Prohibition! What Was It Good For?

Alex Fossi, December 05, 2013

For those unaware, our most fine editor Eno Sarris runs a weekly chat over at FanGraphs. This week, the chat happened to fall on the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. This was fun, because as you might expect, Eno loves to talk about the beer, and the Prohibiversary is as good an excuse as any. However, there were a couple interesting comments on the origins of Prohibition, and I thought it might be worth exploring those in a little more depth. The first comment came from user "kevinthecomic", who said:

Some context regarding prohibition: prior to prohibition only men could get served alcohol. This was done in an establishment called a saloon. A large number of these men were pissing away their pay checks (or bags of gold or however they were paid back then) on alcohol, leaving women and children starving and/or homeless. Prohibition was seen as a way to release the grip that saloons had on men and, by extension, their families. To that extent, it worked. People (both men and women) now go to bars, bars which have things like ‘cut off’ rules. True, we did have to go through mob controlled liquor distribution and americans now drink hard liquor whereas before it was mostly beer, but, to a large extent, Prohibition was a necessary and successful piece of public policy.

User "Freeset Rolexes" responded with the more traditional understanding:

The previous description of prohibition seems markedly different than the one Ken Burns put out there last year. Prohibition was pushed through by rural, god-fearing puritans to quench the foreign-born, city-dwelling, devil-worshiping, drinking menace is how I’d characterize it.

Let's start with kevinthecomic's point. First of all, I'm fairly certain that "bags of gold" were never all that common a way to pay for beer in America. If they were, I guess I should be thankful that a bomber of Double Jack only puts me out $13.

Snark aside, this is an interesting point, and one I've never really considered before. It's pretty easy to fall into the mindset of "silly Puritans and their Prohibition! Now I'm gonna have a beer and show them!" and forget about the historical context. Admittedly, this is not a historical era in which I have much expertise, so maybe I'm in the minority in forgetting about the context here.

Looking into this a little more closely, the thing that jumps out at me is that alcohol consumption was never actually made illegal--only the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol was illegal. This suggests that there's something to the idea that Prohibition was spawned at least in part because people were buying their drinks in saloons. Of course, it wasn't like you were allowed to go buy a sixer to take home under Prohibition either, but the focus was clearly more on the production and distribution of alcohol than the guy making a barrel of beer (or moonshine, or whatever) on his farm.

More importantly, the main group supporting a Prohibition amendment was called the "Anti-Saloon League". These people were upset about alcohol in general, to be sure, but it was more than that--they disliked the culture that surrounded drinking, which centered on these saloons.

Given that "saloon" is essentially just a cooler word for "bar", it's a little difficult to intuit why people would be so upset about them. It's important, then, to understand the role the saloon played in American culture in the early 20th century. Saloons were common locations for political rallies; in fact, by the late 19th century, as many as sixty percent of all political conventions were held in saloons. Of course, this was in part a result of political parties reacting to the attitudes of the day--neither party wanted to be seen as the "dry" party, so they kept one-upping each other with more and more events at saloons.

Additionally, people in general were significantly drunker than we are today. Americans are no slouches now, but in the 19th century, the average drinker drank three times as much as the average drinker today.

Of course, there were negative side effects to this, and it's not hard to imagine the househould fallout when one member of the house drinks to that extent. On top of that, kevinthecomic was almost entirely correct in noting that women were barred from saloons. There's one group of women that were occasionally permitted in: prostitutes. I'd have to think that's not a big plus to family dynamics, all things considered.

The Anti-Saloon League cited these negatives, saying "Liquor is responsible for 19% of the divorces, 25% of the poverty, 25% of the insanity, 37% of the pauperism, 45% of child desertion, and 50% of the crime in this country." They also claimed these to be "conservative estimates", which...who knows.  Three times as much as we drink now is a whole lot of drinking.

Now, the Ken Burns description that Freeset Rolexes referenced is not entirely incorrect; in fact, it's more true than not. The Anti-Saloon league may have started as a movement aimed at the mono-gendered culture of excessive drinking centered in saloons, but the movement received widespread support from people that were, as Rolexes said, "rural, god-fearing" people. Many religious leaders expressed support for the movement, and pro-temperence folk claimed that Prohibition was an extension of traditional American values.

So, Prohibition was the result of both factors that the chatters cited (among many others, of course). The Anti-Saloon League targeted the saloons that were the center of a solely male drinking culture that was damaging families, and they were supported by god-fearing rural folk that championed Puritan values. Interestingly enough, Prohibition did succeed in changing the family dynamics--because the speakeasies that popped up in the 1920s had no reason to maintain the single-gender dynamic of the saloons that preceded them.

Don't get me wrong--I'm pretty happy Prohibition got repealed. The closest I'll ever have to come to smuggling is sending a package of beer via FedEx rather than the USPS, and that's a wonderful thing. Still, let's take a moment to remember that Prohibition did have some positive effects. It's probably good that we drink a third of what our predecessors did. It's even better that women and men alike can go to a bar together--yeah, this almost surely would have changed eventually, but let's give credit where it's due. On this anniversary, let's celebrate the repeal, but let's also keep in mind the positive changes spawned by Prohibition in the first place.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @AlexanderFossi.