I knew Prohibition was a failure, and not infrequently a bloody one, but I hadn’t realized it was also a period rife with silliness.
Until recently I associated America’s 13-year experiment in ridding society of the demon rum (and gin, beer, etc.) with the usual symbolic elements.
But now that I’ve read a thorough history of that era — Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” — I find the topic considerably more interesting than my previously superficial knowledge allowed.
Most people, I suspect, know that millions of Americans all but ignored Prohibition. But until I read Okrent’s book I assumed that in almost every instance the booze the scofflaws guzzled was of the illicit variety, supplied by gangsters who wore pinstriped suits, carried .45s and hung around in poorly lit warehouses, smoking cigarettes.
Okrent confirms this popular version of the period, writing in detail about the various versions of bootlegging.
Yet I was surprised by how many legal loopholes were left open when the U.S. officially went “dry” on Jan. 17, 1920, the day after Congress ratified the 18th Amendment.
(The Volstead Act, which Congress approved in October 1919 and which became the synonym for Prohibition, was the legislation that provided for enforcement of the alcohol ban.)
A particularly gaping example involved grapes, and it led to what Okrent describes as the California Grape Rush of the 1920s.
The Volstead Act included a clause regarding fruit juice. It was intended to allow mainly rural residents to continue to ferment hard cider from their apple trees (although it was illegal to sell alcoholic beverages, Americans could make their own for household consumption).
But although the Volstead Act didn’t specifically deal with grapes, the federal government ended up allowing the head of a household to produce up to 200 gallons each year of fermented fruit juice.
Which you know, if you’ve looked in your refrigerator recently and seen how much space a single gallon of milk occupies, is a considerable volume, and rather more than the typical family would need to slake even a powerful thirst for cider.
Okrent describes how this provision caused the prices for California wine grapes to increase with dizzying speed — including for a variety that even a modestly discriminating vintner wouldn’t deign to bottle, so wretched were its qualities.
During the 1910s, prior to Prohibition, California’s wine grapes never brought more than $30 per ton. In 1921, the first full “dry” year, the state’s grapes fetched $82 per ton. The price peaked briefly in 1924 at $324 per ton.
A goodly percentage of those grapes were hauled by train to the East Coast to satisfy buyers who, as Okrent wryly writes, “weren’t paying those startling new prices because they intended to make grape juice.”
Although the demand for grapes for home “consumption” didn’t persist throughout Prohibition, another wine-related loophole did — the use of wine for church sacraments, most prominently Catholic Communion.
Okrent chronicles a handful of California winemakers who amassed considerable fortunes as a result of this exception to the Volstead Act. He also describes ostensibly legal purchases of wine in quantities that suggested there were more Catholics living in America than there were Americans. Although perhaps churches simply wanted to make sure they never came up empty during Communion.
Both the fruit juice and the sacramental wine loopholes involved tipples with a relatively low alcohol content.
That wasn’t the case with the third main exemption to Prohibition.
If nothing else about that era illustrates how strange the times were, surely this will — doctors prescribed for their patients millions of gallons of hard liquor for “medicinal purposes” during those 13 years.
Okrent notes that within six months of Prohibition taking effect, 15,000 physicians had applied for permits allowing them to prescribe spirits for whatever problem occurred to them.
(A favorite general malady was “debility.”)
For most of the 1920s, Okrent writes, patients could secure up to one pint of liquor every 10 days — not enough for a party, perhaps, but sufficient, I suppose, to effect a certain amount of relief.
For domestic brewers, Prohibition of course posed an economic problem of no small stature. I was slightly familiar, prior to reading Okrent’s book, with the ways Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Stroh’s and other industrial brewing companies had tried to stay afloat, as it were, by selling malted beverages from which most of the alcohol had been removed.
(None, however, was allowed to legally peddle their products as “near beer,” as the Volstead Act forbid the word “beer” from appearing on labels or in advertising.)
What I didn’t know was that the real revelation for brewers was the knowledge that they could legally sell as much malt syrup or extract to Americans as the market would bear. This is in effect the raw material for home-brewed beer — more or less analogous to those California grapes, except for people who prefer bubbly beer to flat wine.
Which is not to say all that malt was processed in somebody’s back yard or basement. Okrent writes that a significant amount of the syrup — Anheuser-Busch sold more than 6 million pounds of the stuff per year during the late 1920s — went instead to mob-run (and of course illegal) breweries.
Okrent’s book, which was published in 2010, is one of the finer works of history I’ve read in many years. In addition to documenting the more salacious aspects of Prohibition — the ones involving people getting blind drunk, for instance — he also delves into how the temperance movement was connected to such seemingly disparate matters as women’s suffrage, the Ku Klux Klan and the federal income tax.
Better still, I acquired this book at the Baker County Library’s winter sale for a single dollar. Which would have been a fair bargain in 1920 and is all but miraculous today.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.