Saturday, August 25, 2018

Prohibition History Crash Course


With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to our United States Constitution and the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919, the manufacture, sale, and distribution of intoxicating spirits was made illegal in the United States. The Prohibition Act went into effect in 1920 and pushed the consumption of booze underground, creating the Roaring Twenties and the age of the big city gangster.

Seen as a "Noble Experiment," Protestant, Baptist, and women's Temperance groups believed that Prohibition would improve American life and guide our nation towards prosperity and morality. The evils of alcohol were readily visible with scenes of public drunkenness, violence, and domestic abuse of women and children commonplace events.

Henry Ford was a strong advocate of the Temperance movement hoping to improve the attendance of his workforce--many of whom were drinkers of alcoholic beverages. The Klu Klux Klan was also a supporter of the movement for anti-immigrant reasons. Anti-German sentiment after World War I was unsympathetic with the German tradition of beer drinking. The Irish Catholics had a taste for hard liquor while Italian and French Catholics enjoyed their wine. All were opposed to the alcohol ban on cultural grounds.

A loophole in the Volstead Act did not specifically prohibit the use of intoxicating beverages. Physicians were allowed to prescribe whiskey for medicinal purposes. Patients could buy a prescription from a doctor for $4.00 and then take it to a pharmacy to be filled. Doctors were doing a box-office business. Because of rampant abuses in the first years of Prohibition, a law was passed to allow physicians to write no more than fifty prescriptions per year and patients could obtain no more than one gallon of whiskey per month. 

Homemade wine and apple jack could be produced for personal consumption so farmers and home vintners could preserve their grape and apple crops over the winter months. Sacramental wine for religious purposes was also allowed to placate Catholic and Jewish voters.

Prohibition began the era of smuggling distilled liquor from Canada, Cuba, and the Bahamas. There was also wildcat liquor production in the form of moonshine and bathtub gin. Moonshine production increased in Appalachia in the backwoods and hollows of the Smokey Mountains. Farmers realized that converting their corn crops to alcohol was ten times more profitable than transporting sacks of grain for human or animal consumption.
Typical still setup
To increase production and profits, some moonshiners used old automobile radiators for condensation units and switched from corn mash to pure sugar. Because of unsanitary conditions and contaminated backwoods stills, many drinkers of moonshine went blind from glycol and lead poisoning, prompting the expression "blind drunk." The stronger the "shine," the higher the proof--180 proof meant that the liquor was 90% alcohol and 10% water. Commercial liquor is typically 80 proof with 40% alcohol and 60% water. The strength of moonshine earned it the name White Lightening.


Scene from "The Roaring Twenties" with James Cagney and Frank McHugh.
Enterprising city dwellers also began making a concoction called bathtub gin. Five gallon steel containers of cheap grain alcohol were poured into a tub. Tap water was used as a cutting agent at a ratio of one part alcohol to three parts water to stretch the supply. Then, flavoring agents such as juniper berry juice or fruit juice was added. For color and aging, a few drops of coal tar extract would do nicely as would burnt sugar. Then, the mixture was hand-bottled in used liquor bottles or relabeled with counterfit brand names and sealed with phony Federal liquor commission stamps.

Because of increased demand, the general quality of homemade liquor declined during Prohibition and was harsh to the taste. This created the popularity of the cocktail and the highball to cut the bitterness of the hooch. In those days, cocktails contained three or more ingredients--alcohol, a source of sweetness (honey, sugar, or molasses), and a bitter/citrus flavor to mask the harshness. Highballs were simply liquor and a mixer like 7-Up to flavor and dilute the alcohol.

The following link from the History Channel gives a three minute, animated survey of Prohibition in America. Wait for the ad to run: https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/prohibition/videos