Prohibition and the Will to Imbibe
On Saint Valentine’s Day of 1929, love was decidedly not in the air on Chicago’s north side. Six bodies lay dead and mutilated on the floor of a North Clark Street garage. A seventh victim had been rushed away barely clinging to life, only to succumb a short time later.
It was a scene probably more gruesome than any of the dozen or so lingering Chicago detectives had ever seen. The only remaining witness–a chained German shepherd–barked rabidly in one corner of the garage, and lunged at anyone who tried to quiet him. Outside, a thickening crowd of onlookers strained to catch a glimpse of the carnage, while a steady parade of city officials rolled up to the curb and marched inside to survey the aftermath. It was, after all, the worst episode yet in nearly a decade of Chicago’s notoriously violent Prohibition-era beer wars.
Nevertheless, the seven unfortunate men who lost their lives on that day were a mere drop in the bucket. By the late 1920s, Chicago authorities were reporting between 350 and 400 gangland murders per year. Beer was big business, and mobsters stopped at nothing to gain and keep control of it. The infamous Al Capone (commonly blamed for the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, though never charged) controlled no less than a half-dozen of Chicago’s old breweries. Each was licensed to produce nonalcoholic near beer, but all churned out a steady flow of the real stuff. The Chicago Tribune estimated that, at its peak, the city’s organized crime syndicates operated some 10,000 speakeasies, the proceeds from beer alone totaling $3.5 million per week.
And, of course, the Windy City was not alone in its bootlegger woes. Virtually every city in the nation was riddled with illegal trafficking in beer and whiskey, and the violence that it bred.
With each new report of sickening violence, public indignation toward the national dry law mounted. Though many felt little sorrow for the mostly mobster victims, the rampant political corruption that fueled the violence stirred anger in the hearts of most Americans. It seemed as though everyone from the cop on the beat right up to high-ranking federal officials was on the take.
Indeed, the stench of political corruption during the dry years did not stop even at the White House doors. President Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, was forced to resign amid allegations that he and his staff had accepted $250,000 from a wealthy Ohio bootlegger in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The very government that had foisted an unpopular law on the people was now exploiting the law for personal profit. It was exactly this sort of hypocrisy that enraged America and ignited a vigorous crusade to end the “Noble Experiment.”
Turning the Tide
Even before national Prohibition took effect on January 16, 1920, efforts to repeal it were already under way in some circles. Among the most notable of the wet organizations was the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, formed in Washington, DC, in 1919. Its members were mainly big industry capitalists who feared that the loss of government revenue from beer taxes would bring both increased taxes for big corporations and a rise in personal income taxes for the wealthy. The AAPA made it a well-publicized edict that financial contributions from beer interests would never be allowed to exceed one-twentieth of its operating budget. In so doing, the association hoped to be somewhat free of the taint of blatant self-interest that had so plagued the brewers’ efforts to quash Prohibition.
Backed by scores of millionaire industrialists, the AAPA found little difficulty in matching, or exceeding, the coffers of well-established Prohibition groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And like those organizations, the AAPA was masterful in its use of propaganda, particularly in wielding inflammatory statistics that tended to show the utter failure of the Eighteenth Amendment. In 1928, for example, the AAPA reported that, by its estimate, some 15 million pounds of hops had been sold during the year–enough to make 20 million barrels of illicit beer. The colossal loss to the government in beer taxes alone, argued the AAPA, was reason enough to end Prohibition.
Naturally, the nation’s brewers agreed whole-heartedly with that logic. Prohibition had all but destroyed their industry. Most were finding great difficulty in surviving on the production of near beer while the steady flow of real beer from bootleggers went virtually unchallenged. August A. Busch, head of Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, spoke for all brewers when he appealed to the American public in 1921: “Those who are obeying the law are being ground to pieces by its very operation, while those who are violating the law are reaping unheard-of rewards. Every rule of justice has been reversed.”
But, cries of economic injustice had not been successful for the brewers before Prohibition, and they were not terribly effective now. Likewise, the AAPA’s message–often fraught with cold financial statistics and lofty economic theory–did not always find ready significance among the average working American.
Somewhat ironically, perhaps the most well-received grass roots initiative against Prohibition came from the wives of the AAPA’s directors. In May of 1929, Pauline Sabin, wife of AAPA treasurer Charles Sabin, founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. The Sabin Women, as they were called, were headed largely by well-to-do wives of American industrialists. Their high social status brought frequent press coverage for their cause and gave a distinctly fashionable visage to the anti-Prohibition movement. For housewives throughout middle America, joining the WONPR was an otherwise inaccessible opportunity to mingle with high society. In less than two years, almost 1.5 million Sabin Women were sounding the depravity of bootlegger violence and political corruption.
Most Prohibitionists seethed over the escalating role that women were playing in the drive for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. After all, it had always been a sort of sacred presumption that the drys could count on the near unanimous support of women everywhere. Their defection now, even if in the minority, was a tough pill to swallow for hard-line Prohibitionists, who rarely missed an opportunity to exhibit their animosity over the issue. One dry advocate commented in the press, rather viciously, that, “these wet women, though rich most of them are, are no more than the scum of the earth, parading around in skirts, and possibly late at night flirting with other women’s husbands at drunken and fashionable resorts.”
Beer for Prosperity
When the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform first embarked on its campaign against the national dry law, the 1920s were still roaring loudly in America. Eliminating the violent crime and political corruption spread by bootleggers was the central goal of the organization. What the Sabin Women did not know was that, in just a matter of months, the whole rationale upon which the repeal movement was based would change abruptly and radically. On October 17, 1929, one of the most prosperous eras in American history came to a crashing halt. Black Tuesday had struck with unbelievable force, and the nation was plunged into economic depression. Suddenly, the crusade to repeal Prohibition took on an entirely new importance.
As unemployment reached epidemic proportions, few could deny the obvious truth that legalizing beer would create thousands of new jobs virtually over night. At the same time, desperately-needed new government revenue would be generated in the form of beer taxes. “Beer For Prosperity” became the anti-Prohibition battle cry.
In New York City, Mayor Jimmy Walker demonstrated his support for the cause by organizing a day-long Beer Parade on May 14, 1932. An estimated 100,000 people turned out to cheer for the legalization of beer. One New Yorker in attendance, a toddler, held a sign that read, “My daddy had beer, why can’t I?” Some 40,000 Detroiters held a similar event in the Motor City on the very same day. Marchers in the parade chanted “Who wants a bottle of beer?,” baiting spectators to call back, “I do!”
Of course, the Depression notwithstanding, the dry forces were still everywhere in evidence. Both the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union remained in full force, spewing propaganda and lobbing venomous rhetoric as aggressively as ever. Henry Ford, a famously vocal dry, announced that if Prohibition were repealed, he would abandon the automobile business: “I wouldn’t be interested in putting automobiles into the hands of a generation soggy with drink.” The New Yorker magazine took particular exception to Ford’s ridiculous comment. Noting Detroit’s unmatched reputation as a smuggling center for Canadian beer and whiskey, the magazine wrote, “It would be a great pity to have Detroit’s two leading industries destroyed in one blow.”
A Campaign Issue
Not surprisingly, Prohibition was a hot-button issue at the 1932 Democratic National Convention. In his speech, presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt all but declared war on the dry law, pledging to “favor the modification of the Volstead Act just as fast as the Lord will let us…to authorize the manufacture and sale of beer.” It was, of course, the only stance he could take on the issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, wet or dry, voters understood that America was in economic crisis. Unemployment spoke louder than intemperance.
Indeed, Roosevelt’s strong pro-repeal platform produced many political converts. Industrialist and staunch Republican Pierre Du Pont, for example, made news when he switched political parties solely on the basis of the repeal issue. Then, too, many former supporters of Prohibition itself had turned coat by this time. Ardent dry activist John D. Rockefeller Jr. stunned everyone when he announced in 1932 that he would no longer support Prohibition, calling it a “regrettable failure.” Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was another convert, and perhaps the most outspoken one. He put his nationwide chain of newspapers to work preaching the pros of repeal. After Roosevelt’s landslide victory in November of 1932, Hearst’s newspapers carried a celebratory article entitled “Beer By Christmas!”
Although Hearst’s prediction was a bit premature, congressional action on the matter did, in fact, get under way even before the president-elect took office. In December, hearings were begun for the purpose of making severe changes to the Volstead Act. There was little question that the legalization of beer would be the ultimate outcome. There was disagreement, however, over what ought to be the maximum legal alcohol content of beer.
Brewers were brought in to testify on the issue. Among them was Boston brewery owner T. C. Haffenreffer, who pontificated, “all brews improve in taste, flavor and aroma directly in ratio with the increased alcoholic content.” That, said Haffenreffer, was the “prime reason for desiring the maximum permissible alcoholic strength of our products.” August A. Busch echoed that view, though his rationale was somewhat less tactful: “[People] want and are demanding a beer in all respects satisfying, and that will, so to say, furnish that warmth, satisfaction, and contentment that a mild stimulant like a good, wholesome beer supplies.”
The debate lingered into 1933. Nine days after taking office on March 4, President Roosevelt sent a directive to Congress urging them to settle the matter. In the end, the figure of 3.2 percent alcohol by volume was agreed upon as the new allowable limit for beer under the Volstead Act. It wasn’t the hearty 6 or 7 percent of pre-Prohibition days, but it was a victory, nonetheless. The Eighteenth Amendment, after all, remained in full effect, at least for the moment. Congress was simply exercising its right to modify the definition of an “intoxicating beverage.” But for beer drinkers, it was a banner day. After 13 long years, beer was finally back, and Americans everywhere reveled in it.
Happy Days Are Here Again
At 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933, brewery whistles around the country heralded the return of beer. Throughout the night before (fondly dubbed “New Beer’s Eve”), jubilant beer drinkers lined up outside breweries, anxious for their first taste of legal beer. In Milwaukee, where crowds were said to have been 50,000-strong at the breweries, beer drinkers hauled away their precious kegs and cases in everything from wheelbarrows to baby carriages. In New York City, movie houses played the newly-released film, “Beer Is Back!” Around the country, night clubs, hotels and restaurants–most filled beyond capacity–struggled to keep the taps flowing as raucous crowds downed an amazing 1.5 million barrels of beer during the first 24 hours that beer was back.
Many grateful brewery owners sent complimentary shipments of beer to President Roosevelt. August A. Busch made his presidential delivery in grand fashion, employing a bright red beer wagon drawn by six Clydesdale horses. The spectacle, of course, has since become a sacred corporate symbol for Anheuser-Busch. Officials at the Yuengling Brewery of Pottsville, PA, were dismayed to learn that their shipment of beer to Washington arrived missing 73 cases. Indeed, as truckloads of beer crossed America’s highways during those first few days, some brewers were compelled to hire armed guards to protect their beer shipments against hijackers.
The Sobering Reality
Once all of the ballyhoo of New Beer’s Eve and New Beer’s Day had subsided, beer drinkers and brewers awoke to a sobering reality. The 5￠ mug of beer–a time-honored institution before Prohibition–was but a quaint memory now. For the better part of a half-century before Prohibition, the federal tax on beer was fixed at just $1 per barrel. Only during times of war was the tax increased temporarily. But those days were gone forever. Congress had re-legalized beer largely on the basis of its potential as a government revenue builder. Accordingly, the federal tax was set at $5 per barrel, plus a $1,000 annual license fee for each brewery. Today, the prevailing tax of $18 per barrel (though lower for production under 60,000 barrels) suggests that beer’s role as an important federal revenue stream remains fully intact.
Heavy taxation of beer, however, is not Prohibition’s only surviving legacy. A strong regulatory environment was also a key component of repeal. First and foremost, lawmakers were eager to legislate against the historically tight relationship between brewers and saloons. The “tied house” system, according to its opponents, gave rise to the “poor moral condition” of America’s saloons and was the very fuel that drove the Prohibition movement. Even today, there remains a strictly-regulated separation between brewer and retailer.
The old-time saloon itself, in fact, was a casualty of Prohibition. The designations “tavern,” “club,” “bar,” and “cafe” were much preferred by entrepreneurs hoping to side-step the stigma of pre-Prohibition “grogshops” and Prohibition-era speakeasies. Some state legislatures even sought to erase all remnants of the old-fashioned saloon environment. Swinging doors, for example, were outlawed in some regions. In others, the law required that bar stools be provided for all patrons since it was thought that standing at the bar–a venerable saloon tradition–promoted excessive drinking.
Government regulation, however, did little to restrain what was perhaps Prohibition’s most sinister outgrowth. The criminal groups which had made widespread disobedience possible–and profitable–throughout Prohibition emerged in 1933 strong, well financed and well connected. Crime was now organized, and these criminal institutions are with us still today.
But, without question, the most critical legacy of America’s dry era is the wisdom offered by its monumental failure. The Eighteenth Amendment was officially and forever repealed on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment. To this day, national Prohibition remains the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed.
Carl H. Miller is a long-time beer historian and host of the American Brewery History Page at www.beerhistory.com.