Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reading about Prohibition

I recently reviewed Daniel Okrent's Last Call:  the Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  But I'm not satisfied with what I wrote.  The book fascinated me; it's like studying a mosaic.  Okrent has done a wonderful job of detailing all the ins and outs of how the 18th Amendment was passed, and how it was repealed.  But it's the interlocking of all the motives that make the story. 

After reading this book, I think it's possible we would never have had Prohibition, and possibly not women's suffrage (at least not in 1920), if the Sons of Temperance, in an 1852 meeting in Albany, NY, had allowed Susan B. Anthony to address the meeting.  They did not.
"The sisters," said the group's chairman, were there not to speak but "to listen and learn."  (Last Call, p. 15)
As a direct result of that and other rejections by male temperance supporters, Susan B. Anthony joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and spent 50 years building the suffrage movement.  And sixty years later, when the Anti-Saloon League was building its campaign to ban alcohol, they supported the suffragists because they knew that women with the vote would vote to ban booze.

And then there are the "wets" and the "drys" - you'll recognize them.  The "drys" were mainly white, mainly from rural states, and mainly evangelical Protestants.  Their political strategist, Wayne Wheeler, developed a technique for winning close elections by calling out his faithful single-issue voters to vote for the candidate most likely to support their cause - is this familiar?  Is the Tea Party not doing something just like that right now?  For that matter, do these people look like Tea Party supporters, or what?

The "wets" were mainly from the big cities, ethnically and economically diverse, with a lot of immigrants (and Catholics and Jews, both of whom use sacramental wine), but also a lot of very rich men.  The men who eventually organized Repeal had names like DuPont and Rockefeller.  Why did the very rich want booze back?  Not because they couldn't get it - anybody could get booze during Prohibition.  They wanted to get rid of the income tax.  The income tax replaced the excise tax on booze as the federal government's main source of funding when Prohibition came in.

It's a great story, superbly told.  I'm glad I read it and I may read it again.  I grew up in the Napa Valley, and the story of the Napa Valley during Prohibition is not what you might think.  But if I keep writing, I'll just end up retelling the book - and Mr. Okrent tells it much better than I can.  Go read it.


  1. Now you have my attention, what the devil happened in the Napa Valley? Some kind of elegant bootlegging?

  2. Two words, Curtis: altar wine. Perfectly legal. In about any varietal you could name, including Tokay and sweet dessert flavors. (I should make you read the book - you'd enjoy it - but it's too good not to share.) Also, it was illegal to make/buy/sell booze during Prohibition, BUT - it was legal to preserve your own fruit! Which could include fermenting it (wink wink). The Napa Valley ripped out all the great grapevines and planted cheap grapes (I forget the variety - Alicante? - it's in the book), which they shipped East by the boxcar load, to people who bought grapes to "preserve."

    Wasn't limited to Catholics, either - Jews use wine at the Sabbath seder. So you could get wine from your rabbi. A lot of people suddenly turned up in rabbis' congregations that you wouldn't usually think of as Jewish.

  3. Yes, the history of the wine industry through prohibition is an interesting tale. I remember, growing up in the 1950's, how few wineries there were then--due to the suppression of the industry in the valley in the 'twenties. It hadn't recovered; and the wine craze hadn't happened yet.

    Then, in the 1970's, the whole scene exploded. New money and the landscape blanketed with vine rows.

    Now the struggle is to free distribution from the grip of the old organized system that's controlled it since the 1930's. Independent wineries are trying to market their stuff without having to pay duty and submit to controls. I wish them well. There are a lot of good people out there making nice wine.

  4. Anonymous12:02 PM

    hi karen - thanks for posting your review on the lifering site!