By Matthew Latkiewicz

As seen on DrinkTV’s original series, Drinktionary. Watch all the A to Z’s of alcohol here.

P is for Prohibition, the period between 1920 and 1933 when America as a whole went through what every serious drinker eventually confronts: a reckoning with booze. And like a lot of drinkers do and should do every once in a while, it tried to get sober. And ultimately, the country decided sobriety… wasn’t its thing. 

But that doesn’t mean the forces and attitudes behind prohibition went away. Like so much in our country, we are divided on alcohol, both individually and as a group. Alcohol is a hard thing to agree on. It is as destructive and painful a force as it is a creative and joyful one, and that is a dichotomy each drinker must face and decide how they are gonna try and balance.

The seeds of Prohibition go back to the country’s founding. Americans were founding Temperance movements — groups that promoted abstinence from alcohol — as early as 1789. While some of these movements were driven by good old Christian moral shaming, a lot of people got in the temperance game because of how destructive alcohol was to them personally.

By all accounts, colonial America was a very drunk place, and while it’s easy to romanticize it, you can’t ignore how many lives are trampled by rampant drinking, whether their own or someone else’s. Nowadays people join AA. Back then, they signed Temperance pledges and attempted to ban alcohol sales where they could.

Listen to these lyrics from a Temperance song written by Stephen Foster, whose name you don’t know, but whose songs you do: “Oh! Susanna” ring a bell? What about “Camptown Races?” That’s Stephen Foster, and he also wrote this, sung to the tune of Oh! Susanna:

But now I’ve signed the pledge at last, And gained my liberty!

From all intoxicating drinks I am entirely free;

No more I’ll tread the drunkard’s path, Nor be the willing slave

Of those who send their victims forth

To fill the drunkard’s grave. 

Oh, drinkseller,

Don’t you long for me?

I’m going to sign the Temp’rance pledge, To gain my liberty.

Catchy right? And totally relatable. I mean, how many of us have woken up once or twice after a bender and said, no more! I am done. That’s essentially what a big portion of the American population was saying in the 19th century as the Temperance movement gained steam. No more! No more people drinking themselves into poverty; no more drunk husbands beating up wives and children; no more public drunkenness and the bad behavior associated with it.

The whole state of Kansas went dry as early as 1881, prompting a period of civil discord best encapsulated by this woman, Carrie Nation, who took it upon herself to punish the bars and liquor stores that defied the ruling. She’d walk into a bar, yell at the customers, then break all the liquor bottles with an axe, which may be the most American thing ever done. Her first husband died of alcoholism after a life of drunkenly terrorizing his wife and children. No wonder she hated alcohol! 

And a lot of people in the country did, for good reasons or not. Enough so that by WWI, there was a serious political fight about banning alcohol nationwide. This fight was led by the powerful Anti-Saloon League, which consolidated or eclipsed a number of Temperance groups into a focused fight at the highest levels of government. I’ll spare you all the legal and governmental details of how it happened, but on XYZ, congress passed the 18th Amendment making alcohol production and distribution illegal in the U.S.

And then followed 13 years of chaos. Here are just a few of the repercussions of banning alcohol nationwide:

  • Technically, owning alcohol wasn’t illegal, just making and selling it. So before the ban went into place, rich people, including the PRESIDENT, stockpiled alcohol. Poor people were of course fucked over as always in this country.
  • Organized crime took hold of liquor production and distribution, and ran a very successful black market on booze. This is where we get moonshine and bathtub gin, and souped up muscle cars smuggling booze in from Canada, outrunning the cops and inventing Nascar. 
  • The booze that people were drinking was often horrific and dangerous, cut with various chemicals just like today’s drug dealers cut heroin with fentanyl. An estimated 10,000 people died during Prohibition from drinking bad alcohol, and countless more were blinded and otherwise messed up in both body and brain from drinking alcohol fermented from wood. Don’t try that one, folks. 
  • Drinking did decline on a nationwide basis, and cirrhosis death rates for men dropped from 29.5 per 100,000 at the start of Prohibition to 10.7 at the end. But people were still drinking in great numbers, and speakeasies opened up in place of saloons, which meant that a great number of people and business owners were breaking the law and happy to do it, which leant the age an air of cynicism and lawlessness that many people fretted about just as they had fretted over alcohol’s effect on people.

Basically, it was a train wreck. The agencies tasked with enforcing the rule couldn’t keep up, and when the Great Depression hit in 1929, all that lost tax revenue on alcohol was sorely missed. The campaign for repeal gathered steam, culminating in the twenty-first amendment, ratified XYZ, and passing control over all alcohol regulations over to the states.

And that’s where we are today. There are still a number of dry counties and towns, and there are some places like New Orleans (see Letter N) where you can pretty much drink whenever and wherever. Most places are in between.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve figured out our relationship to alcohol as a country and often as individuals. It’s why American teenagers still flee to Montreal and Europe as soon as they can, places where drinking is a cultural tradition that is taught to you, either for good or ill. This is even what American adults did during prohibition; grab a flight or a steamer ship to boozier shores like Cuba or London.

But we don’t educate those teenagers how to drink, or what’s good about it, and what’s dangerous.

Alcohol is a tough bull to ride, and all the forces behind prohibition still exist and must be confronted and discussed openly. Alcohol does increase cases of domestic violence, homelessness, and illness. Alcohol does enable poor decisions. But it also increases joy, empathy, and makes what is otherwise a mostly tough life a little easier to take. It is both of those things, and unfortunately Americans aren’t great at grey areas. We are an all or nothing people. We don’t talk about alcohol like we don’t talk about sex. We avoid it, abstain from it and wait until kids have left the house and let them mostly figure it out on their own. But like any relationship worth keeping, you can learn to minimize the negative aspects and maximize the positive ones. 

For instance there are many helpful lessons in my book You Suck At Drinking. Wink.

Alcohol is a grey area, an element of life that can make it better or much worse. How do you deal with that? Each drinker must figure that out for themselves, even if that drinker is an entire country.

P is for Prohibition.

I’ll drink to that.

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