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The Author Speaks

America’s Big Dry Spell

Interview with Daniel Okrent, author of 'Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition'

prohibition

— Art Edger/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

During Prohibition, America’s inborn puritanical instinct reared its head and tried to take all the fun out of an entire decade. Correct?

Actually, not even close. Judging by how the Puritans packed their ships when they sailed for America, they favored beer over water, and the country they helped settle drank like an out-of-control fraternity by the early 1800s. Every American past the midteens drank the equivalent of nearly two-fifths of Jim Beam a week.

In one of the many surprises of veteran journalist Daniel Okrent’s new book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, we learn it wasn’t a straitlaced sect, but progressives who began the drive to pull the country out of its perpetual buzz. Later, with their goal in sight, the same progressives instituted the federal income tax to replace liquor tax revenues, clearing away one of the final hurdles to Prohibition.

But, as Okrent shows us, Prohibition wasn’t all about cutting down on drunkenness. Nativists, xenophobes, and racists like the Ku Klux Klan saw Prohibition as a way to wage proxy war against hated Catholic ethnic groups in big cities. Almost paradoxically, Prohibition was also a powerful engine of equality, moving women to demand the vote—if only to get their husbands out of the saloons.

The reality of Prohibition—ineffective enforcement, metastasizing corruption—killed it just 13 years after the 18th Amendment took effect in 1920. Yet the achievement of a zealous minority that knew how to pull the strings of power remains a singular feat in the history of the Constitution. And, Okrent says, the repercussions are felt even now.

A veteran journalist and first ombudsman of the New York Times, Okrent spoke recently with the AARP Bulletin about the failed effort to force alcohol out of American life.

(Read an excerpt here.)

Q. When Prohibition took effect in 1920, did it actually stop people from drinking?

A. In the first year or two, drinking dropped by about 70 percent. There’s a very rapid drop—partly because of availability, and partly because people believed they should obey the law.

Q. That didn’t last, did it?

A. Supply went up very rapidly, and enforcement plummeted partly because of corruption. It was easy to buy off a Prohibition agent or a cop; big city politicians lacked interest in enforcement. In Boston, New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit—there wasn’t really any meaningful enforcement after the first few years.

Q. Your book influenced me to pick up a few bottles of hard cider. It’s a storied drink in American history, isn’t it?

A. I’d always thought Johnny Appleseed was planting apples for eating, but no—it was all about cider. Water quality in many places was lousy in the early 1800s, but cider was drinkable. Alcoholic and nonalcoholic, it was an absolute staple on the frontier. Farmers often kept a barrel of cider by the door for family or whoever dropped by.

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