Imagine 1895 in America: brewers and whiskey distillers had a history of opening retail outlets for their wares to expand consumption… Saloons. They were prolific and competition was fierce. As a way of attracting more customers, brewers would add services such as gambling and prostitution to draw customers. With flagrantly increasing drunks and whores, the small but influential National Anti-Saloon League was formed from the growing nationwide opposition.
Public opposition understandably grew, with the governor of Ohio being largely elected by the temperance supporters in 1905. By 1913, the Anti-Saloon League had grown in power to such an extent that it set a goal to forming a national “dry” country. Two sympathetic senators introduced their “Hudson-Sheppard Bill”, but it did not pass to become an amendment.
Then came World War I.
The Germans became America’s enemy, and most brewers/saloon owners were German immigrants. It was the resulting hatred for the German enemy that tipped the scales in Prohibition’s favor.
The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by a 2/3 majority in 1920 and removed the licenses of all liquor purveyors. The Volsted Act passed at the same time gave enforcement responsibilities to the Treasury dept.
During prohibition’s 13 long years there were only two ways to legally sell alcohol…as sacramental wine for religious ceremonies, and by doctor’s prescription as medicine. There was also one loophole—households could legally make up to 200 gallons of “non-intoxicating fruit juice or cider” which resulted in a prolific increase of illegal home winemakers.
With this loophole (even though this winemaking was illegal) selling fresh grapes became a huge market and plantings of vines actually increased! A surplus of wine grapes continued due to these plantings well into the 1970’s. Vineyards survived on this market, but most wineries did not. Less than 100 out of 2500 wineries were able to adapt to the market for sacramental wines and survive until prohibition’s repeal. Beringer, Krug, Gallo, Mondavi…these names survived through our country’s dry period.
Prohibition began to unravel as soon as it was implemented. Funding for the Anti-Saloon League dried up as soon as the battle for an amendment had been won. Funding for the government also dried up…taxes from alcohol sales were gone, and The Depression hit in 1929 to destroy the country’s economy.
But brewers weren’t having to pay taxes…
Throughout prohibition, the tax money saved by brewers was used for payoffs to corrupt law enforcement who allowed the creation of speakeasy’s (a subculture of hidden saloons). Non-corrupt policemen were simply killed (more policemen were killed in the 20’s than any other decade before or since.
In 1933, Prohibition was repealed to create jobs, regain control over law enforcement, collect taxes, and return the U.S. to respectability. Today it’s difficult to contemplate what turned Americans so unintuatively anti-alcohol, but they had their reasons! We still haven’t gotten over many of the silly laws put in place after the repeal.
“Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), U.S. President. Speech, 18 Dec. 1840, to Illinois House of Representatives
UPS and FedEx still can’t deliver wine to someone who is visibly intoxicated. It leaves one to wonder how well the drunk managed to plan the delivery…did he/she just run out? Or are we supposed to believe the recipient doesn’t already have enough alcohol or the right to have it at their own home?
And don’t get me started on the troubles of shipping wine in the first place! Visit “Free the Grapes” for more information about this firey topic.
For more information
- Watch a 3 minute documentary about Prohibition with plenty of vintage footage
- Read about the daily lives of prohibition-era rural Americans at LivingHistoryFarm.com
- A more complete academic description of Prohibition has been published by Brown University.