Prohibition was Part of the Fundamentalist Reaction to the Twenties

The movement to restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages dated back to colonial days. Groups that advocated abstinence from alcohol included the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League among others. These two organizations were merged into the Prohibition Party in the early twentieth century. (Tom Streissguth, The Roaring Twenties, (rev. ed.), Facts-on-File, Inc., NY (2007)

To many middle-class white Americans, Prohibition was a way to assert some control over the unruly immigrant masses that crowded the nation’s cities. Prohibition was also defended as a war measure. The amendment’s proponents argued that grain should be made into bread for fighting men and not for making liquor. Anti-German sentiment aided Prohibition’s approval. The Anti-Saloon League called Milwaukee’s brewers “the worst of all our German enemies,” and dubbed their beer “Kaiser brew.” Drinking was a symbol of all they disliked about the modern city, and eliminating alcohol would, they believed, turn back the clock to an earlier and more comfortable time.

There were many songs about the evils of “demon rum”. The New Lost City Ramblers collected some of them in an album called “American Moonshine and Prohibition Songs” (Smithsonian Folkways, FH 5263, 1962). Here are a few from the album.

“The Teetotals,” prohibitionists’ a cappella anthem which features tropes such as “We are bands of freemen,” “The teetotals are a’coming”, “We believe in the cold water pledge”, and “We will drink no more brandy whiskey,”. https://youth as .be/nUQYX4XdaRM

Whiskey Seller,”

Of all the crimes that ever has been,
Sellin’ whiskey is the greatest sin;
Caused more sorrow, grief, an’ woe
Than anything else that I know-

The old distiller an’ the whiskey seller
Has ruined many a clever feller;
Caused more sorrow, grief, an’ woe
Than anything else that I know.

You rob the rich man of his store
An’ cause him to beg from door to door
You cause his wife an’ children to mourn
Because they have no home of their own.

You rob the strong man of his stren’th,
An’ throw him in the mud full len’th,
Leave him there for to curse an’ roll,
An’ don’t care nothin’ for the pore man’s soul.

You rob the statesman of his brains,
An’ fiil his head with achin’ pains;
He’s often in the gullies found
A-feelin’ upwards for the ground.

You rob the children of their bread,
An’ they are hungry sent to bed;
It causes them such bitter cries,
An’ makes tears flow from the mother’s eyes.

“I Saw a Man at the Close of Day”, which reflects the negative impact of a father’s alcohol use on a family.

I saw a man at the close of day
standing by a grocery door
His eyes were sunken his lips were parched
And I viewed him o’er and o’er

His little son stood by his side
And unto him he said
Oh father mother is sick at home
And sister cries for bread

He turned around went in at the door
He staggered up to the bar
And faltering on to the landlord sayin’
Just give me one dram more

A year or so I passed thereby
And a crowd stood round the door
When I asked the reason one replied
The drunkard is no more

Just then a hearse moved slowly by
No wife nor children near
They had gone before this foul murder
And left this world of care

Come all you jolly dram drinkers
By this a warning take
And quit the overflowing bowl
Before it is too late

Riding a crest of reaction, altruism and noble causes that was prevalent during the war years, enabling legislation prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was passed by the Senate and House in 1917. Three-fourths of the states ratified it by January 1919 and the 18th Amendment became effective January 16, 1920. The ban was enforced via the Volstead Act, which was originally vetoed by President Wilson, but the veto was over-ridden by Congress. Herbert Hoover called Prohibition a “great social and economic experiment, noble in motive.” (TFC, 154)

Noble though it may have been, the Volstead Act was full of holes and was doomed from the start. Prohibition was a failure partly because after WW I people were tired of noble causes. Moreover, there were exemptions for all kinds of “spirits” including, industrial alcohol, sacramental wine, doctor’s prescriptions, vinegar, cider, and “near-beer”. In Chicago over 15,000 doctors and 57,000 retail druggists applied for licenses to sell “medicinal” liquids. (America’s Decades, p. 135) In 1921 drugstore owners withdrew over eight million gallons of “medicinal” whisky from federal warehouses, about twenty times the pre-Prohibition amount. (Moore, P. 27)

Prohibition also failed because it was unenforceable. By 1925, half a dozen states, including New York, passed laws banning local police from investigating violations. Prohibition had little support in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. In New York, 7,000 arrests for liquor law violations resulted in 17 convictions. (Id.)

Citizens used their ingenuity to side-step the law. Hundreds of ships were anchored three miles off the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida in international waters, where they served liquor to folks who came on all kinds of boats. (TFC, 154) Smuggler ships transported liquor from off-shore cargo ships to the beaches. Bootleggers produced Moonshine and bath tub gin. Portable stills could be purchased at the local hardware store for less than 10 dollars. (TFC, 164) There were quasi-liquor products, such as “Vine-Glo”, a grape juice which when put in the cellar and nurtured for 60 days turned into a passable wine, and “Wort”, beer ingredients sold separately before alcohol and yeast were added that turned the product into beer. (TFC,165) Some products were very dangerous concoctions of all kinds of junk, for example, grain alcohol mixed with sugar and spoiled potatoes to make “bourbon”. (TFC, 170) People hid booze in all kinds of places: hollow canes, flasks hidden in various locations on the person, most notably the “hip flask”, hot water bottles hung around the neck, water hoses tied around the waist. Even Texas Senator Morris Sheppard, the author of the Eighteenth Amendment had a 130- gallon still on his farm. And, a train carrying the Massachusetts delegation to the 1920 Republican convention was found to have a vast supply of banned alcohol aboard to serve the convention-goers. (Cantor, 111)

One of the “side effects” of prohibition was alcohol poisoning. Since bootleg alcohol was not produced in distilleries under government supervision and wasn’t, except in rare instances, made under the direction of chemists, its quality was extremely suspect. The chances of obtaining “real stuff” were never better than eight in a hundred! In most cases it had been spiked with chemicals and poisons to give it “kick”. As a result, the deaths from alcohol poisoning increased dramatically.

Songs critical of Prohibition and touting the wonders of substitute whisky are abundant. Some of them follow:

“Prohibition Blues”, written by Clayton McCichen circa 1930, sung by Jorma Kaukonen (a former member of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna)

Well, walking(?) liquor has done me wrong. I can’t sleep night or day.
A terrible feelin’ that comes along when the kick it begins to get away.
…poison and a mixture or two. They call it sugar of lead.
If you drink bootleg ‘shine, you’ll sure have an achin’ head.

Did you ever wake up on a Sunday morn with snakes all around your bed?
I know you have. I have, too. I know I’d rather be dead.
The preacher comes around and gives advice, and then you have to stall.
But if he gets to the bottle first, you know, he’ll never leave you none at all.

I tell you, brother, and I won’t lie, what’s the matter in this land:
They drink it wet and vote it dry and hide it if they can.
They’ll pitch a party and they’ll all get drunk, and call it society,
But if they catch you with a pint, good mornin’ penitentiary.

Well, prohibition* has killed more folks than Sherman ever seen.
If they don’t get whiskey, they’ll take to dope, cocaine, and morphine.
This ol’ country it sure ain’t dry, and dry will never be seen.
Prohibition* is just a scheme, a fine money-makin’ machine.

Carbolic acid and creosote ought to kill any man.
Some get paralyzed, some get well, some hit the Golden Land.
The undertaker has got to live. Beat him if you can.
Prohibition*, say it again, is a money-makin’ fine machine.

[*pronounced “pro-high-bition”]

“Kentucky Bootlegger”, New Lost City Ramblers, touts the miraculous properties of the product, singing, “One drop will make a rabbit whip a bulldog” and “make a hard-shell preacher fall from grace.” As for the affect,  “Throw back your head and take a little drink/And for a week you won’t be able to think.”

Come all you booze-buyers if you want to hear
About the kind of booze they sell around here.
Made way back in the swamps and hills
Where there’s plenty of moonshine stills.

Some moonshiners make pretty good stuff
Bootleggers use it to mix it up.
He’ll make one gallon, well he’ll make two
If you don’t mind boys, he’ll get the best of you,

One drop will make a rabbit whip a fool dog
And a taste will make a rabbit whip a wild hog
It’ll make a toad spit in a black snake’s face
Make a hard shell preacher fall from grace,

A lamb will lay down with a lion

After drinking that old moonshine
So throw back your head and take a little drink
And for a week you won’t be able to think.

The moonshiners are getting mighty thick
And the bootleggers are getting mighty slick
If they keep on bagging, they better beware
They’ll be selling each other I do declare.