Welcome to part II of Hysterical History, where we take a deep-dive into the shenanigans of Prohibition. Part I focused on how Carries changed the US. We aren’t living in the first Clown World.
Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1917. It was known as the “Prohibition Amendment” because it banned “intoxicating liquors”. It became law when Utah – yes, that Utah – became the 36th state to ratify it on January 16, 1919. Congress spent the next year writing the Volstead Act. It was complicated. Two-thirds of Congress drank. They held “cocktail hour” between sessions as they hammered out the issues. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill, but the Senate, drunk with power, overrode it on October 28, 1919. On January 16, 1920, America tipped over a shot glass at last call and stumbled home. When she woke up the next day, the country was dry.
Men everywhere scratched their heads and tried to figure out exactly how it was that they had lost the right to toast dead brothers from The Great War, which had ended just two years prior. Not only had they lost that right, they had lost it because of a dead school marm. I imagine it went something like this: “We just wanted to be left alone…”
Once the hangover subsided, Americans started to read the law which Congress had blessed them with. There were a couple of details which had been overlooked. Most importantly, drinking alcohol was still perfectly legal. What was illegal was the making, transporting, or selling of said alcohol.
Families were allowed to make wine in their own home for personal use. The Treasury Department clarified Section 29 of the Volstead Act 10 months after Prohibition began. The head of the family had to be “properly registered” but then could legally fill 1000 bottles of home-made wine a year. Tax free. Grape sales exploded. Grape acreage in California expanded from 97,000 to 681,000 acres. In 1919 a ton of grapes sold for $9.50. By 1924 the price was $375. From 1925 to 1929 Americans had drank 679 million gallons of homemade wine. That was triple the amount in the 5 years leading up to Prohibition.
Grocery stores sold “grape bricks”, which were concentrates made from crushed grapes, stems and skins. They came with instructions on how to make grape juice in your own kitchen, with firm warnings not to dissolve the brick in a gallon of water, and if you do, certainly, under no circumstances, hide the jug in your cupboard for three weeks.
The Volstead Act made it legal for priests, rabbis, “ministers of the gospel”, and their designees to buy wine used in Sacraments and other religious rituals. Certain distillers, blessed by government officials, were allowed to make Officially Legal Alcohol. Priests have come a long way since then, and I can’t imagine any today taking advantage of such a loophole, but this was a different era: Priests were poor.
Doctors could also prescribe whiskey and other distilled spirits as treatment for ailments. It was limited to one pint every 10 days. No physical examination was needed, as long as the doctor based his prescription “upon the best information attainable.” In 1917, the American Medical Association issued a declaration that said alcohol had no scientific value as a tonic or stimulant for healing. The Science, negating a tradition going back thousands of years, was settled.
In 1922, Science suddenly changed its mind. The AMA had discovered liquor was actually a general cure-all. It could treat colds, flu, sore throats, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, tuberculosis, and cancer. Booze promoted digestion and physical vigor. At the price of $3 for the prescribing doctor and $3 to the distributing pharmacist, profits were stupidly huge. A pint of liquor cost a little over 6 cents to distill. Booze was not only a medicinal wonder, but an economic miracle.
That’s why, after 1929, they changed the name from ‘Prohibition’ to ‘The Great Depression’.
The biggest loophole of all was carved out by Congress: They ignored the law entirely. Fun fact: Booze cures shock-face. Mine lasted 4 hours and then I took an experimental shot of Old Raven. I regret that. The notorious bootlegger George Cassidy, better known as “The Man in the Green Hat”, later wrote he had sold liquor to 2/3rds of Congress. He had his own office in the House of Representatives from 1920 to 1925.
Cassidy would transport 35 to 40 quarts of booze a day in two large suitcases, much like lobbyists do today. It took the Capitol Police five years to bust him. He plead guilty, and was barred from entering the House of Representatives. He then opened an office space in the Senate building (1925-1930). Good thing, too. World War II would have started nearly two decades early if Congress had been dry.
The Spork Speaks – tempestinateardrop.com – Part III Coming Tuesday