Cultural Context: Alcohol
Alcohol has always been a controversial topic in the United States for social, political, and religious reasons. The negative effects of drinking came to the foreground of American concern during the early twentieth century. This was a time of great prosperity followed by the Great Depression. Both of these eras led Americans to turn to or against liquor as the cause or demise of their success. Prohibition marked a change in the American way of life and is best documented by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in their contemporary works. Both of these authors grappled with alcohol use and abuse within their own lives and writing.
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Business tycoons quickly jumped on board with the prohibitionists. They, especially Ford and Rockefeller, believed that alcohol consumption was causing industrial inefficiency and thus costing them money (Parrish, 96).
A major impetus for the passage of a national prohibition law was World War I. “World War I made Prohibition seem patriotic, since many breweries were owned by German Americans” and it was feared that money spent on alcohol would be supporting the Kaiser and his propaganda, (www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=441). The Anti-Saloon League and the WCTU asked the compelling question “how could a government that called for maximum agricultural production…justify the wasteful use of grains for intoxicants?” (Parrish, 96). These points were extremely valid and the American people, at least in Congress, responded. It is unlikely that Prohibition would have passed without this sense of patriotic fervor and loyalty.
The irony of the prohibition movement is that hard drinking was already illegal in eighteen states by 1917. The War Prohibition Act and the Volstead Act had already limited the alcohol content and availability of beer and wine (Levine, 1). The result banned nearly 65% of the adult population from legal drinking three years before Prohibition went into effect, (Parrish, 96). It is also important to note that Prohibition was not a public health campaign to reduce alcohol-related illnesses, but instead a social movement, (Levine, 1).
This social movement, however, was largely ineffectual. Prohibition was difficult to enforce and greeted with a violent reaction from many who chose to undermine it. Bootleggers, rumrunners, and moonshiners all made sure that alcohol was still readily available. Parrish wrote “…any thirsty citizen could still buy a drink in most major American cities about one minute after stepping off the train,” (101). The statistics about the presence of alcohol during Prohibition are staggering. During this era, New York City had approximately 30,000 speakeasies. This number was double the amount of legal bars in the metropolis prior to 1920. It is also estimated that during every year of Prohibition more than one million gallons of liquor were smuggled into American from Canada, (www.pbs.org/wnet/newyork/laic/episode5/topic1/e5_t1_s2-rr.html). In Cleveland alone, there were at least 100,000 moonshiners brewing their own beer or making gin for their own use and to give or sell to acquaintances, (www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=441). Even those who did not want to blatantly break the law managed to get around it. A popular way of doing so was to find a doctor to prescribe whiskey for a medical condition. Certain liquors were still made and sold for medicinal purposes and were easily found in drugstores and pharmacies.
The 1920s were a time of great social change and rebellion. ...