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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

Q. And cider, which is just as alcoholic as beer, wasn’t covered by Prohibition.

A. Wayne Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League, needed the support of the rural districts, where cider was an important part of life. Wheeler didn’t dare take that away from them. So he used that wonderful phrase about helping the farmers “conserve their fruit.” Yeah, right.

Q. So the drinking in those days wasn’t all bathtub gin and bootlegged Canadian whiskey.

A. There were huge shipments of grapes coming east from the Napa Valley under the same exception in the Volstead Act [legislation that helped clarify the 18th Amendment]. That’s why in the Northeast, people were making huge quantities of wine legally during Prohibition. The head of a household could produce 200 gallons a year for family use.

Q. If this was how much Americans were allowed during Prohibition, how much did we drink before it?

A. The high point was 1830, when the average American drank 7.3 or 7.4 gallons of pure alcohol a year. That’s the equivalent of about 90 fifths of 80 proof liquor for each American over 15. Obviously some people didn’t drink at all, so those who were drinking were really, really drinking.

Q. Did the temperance movement start simply as a reaction to the massive drunkenness?

A. That was absolutely one part of it, particularly to the degree that alcoholism and drunkenness affected the lives of women and children.

Q. How did it affect women?

A. Women married to alcoholics had no legal or property rights to speak of, and were at the mercy of these men. The coalition of temperance workers and suffrage workers that developed was essential to the success of both campaigns.

Q. The temperance movement roster reads like a who’s who of 19th century progressives—Susan B. Anthony, the abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips ...

A. It was a real surprise to me that the people advocating temperance and later Prohibition—a very different thing from temperance—were people concerned about social welfare and what was good for the country and particularly city dwellers.

Q. Who were their big opponents?

A. The people who opposed Prohibition most aggressively were extreme right-wing plutocrats, people who thought this was an assault on individual liberties by the government.

Q. This runs counter to what I’d always assumed about Prohibition, which was that it was a pretty conservative, even backwoods kind of movement.

A. It does begin to pick up steam in the Methodist and Baptist communities of the American Midwest, people of native-born American stock, Anglo-Saxon stock. A lot of it is really a struggle over who’s going to control the country.

Q. What was that struggle about?

A. Prohibition was a perfect stand-in for arguments about whose country this was. Many of these people hated the cities, hated that immigrants were flooding the cities and electing people to Congress, and thus influencing the course of the country.

Q. It wasn’t just about protecting women and families?

A. There was something profoundly xenophobic and anti-Catholic particularly. For the Ku Klux Klan, it was part of their core doctrine. The phrase “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” summed up the view that the Irish big city machines were tools of the pope that were destroying the country.

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