Saturday July 14

Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Fascinating History of American Prohibition

Once upon a time, a small group of Americans decided that a certain kind of very popular behavior was immoral. So, they organized, and twisted some arms, and soon the behavior was very illegal. Then, all hell broke loose. That is the deceptively simple story behind Last Call by Daniel Okrent: a fascinating social history of the rise and fall of Prohibition. Loosely developed with Ken Burns' documentary on the same subject, it explores the curious history around America's love affair with alcohol -- and how "a freedom-loving people decide(d) to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions … since the first European colonists arrived in the New World."

Prohibition offers a sobering tale with striking parallels to today's political environment, from the drug wars to the anti-immigration movement. The 18th Amendment passed because of an unholy alliance of factions, including racists, progressives, suffragists, populists, and anti-immigrationists, each of which wanted to ban alcohol for its own reasons. Politicians went along with the "dry" movement -- even if they were privately "wet" -- because they were afraid of retribution from the well-organized alcohol opponents.

Once passed, though, the measure immediately ran into trouble. President Harding was a notorious wet-dry, and his Secretary of Treasury, responsible for enforcement, was specifically anti-Prohibition. And then, there was the Volstead Act, which specified how Prohibition would actually work. To keep key constituencies in line, there were a variety of legal exceptions, including home brewing, wine for religious use, and alcohol for medicinal and industrial uses. Predictably, each of these loopholes exploded in popularity. By 1929, it was possible to buy a "Vino Sano Grape Brick, a solid, dehydrated block of grape juice concentrate … it came in a printed wrapper instructing the purchaser to add water to make grape juice, but to be sure not to add yeast or sugar, or leave it in a dark place, or let it sit too long before drinking it because 'it might ferment and become wine.'"

Okrent's book is meticulously researched, and it is filled with lively anecdotes about the period. I didn't know, for example, that cocktails began during Prohibition to mask the taste of low-quality gin. Or that plea bargaining began during Prohibition to clear possession cases from a court's docket. Or how the Walgreen's drug store chain's success was due to its medicinal liquor license. Or that the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, establishing the quota system, and the 19th constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote were so directly tied to the legal battles around Prohibition. Or, for that matter, what Joe Kennedy really did.

Despite many good intentions, Prohibition was a disastrous failure, and Last Call helps us to see why. In the process, we learn about a relatively unknown corner of our history, with characters who are uniquely American. It's surprising and informative, and you may join the many reviewers who have said, "Cheers!"

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