Next month marks the 92nd anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.” Twelve months after ratification, at midnight on January 17, 1920, the Prohibition Era began; it lasted until 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified.
You may think you know something about Prohibition—speakeasies, Al Capone, Eliot Ness, bathtub gin, bootleggers. You may even be picking up historical tidbits from amid the entertaining fictions of Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series, produced by Martin Scorsese, that concludes its first season on Sunday night. But trust me: until you’ve read Daniel Okrent’s splendid history of the era, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition—published earlier this year—you’re as uninformed as I was about what the historian Taylor Branch, in a jacket blurb, calls “the one glaring ‘whoops!’ in our constitutional history.”
Source: The Social Work History Station.
Okrent, who was the New York Times’s first public editor, did a staggering amount of research for Last Call—his “sources” section is almost 19 pages long—yet there isn’t a dry (pun intended) sentence in the book. It’s a thoroughly intoxicating read.
There’s the stranger-than-fiction cast of characters, including Mabel Walker Willebrandt, aka “The Prohibition Portia,” who served as assistant attorney general of the United States from 1921 to 1929 and liked to start her day with an ice-cold bath; Warren Bidwell Wheeler, general counsel of the Anti-Saloon League, who was considered by a critic to be “the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States”—and who is largely forgotten today; and Sam Bronfman, the Moldovan-Jewish-Canadian liquor magnate who supplied a thirsty United States with an endless stream of bootlegged liquor. “It was almost fated that the Bronfman family would make its fortune from alcoholic beverages,” Okrent writes; “in Yiddish, which was their mother tongue, bronfen is the word for ‘liquor.’”
Then there's Okrent’s writing, which is packed with wry humor and pungent turns of phrase. “The prevailing government parsimony” of the Prohibition era, he writes, “hovered like a scowl over the administrations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.” Of the propaganda aimed at presidential candidate Al Smith, Okrent writes: “It was the sort of speculation that could make a Catholic-hater quiver with the joy that can be induced only by the thrill of loathing.”
For me, many of the book’s most fascinating revelations have to do with language and culture. From slang to brand names, from travel to politics, Prohibition had an impact that far outlasted its 13-year tenure.
Here are some of the ways Prohibition changed American English and the language of commerce.