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 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.
Synonyms for “drunk.” Okrent writes that “[t]he Dictionary of American Slang, published in 1960, listed more colloquial synonyms for ‘drunk’ than for any other word; most of them originated in the 1920s.” I looked into Edmund Wilson’s “Lexicon of Prohibition,” published in 1927, and found an impressive glossary that includes “lit,” “squiffy,” “oiled,” “lubricated,” “fried,” “zozzled,” and “stinko.”
Rum Row. According to the OED, “rum” first appeared as a generic negative term for alcohol in Canada in 1800; by the 1850s it had migrated south, where it attached itself to compounds such as “rum demon” and “rum barons.” An illegal drinking place, Okrent writes, was a “rum hole”; a nose “reddened by overindulgence” was a “rum blossom.” As for Rum Row, it was “brief, alliterative, and perfectly descriptive of the remarkable phenomenon that evolved out of those early, sunny days of coastal bootlegging. ... By 1923, from the Gulf of Maine to the tip of Florida, an enormous fleet of old freighters, tramp steamers, converted submarine chasers, and ships of various other descriptions ... lay at permanent anchor just outside the three-mile limit. … The vessels on the Row remained immobile for months at a time, functioning as floating warehouses for a second network of seafarers operating locally.” By the way, the beverage dispensed by the Rum Row ships was much more likely to be gin or whiskey (or “whiskey” and “gin” when the real things weren’t to be found). Rum itself was an outlier. Vodka? Its day wouldn't arrive for decades.
“Pressure group.” The term was coined by the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne B. Wheeler in the early 1920s; according to a 1924 issue of the Lincoln (Nebraska) State Journal, a pressure group was made up of “a larger or smaller body of citizens who know exactly what they want and have enough energy to press their claims.” The meaning remains largely unchanged.
Source: YesterYear Once More.
“Take for a ride.” The slang term “was the Chicago-bred euphemism for what mobsters did when they dumped the body of a troublesome competitor or an errant confederate in a distant suburb.” It’s now a synonym for “to deceive or swindle.”
International air travel. Aeromarine Airways, created primarily “to shuttle Americans from dry Miami to the booze-soaked Caribbean,” was started by a wealthy Cadillac dealer, “the spectacularly named” Inglis Moore Uppercu, in 1920. It made the first regularly scheduled, U.S.-based international flight; in homage to another historic voyage, its planes were named the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Pan American Airways got into the act, too, using the slogan “Fly with us to Havana and you can bathe in Bacardi rum two hours from now.”
The booze cruise. Prohibition begat another new form of travel: the “cruise to nowhere,” a well-lubricated pleasure junket enjoyed beyond the three-mile limit. (Prior to Prohibition, passengers had boarded ships solely to navigate from Point A to Point B.) The phenomenon lives on, Okrent writes, in “every passenger liner that departs a U.S. port for, say, a luxurious journey to the Caribbean and back.”
Brand-name liquor. “In the saloon era,” Okrent writes, “calling for liquor by brand name was almost unheard of; in the speakeasy era, it became a habit, first as a means of protecting oneself from alcohol of questionable origin, and secondarily as a way of expressing one’s level of taste.” The British liquor company Berry Brothers created Cutty Sark whiskey in 1923 specifically for the American market; Haig & Haig “was repositioned as a brand aimed directly at the bootleg trade.” Decades later, writes Okrent, “many of the liquor industry’s best-known brand names owed their prominence to the ubiquity of Prohibition-era rotgut.”
The powder room. The genteel euphemism for “ladies’ toilet”—like the facility itself—emerged from Prohibition exigencies. The term “was coined to denote the minimal bathroom facilities for women hastily installed in formerly all-male saloons once they had become universally accommodating speakeasies.” It first appeared in print with this meaning in 1927. (There had been a much older meaning: a room on a ship used for storing gunpowder.) Today a powder room denotes any small bathroom in a private or public place, usually consisting of a toilet and washbasin.
Non-beer brands. Major U.S. breweries stayed in business by manufacturing other products, including glucose, corn oil, infant formula, and soft drinks. Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis brewery, manufactured all of those items as well as a chocolate-coated ice-cream bar innocently dubbed Smack. “Near beer” was prohibited, but nonalcoholic “cereal beverages” proliferated. Anheuser-Busch had been making Bevo since 1916 for sale in dry states (the name was derived from pivo, the Bohemian word for “beer”); as the country geared up for national Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch built “the world’s largest bottling facility, at a cost of $10 million, just for Bevo.” Other brewers, Okrent writes, rushed to imitate Bevo—both in substance and in style. Pabst created Pablo (“The Happy Hoppy Drink”), Miller developed Vivo, Schlitz came up with Famo. The Frankenmuth Brewer in Michigan had Franko, and the Dick Brothers brewery, in Quincy, Illionis, offered Nearo. (“No one thought the Dicks were honoring a Roman emperor,” Okrent notes.) For customers seeking more of a kick, there was Peeko, a flavoring substance that could be added to neutral grain alcohol. It sold in grocery stores for 75 cents a bottle and was available in rye, gin, rum, cognac, crème de menthe, and other flavors.
Wine starters. California’s grape growers kept themselves afloat in part by exploiting the loophole for sacramental wines (a loophole that frequently widened to accommodate very secular characters). Others shipped grapes by the boxcar to eastern markets, where they were used for homemade wine. One “independent California concern” (according to a contemporary account in Time) came up with the brilliant idea of selling “a solid dehydrated block of grape juice concentrate mixed with stems, skins, and pulp.” Dubbed the Vino Sano Grape Brick, it came with explicit instructions: add water, but whatever you do, do not add yeast or sugar or leave it in a dark place or let it sit too long, because “it might ferment and become wine.” “For those a little slow on the uptake,” Okrent adds, “newspaper ads indicated the choice of flavors: port, sherry, Tokay, burgundy, and so on.” Vino Sano was quickly challenged by Vine Glo, made by a consortium of some of the largest pre-Prohibition wineries. It was a more sophisticated product than Vino Sano, Okrent relates:
A Fruit Industries agent would deliver a varietal grape juice (the accustomed Tokay, burgundy, “claret,” and so on) to the buyer’s home in five-, ten-, twenty-five or fifty-gallon cans, add yeast and citric acid, and insert a tube to vent off gases. Every few weeks the agent would stop by to monitor progress; after sixty days he would arrive with bottles, foil capsules, corks, and labels, even tissue to wrap the bottles in.
Source: Poured with Pleasure
The Budweiser Clydesdales. The first Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales were purchased in December 1932 in anticipation of Repeal; they made their debut the following April, delivering a case of beer to Al Smith in New York and another to the White House. They still appear in Budweiser advertising.
You can read more about how Prohibition changed American culture in a New York magazine article, “Our Wet Debt.” Better still, buy yourself a copy of Last Call. It’s a timely reminder of the madness of crowds—and the enduring resilience of marketing.