Book Review: Last Call, by Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent’s masterful and rambunctious history of the rise and fall of Prohibition

A police raid during prohibition could force the dumping of barrels of beer | Photo: WikiCommons

The Persistence of Pleasure

With the sudden appearance over the summer of the air-tight space dividers in Vienna taverns and restaurants, it is interesting to revisit one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of society’s attempts to regulate pleasure.

It was exactly midnight on the night of Jan. 16, 1920, when at one stroke, the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol “for beverage purposes” became illegal in the United States and all of its territories.  After the passage a year earlier of the Volstead Act, Prohibition became law, closing down the country’s fifth largest industry and making criminals, reluctant or otherwise, out of the majority of its population.

But that was just the beginning of its far reaching effects: Prohibition represented the coming of age of interest group politics in the U.S., writes Daniel Okrent in Last Call, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, published in May. And it produced some very strange political bedfellows – an oddball coalition of moralists and progressives, suffragists and xenophobes, who legally seized the constitution bending it to a new purpose.

This motley crew succeeded in establishing the federal income tax, tying their goals to the conduct of a foreign war and carrying universal suffrage to the brink of passage.  In the process they succeeded in rewriting the fundamental contract between citizen and government, recalibrating the social relationships between men and women, and effecting a total realignment of political parties in America.

They also gave birth to organized crime. Over the course of the 1920s, “prohibition converted the neighborhood bullies into a smoothly running criminal corporation,” comments Okrent, former Editor in Chief of New England Monthly and the first Public Editor of The New York Times, with the wry appreciation that characterized this thoroughly engaging read.

But to make all this happen, American society was wrenched with a violence akin to the shocks of war or natural disaster. This was, you might say, an “unnatural disaster,” an imposed upheaval that went against the grain of human nature, such that in the final years between the stock market crash of 1929 and the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, it was increasingly hard to find anyone at all who thought Prohibition was a good idea.

But in the beginning, it had seemed inevitable: Alcohol had been portrayed, with a great measure of truth, as the scourge of families, the catalyst of poverty and the companion of domestic violence, and thus the battle cry of suffragists. Likewise, evangelists like Billy Sunday embraced the cause, predicting that Prohibition would usher in a new era: “the end of the reign of terror, and the advent of an earthly paradise.” And the nativists who saw “their country” being lost under the tidal wave of European immigration, of the Irish, the Germans, Italians and Russians, all from cultures where alcohol was central to their way of life, saw in it a way to keep these unruly masses under control.

This left the opponents scrambling, and many tried to hoard private stores of liquor in the waning days and hours before the law took effect.

“On the evening of Jan. 16, the streets of San Francisco were jammed,” Okrent writes. “A frenzy of cars, trucks, wagons and every form of conveyance crisscrossed the town… Porches, staircase landing and sidewalks were piled high with boxes and crates delivered on the last possible day…. And people whose beer, liquor and wine had not arrived by midnight, were left to stand in their doorways with haggard faces and glittering eyes.”

Okrent clearly enjoys the rough and tumble of this tale, the conglomeration of conflicting agendas and the very human mix of purism and pragmatism that made up the motives of the defining actors. Here he has uncovered a new window – the first attempt to tell the untarnished history of this controversial and contradictory era – into the human comedy, a thick glass prism that will split the motivations of a wonderfully wayward cast into a pallet of human colors, flawed, self involved, and true.

But what is hard to ignore is the pattern of legislating morality in the private sphere that is so reminiscent of contemporary efforts like the so-called “war on drugs” or the anti-smoking campaign. Prohibition not only failed, but created many problems far worse than the ones it purported to solve.  And it seems to prove beyond any sensible argument that human beings will always seek ways to alter their moods and perceptions; making these things illegal just redirects the desire to other places, patterns or possibilities.

As historian Charles Gehring remarked, “to learn where people find pleasure in any culture, simply look at the things the society tries to control.”

Last Call is full of wonderful characters, like the mesmerizing Frances Willard, the engine behind the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose description of her predecessor “set the key of that mighty orchestra in motion and the tender and hardship of the crusading violins soaring aloft” could as well have described herself.

Or Anti Saloon League zealot Carrie Nation whom Okrent describes as having “the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden and the persistence of a tooth ache,” who took a hatchet and jubilantly chopped her way through one hapless mahogany bar after another.

Or the beer baron Adolphus Busch, who spoke five languages and developed the first fully vertically integrated brewing company, branching into a glass factory and bottling plant, a trucking company and a couple of railroads. His hometown of St. Louis was described as “a leafy city on the banks of the Mississippi near the Anheuser Busch plant.”

Busch also discovered that pasteurized beer could be shipped across the country and developed a network of saloons that often served as the community centers for new immigrant populations, serving as pay master, post office and public conveniences, extending credit and providing lodging.

As the anti-alcohol forces grew, Busch organized the brewers and then even convinced their archrivals, the distillers, to coordinate in the fight against prohibition. However, the brewers were overwhelmingly of German decent, and the U.S. entrance into WWI further demonized the industry, at least publicly, and forced the brewers to retreat temporarily into other businesses.

But the fact was, from the beginning, people got around the rules; in Massachusetts there was big business by fishing boats; in Philadelphia, it was the chemical industry. Bootleggers took off like a shot, like racehorses out of a starting gate, and never looked back. Schemes abounded and border towns thrived. Fortunes were made overnight.

“The Prohibitionists say the liquor issue is as dead as slavery,” wrote Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in the Miami Herald, Oct. 7, 1920. “The wet people say you can get liquor anywhere; you’d think they’d both be satisfied.”

But one of the more interesting effects was the change in the relations between men and women. Under Prohibition, drinking became glamorous in a whole new way. A whole industry of speakeasies developed: attractively daring drinking clubs hidden behind unmarked doors, entry by password only. The customs of socializing in the family broke down, so particularly among young people, equality of daring became the way of life.

The end of Prohibition came quickly by a vote of 63-21 in the Senate and 234 to 194 in the House. And the final 36th state ratified by December.

But perhaps the truest sign that it was over, says Okrent, was in the summer of 1933 when the saloon owners began to suggest, to the agents who had been their guests over the years, that it was time for them to start paying for what they consumed.


Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Daniel Okrent
Scribner, May 11, 2010
Available at:
Shakespeare and Co.
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535 5053

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