Across the country on that last day before the taps ran dry, Gold's Liquor Store placed wicker baskets filled with its remaining inventory on a New York City sidewalk; a sign read "Every bottle, $1." Down the street, Bat Masterson, a sixty-six-year-old relic of the Wild West now playing out the string as a sportswriter in New York, observed the first night of constitutional Prohibition sitting alone in his favorite bar, glumly contemplating a cup of tea. Under the headline goodbye, old pal!, the American Chicle Company ran newspaper ads featuring an illustration of a martini glass and suggesting the consolation of a Chiclet, with its "exhilarating flavor that tingles the taste."

In Detroit that same night, federal officers shut down two illegal stills (an act that would become common in the years ahead) and reported that their operators had offered bribes (which would become even more common). In northern Maine, a paper in New Brunswick reported, "Canadian liquor in quantities from one gallon to a truckload is being hidden in the northern woods and distributed by automobile, sled and iceboat, on snowshoes and on skis." At the Metropolitan Club in Washington, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt spent the evening drinking champagne with other members of the Harvard class of 1904.

There were of course those who welcomed the day. The crusaders who had struggled for decades to place Prohibition in the Constitution celebrated with rallies and prayer sessions and ritual interments of effigies representing John Barleycorn, the symbolic proxy for alcohol's evils. No one marked the day as fervently as evangelist Billy Sunday, who conducted a revival meeting in Norfolk, Virginia. Ten thousand grateful people jammed Sunday's enormous tabernacle to hear him announce the death of liquor and reveal the advent of an earthly paradise. "The reign of tears is over," Sunday proclaimed. "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

A similarly grandiose note was sounded by the Anti-Saloon League, the mightiest pressure group in the nation's history. No other organization had ever changed the Constitution through a sustained political campaign; now, on the day of its final triumph, the ASL declared that "at one minute past midnight . . . a new nation will be born." In a way, editorialists at the militantly anti-Prohibition New York World perceived the advent of a new nation, too.

"After 12 o'clock tonight," the World said, "the Government of the United States as established by the Constitution and maintained for nearly 131 years will cease to exist." Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane may have provided the most accurate view of the United States of America on the edge of this new epoch. "The whole world is skew-jee, awry, distorted and altogether perverse," Lane wrote in his diary on January 19. ". . . Einstein has declared the law of gravitation outgrown and decadent. Drink, consoling friend of a Perturbed World, is shut off; and all goes merry as a dance in hell!"

How did it happen How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first European colonists arrived in the New World? How did they condemn to extinction what was, at the very moment of its death, the fifth largest industry in the nation? How did they append to their most sacred document 112 words that knew only one precedent in American history?

With that single previous exception, the original Constitution and its first seventeen amendments limited the activities of government, not of citizens. Now there were two exceptions: you couldn't own slaves, and you couldn't buy alcohol.

Few realized that Prohibition's birth and development were much more complicated than that. In truth, January 16, 1920, signified a series of innovations and alterations revolutionary in their impact. The alcoholic miasma enveloping much of the nation in the nineteenth century had inspired a movement of men and women who created a template for political activism that was still being followed a century later. To accomplish their ends they had also abetted the creation of a radical new system of federal taxation, lashed their domestic goals to the conduct of a foreign war, and carried universal suffrage to the brink of passage. In the years ahead, their accomplishments would take the nation through a sequence of curves and switchbacks that would force the rewriting of the fundamental contract between citizen and government, accelerate a recalibration of the social relationship between men and women, and initiate a historic realignment of political parties.

In 1920 could anyone have believed that the Eighteenth Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices, soft-drink marketing, and the English language itself? Or that it would provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal syndicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage, and the creation of Las Vegas? As interpreted by the Supreme Court and as understood by Congress, Prohibition would also lead indirectly to the eventual guarantee of the American woman's right to abortion and simultaneously dash that same woman's hope for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Prohibition changed the way we live, and it fundamentally redefined the role of the federal government. How the hell did it happen?

From Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Copyright 2010 by Last Laugh, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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