“Prohibition took effect in January, 1920, and, all at once, people really did stop drinking, at least for a time”

Prohibition took effect in January, 1920, and, all at once, people really did stop drinking, at least for a time. In “Last Call,” a witty popular history of the Prohibition era, published in 2010, Daniel Okrent chronicled the country’s six-month infatuation with nonalcoholic beer, and its longer relationships with other substitutes. Sales of Coca-Cola increased, and some Protestants took dry Communion with the aid of a new product called Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine, which would be familiar to any modern toddler. Understandably, though, Okrent spent much of his book chronicling the manifold and ingenious ways that Americans warded off sobriety. In New York, attendance soared at synagogues offering “Kosher Wine for Sacramental Purposes”—the predecessors, perhaps, of the California medical-marijuana clinics currently treating a suspiciously hale group of patients. Small boats raced across the Detroit River from Canada; big ships hosted revelry offshore from East Coast cities, beyond the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard. Enterprising vintners sold grapes directly to customers and also provided them with grape-crushing services, to facilitate home fermentation. Rural bootleggers and urban speakeasies helped the country adapt, too; the change of circumstance helped convert American drinkers to gin, because it was easy to produce, and it also made them more brand-conscious, in the hope of avoiding liquor that was weak or poisonous or, in the worst case, both.

McGirr wants us to remember that these new patterns of consumption emerged only among those who could afford them; according to one study she cites, “drinking among workers was cut by half,” and research suggests that Prohibition did indeed cause a meaningful decline in alcohol-related deaths and illnesses. Many Negro leaders supported temperance and, to a lesser extent, Prohibition, although most of them renounced it as they discovered what it would entail. The speakeasies of Harlem helped spark a cultural renaissance, but they were viewed more skeptically by many locals, who resented the way the police allowed their neighborhood to become a locus of lawless fun. An editorial in a black newspaper complained that Harlem was now “a modern-day plantation for white thrill-seekers.” McGirr argues that Prohibition showed that the police would allow “vice” to flourish in “areas of the city without weighty protectors”—the same process by which, in the decades that followed, drug dealers were allowed to operate in many of the same vulnerable neighborhoods. In the South, raids often targeted Negroes and poor whites. Using records from Virginia, McGirr finds some evidence that race played a role in who was arrested; she also concludes that the government’s heavy-handed tactics alienated many white citizens who weren’t wealthy or lucky enough to be left alone. The Richmond Planet, a black newspaper in Virginia, noted with some satisfaction that “the same treatment that has been accorded to black citizens for more than a decade in the matter of Constitutional rights and privileges is now being meted to white citizens.”

Kelefa Sanneh, “Drunk With Power”, The New Yorker (21 & 28 December 2015), 108.