The Day Beer Resumed Flowing, Legally

April 7 marks the 75th anniversary of the official beginning of the end for Prohibition. On the date in 1933, legal beer production resumed in the United States, sparking celebration among brewers and imbibers alike. Historian William Rorabaugh, author of Alcoholic Republic, puts the event into historical context.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

An anniversary observance now for something that happened 75 years ago today. Back then, the country was plunged into the Great Depression, unemployment was over 20 percent, thousands of banks had failed since the start of that year. In March, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as president. And on this day in 1933, one of FDR's boosters took to the airwaves to celebrate.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. AUGUST BUSCH Jr. (Former President/CEO, Anheuser-Busch): April the 7th is here, and it is a real occasion for thankfulness marking a newfound freedom for the American people.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: A newfound freedom. Now, you may recall that several years later, FDR enumerated four freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Well, this freedom didn't quite make the final four, but it made a lot of people smile that day.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. BUSCH Jr.: There's a song in our lives, it's "Happy Days Are Here Again" because they are here again. From out of a maze of confusion and anxiety has come a beacon light to guide a way to better times.

SIEGEL: The speaker was August Busch Jr. of St. Louis. His family founded and owned Anheuser-Busch. On April 7th, 75 years ago, Americans regained the freedom to down a cold one, legally, for the first time in years. Busch was talking on a CBS radio broadcast as the first cases of beer rolled off the assembly line.

In 1917, the 18th Amendment established Prohibition, banning "intoxicating liquor," which it left undefined. Franklin Roosevelt vowed to end Prohibition, but first, he did something easier - he got Congress to declare that beer with 3.2 percent alcoholic content was not an intoxicating liquor. It would take until December 1933 for the 21st Amendment to repeal the 18th. But for eight months, 3.2 beer was the only adult beverage allowed.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. BUSCH Jr.: Once again, freight cars are pulling in loaded with grain from American farms.

SIEGEL: Historian William Rorabaugh is the author of "Alcoholic Republic." He says it was natural for August Busch to conflate the flow of legal beer with getting people back to work during the Depression. That had been a big argument against prohibition.

Professor WILLIAM RORABAUGH (History, University of Washington; Author, "The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition"): It was one of the arguments. I'm not sure if it's the biggest argument...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. RORABAUGH: ...but it was one of the arguments. I mean, I think actually the more important one for most Congress - members of Congress and particularly for state legislators was the tax revenue. They looked at it - because, you know, property taxes were shrinking because property values were shrinking. And income taxes were shrinking. And so, you had a declining economy. Well, here was a source of revenue; all you had to do was legalize alcohol and you could tax it.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. BUSCH Jr.: May I add just a word about good wholesome beer, which contributes so much to good cheer, good health, and true temperance.

Prof. RORABAUGH: I think in many ways, Augie Busch was actually a kind of visionary. There were some people in the brewing business who, you know, wanted to sell beer without paying taxes, but he understood the complexities of the situation and understood that he could, in effect, make a kind of bargain. You know, you let us sell beer and we'll pay taxes. And, of course, there was an illegal alcohol industry during Prohibition which was untaxed and where the profits went to people like Al Capone, and so, all of that would come to an end.

SIEGEL: So far as we know, did it happen that way?

Prof. RORABAUGH: It certainly shrank the role of organized crime. I mean, organized crime went into other things.

SIEGEL: And did it help stimulate the - to hear Anheuser-Busch tell it, the rails were moving once again with grains across America and trucks were rolling with crates of bottles. The economy was on the move.

Prof. RORABAUGH: It certainly benefited communities that had big breweries like St. Louis or Milwaukee.

SIEGEL: And there is this moment 75 years ago of people celebrating the idea of being able to have a beer. I mean, now it's routine obviously from all these commercials we've all seen all of our lives with people having a high old time having a beer. But this came at a time when drinking had been demonized for decades.

Prof. RORABAUGH: That's correct. Alcohol had been demonized going back to the 1870s and the founding of the WCTU.

SIEGEL: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

Prof. RORABAUGH: So, the end of Prohibition in a way is the end of the demonization. And I think that one might say that if you hadn't had a beer for 16 years, especially if you had been used to drinking beer before 1917, perhaps there would be a reason to celebrate.

SIEGEL: Do we think anybody hadn't had a beer for 14 years, or there obviously was a lot of bootlegged alcohol around the country?

Prof. RORABAUGH: Well, one of the things that happens when you outlaw any product is that the product returns underground. Correct? But it returns underground in a more concentrated form. And the problem with beer is it's very difficult to hide. So, in most parts of the United States, beer actually was not available during Prohibition. Instead, you had to substitute bathtub gin.

SIEGEL: For people today who may be accustomed to hearing politicians described as - well, the closest thing, I guess, would be politicians who were described as pro-choice or pro-life, some social issue that divides elected officials, and one is in one camp or the other.

The notion that until 75 years ago at least, people were either wet or dry. That had been a big factor in American politics, who was wet and who was dry.

Prof. RORABAUGH: It really starts as early as the 1830s. And by the 1850s, it was a major political issue in many parts of the country, and basically remained so, you know, down until 1930 or something. In fact, one of the major concerns that the brewers have or other producers of alcohol or sellers in 1933 is that Prohibition might come back. They're very much afraid of that. They're not really convinced that Prohibition is dead until about 1950.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. RORABAUGH: Finally, after World War II they realize that this issue has finally been settled.

SIEGEL: Really? They were concerned that the dry forces could reclaim the day after that.

Prof. RORABAUGH: There were many times in the past, going back to the 1850s, when dryness would swell up and take over for a while, and then wetness would come back, and it would oscillate back and forth between the two with no stability at all.

One of the major reasons that Prohibition finally did come to an end was that we compromised. And we compromised by having much greater government regulation of alcohol. Before Prohibition, there was almost no government regulation of alcohol. There was no minimum drinking age, for example.

And so in 1933, the brewers and the distillers and the vintners were quite willing to accept much tighter government control in return for the hope that this would prevent any further attempts at prohibition.

SIEGEL: Well, William Rorabaugh, it's great to talk with you again.

Prof. RORABAUGH: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Professor William Rorabaugh of the University of Washington, and author of "Alcoholic Republic." He was talking to us about this day, the 75th anniversary of the day that Anheuser-Busch started making beer again after Prohibition.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. BUSCH Jr.: It's a great pleasure to have released the first case of beer bottled in our plant in nearly 14 years. My thanks to one and all of you and my deep appreciation to the Columbia Broadcasting System for affording me the opportunity of using their facilities on this auspicious occasion. Good night and good luck.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: One historical footnote, by the way: the team of Clydesdale draft horses that are a symbol of Anheuser-Busch went into service 75 years ago to celebrate the return of beer after Prohibition.

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