In today’s more sophisticated and educated beer culture, it certainly feels like this may be the best time for American beer that has ever existed. If you know where to look you can find more styles of beer than anywhere else in the world. For many people, craft beer is responsible for raising the status of American beer to heights thought impossible thirty years ago.
The goal of making beer synonymous with home life was chosen precisely to combat the incessant attacks by prohibitionist groups.
Over sixty years ago, a trade group of breweries—The United States Brewers Foundation (USBF)—launched an advertising campaign with the aim of changing the public’s perception of beer. The USBF wanted beer to be seen in a more positive light, as an integral part of the American way of life and, as their now famous tagline states, as “America’s beverage of moderation.”
From 1945 to 1956, the USBF produced at least 136 ads using the same thematic elements, with 120 of them numbered as part of the “Home Life in America” series. Well-known artists and illustrators of the day were commissioned to paint idyllic works showing an idealized post-war America enjoying their new prosperity in a variety of settings, but with beer, naturally, at the center of it all. The scenes are reminiscent of something Norman Rockwell would have painted, with everyone well dressed and prosperous; smiling families and friends enjoying themselves in a variety of common settings, climates and seasons throughout a typical year. The ads are strikingly beautiful, and are some of the best examples of commercial illustration from the time period.
What led the brewers of the post-World War II era to promote beer in this way, and as a cohesive group, is a fascinating story that stretches back to the century before, when another war gripped our nation, the Civil War or War Between the States, depending on your orientation.
Is Beer Bad?
Beer, of course, is not universally beloved and there are factions of society who believe alcohol is intrinsically bad. Some think alcohol should be taxed more highly than it already is and others would simply prefer another Prohibition. Since civilization began—arguably due to the discovery of fermentation—there have likely always been teetotalers. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that an organized temperance movement began and sought to remove alcohol from all of society.
When these temperance movements began in the early 1800s, their initial target was primarily liquor—that is, distilled spirits or hard alcohol. At that time, whisky, rum and the like far outsold beer and liquor was considered the main cause of the societal problems the prohibitionists blamed on alcohol. When the Civil War began, Congress levied an excise tax on beer to raise money for the war effort and those taxes continued to be a major source of federal revenue even after the war ended.
By the late nineteenth century, beer had overtaken spirits in popularity and temperance organizations targeted beer as forcefully as liquor. But brewers at the time refused to take the threat seriously. That was because they believed their willingness and cooperation in being taxed meant that politicians would not give in to the demands of the prohibitionists. They thought that the government would never shut down the gravy train—which had become a sizeable percentage of the federal budget—that beer taxes brought into the federal coffers.
But as Chicago beer historian Bob Skilnik points out. “The thing that gave Congress the balls to enact Prohibition was helped immensely by the ratification of the Personal Income Tax Amendment [the 16th] in 1913. Without it, we would have never seen National Prohibition.” When they finally realized that Prohibition really could be enacted, the industry tried to launch a campaign portraying beer as a healthy beverage of moderation, but it was too little, too late. The brewers were also so busy squabbling with one another at that time that cooperation was almost non-existent and their response ended up being fairly meager and ineffective.
Finding a Voice
After the repeal of Prohibition, the infighting picked up where it left off, just as if it had never stopped. One reason for this was the same people were running the U.S. Brewers Association after repeal as at the start of Prohibition. The 13 intervening years had done little to heal their competitive spirit. But by the advent of World War II, the old guard was gone, replaced by younger, more forward-thinking men and the east coast/rest of the country division that had been a major obstacle to cooperation had also been resolved so that the industry could finally speak with one voice.
When the government sought to boost morale both at home and abroad, they looked to companies making “American” products to provide support. Brewing companies went out of their way to cooperate in order to re-ingratiate themselves with both the government and their customers. They devised an advertising campaign called “Morale is a lot of little things—Write that V-Mail Letter Today,” encouraging Americans to write to the millions of U.S. soldiers stationed abroad in the war. The U.S. Army, Navy and Marines all gave the brewing industry a commendation for that program. Other morale-building ad copy was used. A typical example: “Morale is a lot of little things. A cool, refreshing glass of beer—a moment of relaxation—in trying times like these—they, too, help to keep morale up.”