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"I do not care to live in a world that is too good to be genial; too ascetic to be honest, too proscriptive to be happy. I do not believe that men can be legislated into angels-even red-nosed angels." Henry Watterson, owner and editor of The Louisville Courter-Journal, wrote those words in 1913. The country could have used a few more men who weren't afraid to voice their antiprohibitionistic opinions at the time. Decrying Prohibition during the first two decades of this century was somewhat akin to promoting cigarettes in 1995-although it doesn't amount to treason, it just isn't very acceptable.
Though temperance societies had sprung up at the beginning of the nineteenth century and had grown stronger, larger and more adamant about their quest after the Civil War, gone were the days of espousing moderation. By the turn of the century, total abstinence was the goal. The cause for concern was understandable; the liquor industry was growing very quickly, and it wasn't well regulated. In 1874, more than 200,000 retailers sold liquor in the United States, a whopping 120,000 more than just 10 years earlier.
By 1900, many of the smaller temperance societies had either given their sup pan to or had become part of the Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893. Their mission was to fight for the death of the saloon. The most influential group on the other side of the Prohibition debate was The Wine and Spirits Association, formed in 1891 to counter the propaganda of the many temperance societies. The biggest problem that faced the "wets" was that not enough people in the beverage alcohol business took the "drys" seriously-most people thought that if they ignored the drys, they would go away. However, since the majority of brewers and distillers thought of the drys as not much more than religious fanatics, they not only chose to ignore them bur foolishly carried on doing business as usual-a bad move and one that would eventually lead to their downfall. In fact, the drys had some very serious legitimate issues that needed to be addressed.
Around the turn of the century, most saloons were unruly places that served liquor, wine and beer to almost anyone: young or old, sober or drunk, morning, noon or night, George Ade, author of The Old-Time Saloon, noted that in Chicago, once a saloon keeper got his license, he would throw the key to his bar into Lake Michigan so that his doors could never again be locked. It was common practice for corrupt local officials to accept bribes to assure lenient treatment of wayward tavern keepers and drunken customers alike. A good number of bars were dens of iniquity where one could buy drugs, consort with prostitutes, hire strong-armed boys to do a little dirty work or bribe voters with a few shots of whiskey. In New York, when a law was passed that made it illegal to sell drinks on Sunday except when they were accompanied by a meal, many hotels took to placing a sandwich on each table. The sandwich was never eaten but many drinks were sold.
Of course, many respectable bars existed in the pre-Prohibition era, and one such establishment was the Old Waldorf Bar in Manhattan. The bar opened in 1897 and closed its doors when Prohibition was enacted, Albert Stevens Crockett, historian for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, detailed some of the colorful history of the bar in The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. By his accounts, it was indeed a bar worth frequenting.
Crockett paints a picture of a fancy saloon filled with power brokers being served by no less than a dozen white-coated bartenders who were "busy all afternoon and evening ministering to an endless array of thirsts." Respectable as this bar may have been, Crockett does mention customers who were "filled to overflowing and had to be either carried or led away."
Crockett also mentions a tradition of this era that was never properly reestablished after Prohibition ended-the free-lunch table. Precursor to modern "happy hours," the Waldorf's feast included caviar, Virginia ham, canapes and "thirst-provoking anchovies in various-tinted guises." The idea, of course, was to lure men there for a free lunch and sell them as much beer and liquor as possible in the interim. These tables were not just offered in the posh bars; working-class saloons served similar meals, but the fare on their tables-pickled eggs, frankfurters, stews and thick, hearty soups-was not nearly as sumptuous as that at the Waldorf.
There is no doubt that liquor was being abused, and one fellow, George Garvin Brown, creator of the Old Forester brand and a founding member of The Wine and Spirits Association (WSA), did take steps to counter the Prohibition movement. The WSA tried to dissuade politicians and churchgoers from taking the Anti-Saloon League's mission to its logical conclusion. Members lectured and wrote to prominent people on b0th sides of the issue, trying to bank the fire a little. But Brown also had some priorities of his own, and he decided to take on the religious fanatics who he felt were hiding behind the skirts of the pulpit.
In 1910, Brown published a booklet, The Holy Bible Repudiates Prohibition, in which he quoted passages from the Bible that 1ihowed divine approval of the consumption of beverage alcohol. One such quote was from Deuteronomy 14: 'And thou shalt bestow that money for whatever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, of for whatsoever thy soul desireth; and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou and thine household."
After quoting the passage, Brown commented, "The context shows that for the convenience of those living at a distance from the place appointed by God for feasts in His honor, authority was given to sell for money that which was required for tithes and feasts and provide the same at the place appointed By God for His worship. This passage shows the fallacy of the position taken by some agitators that even though wine was used authoritatively in Bible times, it was homemade wine only, and not bought and sold."
For Brown, this book was more than his way of countering the drys' movement; it was a personal mission. He was a deeply religious man whose association with his church had been threatened because of his involvement in the whiskey business, and he honestly deplored the drys using the "word of the Lord" to promote their quest. And he was right; the Anti-Saloon League was doing just that.
The yearbook goes on to note the progress that the drys had made since the League's inception in 1893. According to this booklet, over 12,000 saloons had been closed "by various means" in the year 1909, and over 41 million Americans were living in "dry" territory. The U.S. population in 1909 was about 90.5 million; therefore, if the League's statistics were accurate, over 45 percent of the country already was dry in 1910.
Actually, by that year, every state in the union had some form of Prohibition. It was statewide in some instances and under various forms of local option (towns, counties, municipalities or city districts having the right to legislate and enforce Prohibition) in others. It's easy to see that national Prohibition was inevitable sooner or later. Five years later, and five years before the whole country had to seek solace from illicit stills and bathtub gin, 20 states were dry: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa. Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia. The Anti-Saloon League had structured its tactics to make sure that a number of individual states went dry before lobbying for national Prohibition, and they were succeeding at an alarming rate.
While all this was going on, the whiskey industry had been making good use of a loophole in the law by selling liquor by mail. It was a grand system that had actually been around since about 1870, when bottles became more common as a way of packaging whiskey. As local prohibition spread, drinkers in dry areas began writing away for whiskey as never before, and they were treated to some marvelous offers and premiums.
Advertisements in magazines and newspapers of the time gave consumers the chance not only to buy whiskey at reduced rates but also to receive special offers such as an "'elegant gold-filled watch" sent free to "all who influence ten new customers to each order one gallon or more of our goods." If you had only four friends, you could receive "the most beautiful set of Limoges China Dishes you ever saw" for persuading each of them to order a gallon of spirits from the Security Distilling Company of Chicago.
Rye whiskey was still very popular during the early twentieth century, and the number of bottlings of Pennsylvania rye or Monongahela rye whiskey generally outnumbered the bourbons in advertisements of the time. America was still producing "Pure Malt" (presumably 100 percent malted barley) whiskeys at the time-in 1913, a dozen bottles of Regan's Pure Malt Whiskey would cost a mere $6, whereas four quarts of LW Harper Bourbon brought $5 on the mail-order market. A bottle of Old Crow in 1916 would have cost $2 to $3, depending on its age (the $3 bottling was distilled in 1884, the less expensive one in 1904), and rye whiskey at the time being sold at similar prices.
Trade was brisk for the mail-order whiskey suppliers. But the Prohibitionists did not stand idly by while thousands of gallons of whiskey were mailed to their hard-fought-for dry states and counties. In 1913, the Webb Kenyon Interstate Liquor Act was passed, effectively preventing the traffic of liquor from wet to dry states, the mail-order business continued, but with not nearly as much spirit as before.
In Europe, the "Great War" broke out in 1914, and although President Woodrow Wilson initially declared that the country would remain neutral, on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Along with the rest of the country, the whiskey industry braced itself for more setbacks. The Lever Food and Fuel Act was enacted later that year; designed to preserve food supplies during World War I, it made all distillation of beverage alcohol illegal. Drinking was still legal in some areas of the country-but not for much longer.
Just over two years later, on January 17, 1920, after the Volstead Act that enabled the National Prohibition Law had been passed by 287 votes to 100, the nation was officially dry_ That year saw the birth of yet another organization, The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, made up of many brewers, distillers and some very wealthy and influential people, DuPont family members among them. The association felt compelled to keep the government informed of the drawbacks of Prohibition, stressing mainly that without taxes from alcohol, the economy was suffering, that farmers had lost a market for their grains and the subsequent surplus had brought grain prices down and that unemployment in related industries was rising steadily. It was partially due to these efforts that Prohibition would be repealed some 13 years later.
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