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Reprinted from All About Beer by permission of the author.
We Want Beer: Prohibition And The Will To Imbibe - Part 2.
by Carl Miller
On Saint Valentine's Day of 1929, love
was decidedly not in the air on Chicago's north side. Six
bodies lay dead and mutilated on the floor of a North Clark
Street garage. A seventh victim had been rushed away barely
clinging to life, only to succumb a short time later.
It was a scene probably more gruesome
than any of the dozen or so lingering Chicago detectives had
ever seen. The only remaining witness—a chained
German shepherd—barked rabidly in one corner of the
garage, and lunged at anyone who tried to quiet him.
Outside, a thickening crowd of onlookers strained to catch a
glimpse of the carnage, while a steady parade of city
officials rolled up to the curb and marched inside to survey
the aftermath. It was, after all, the worst episode yet in
nearly a decade of Chicago's notoriously violent
Prohibition-era beer wars.
Nevertheless, the seven unfortunate men
who lost their lives on that day were a mere drop in the
bucket. By the late 1920s, Chicago authorities were
reporting between 350 and 400 gangland murders per year.
Beer was big business, and mobsters stopped at nothing to
gain and keep control of it. The infamous Al Capone
(commonly blamed for the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre,
though never charged) controlled no less than a half-dozen
of Chicago's old breweries. Each was licensed to produce
nonalcoholic near beer, but all churned out a steady flow of
the real stuff. The Chicago Tribune estimated that, at its
peak, the city's organized crime syndicates operated some
10,000 speakeasies, the proceeds from beer alone totaling
$3.5 million per week.
And, of course, the Windy City was not
alone in its bootlegger woes. Virtually every city in the
nation was riddled with illegal trafficking in beer and
whiskey, and the violence that it bred.
With each new report of sickening
violence, public indignation toward the national dry law
mounted. Though many felt little sorrow for the mostly
mobster victims, the rampant political corruption that
fueled the violence stirred anger in the hearts of most
Americans. It seemed as though everyone from the cop on the
beat right up to high-ranking federal officials was on the
Indeed, the stench of political
corruption during the dry years did not stop even at the
White House doors. President Harding's attorney general,
Harry Daugherty, was forced to resign amid allegations that
he and his staff had accepted $250,000 from a wealthy Ohio
bootlegger in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The
very government that had foisted an unpopular law on the
people was now exploiting the law for personal profit. It
was exactly this sort of hypocrisy that enraged America and
ignited a vigorous crusade to end the "Noble Experiment."
Even before national Prohibition took
effect on January 16, 1920, efforts to repeal it were
already under way in some circles. Among the most notable of
the wet organizations was the Association Against the
Prohibition Amendment, formed in Washington,
DC, in 1919. Its members were mainly big industry
capitalists who feared that the loss of government revenue
from beer taxes would bring both increased taxes for big
corporations and a rise in personal income taxes for the
wealthy. The AAPA made it a well-publicized edict that
financial contributions from beer interests would never be
allowed to exceed one-twentieth of its operating budget. In
so doing, the association hoped to be somewhat free of the
taint of blatant self-interest that had so plagued the
brewers' efforts to quash Prohibition.
Backed by scores of millionaire
industrialists, the AAPA found little difficulty in
matching, or exceeding, the coffers of well-established
Prohibition groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the
Women's Christian Temperance Union. And like those
organizations, the AAPA was masterful in its use of
propaganda, particularly in wielding inflammatory statistics
that tended to show the utter failure of the Eighteenth
Amendment. In 1928, for example, the AAPA reported that, by
its estimate, some 15 million pounds of hops had been sold
during the year—enough to make 20 million barrels of
illicit beer. The colossal loss to the government in beer
taxes alone, argued the AAPA, was reason enough to end
Naturally, the nation's brewers agreed
whole-heartedly with that logic. Prohibition had all but
destroyed their industry. Most were finding great difficulty
in surviving on the production of near beer while the steady
flow of real beer from bootleggers went virtually
unchallenged. August A. Busch, head of Anheuser-Busch in St.
Louis, spoke for all brewers when he appealed to the
American public in 1921: "Those who are obeying the law are
being ground to pieces by its very operation, while those
who are violating the law are reaping unheard-of rewards.
Every rule of justice has been reversed."
But, cries of economic injustice had not
been successful for the brewers before Prohibition, and they
were not terribly effective now. Likewise, the AAPA's
message—often fraught with cold financial statistics
and lofty economic theory—did not always find ready
significance among the average working American.
Somewhat ironically, perhaps the most
well-received grass roots initiative against Prohibition
came from the wives of the AAPA's directors. In May of 1929,
Pauline Sabin, wife of AAPA treasurer Charles Sabin, founded
the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform.
The Sabin Women, as they were called, were headed largely by
well-to-do wives of American industrialists. Their high
social status brought frequent press coverage for their
cause and gave a distinctly fashionable visage to the
anti-Prohibition movement. For housewives throughout middle
America, joining the WONPR was an otherwise inaccessible
opportunity to mingle with high society. In less than two
years, almost 1.5 million Sabin Women were sounding the
depravity of bootlegger violence and political
Most Prohibitionists seethed over the
escalating role that women were playing in the drive for
repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. After all, it had always
been a sort of sacred presumption that the drys could count
on the near unanimous support of women everywhere. Their
defection now, even if in the minority, was a tough pill to
swallow for hard-line Prohibitionists, who rarely missed an
opportunity to exhibit their animosity over the issue. One
dry advocate commented in the press, rather viciously, that,
"these wet women, though rich most of them are, are no more
than the scum of the earth, parading around in skirts, and
possibly late at night flirting with other women's husbands
at drunken and fashionable resorts."
When the Women's Organization for
National Prohibition Reform first embarked on its campaign
against the national dry law, the 1920s were still roaring
loudly in America. Eliminating the violent crime and
political corruption spread by bootleggers was the central
goal of the organization. What the Sabin Women did not know
was that, in just a matter of months, the whole rationale
upon which the repeal movement was based would change
abruptly and radically. On October 17, 1929, one of the most
prosperous eras in American history came to a crashing halt.
Black Tuesday had struck with unbelievable force, and the
nation was plunged into economic depression. Suddenly, the
crusade to repeal Prohibition took on an entirely new
As unemployment reached epidemic
proportions, few could deny the obvious truth that
legalizing beer would create thousands of new jobs virtually
over night. At the same time, desperately-needed new
government revenue would be generated in the form of beer
taxes. "Beer For Prosperity" became the anti-Prohibition
In New York City, Mayor Jimmy Walker
demonstrated his support for the cause by organizing a
day-long Beer Parade on May 14, 1932. An estimated 100,000
people turned out to cheer for the legalization of beer. One
New Yorker in attendance, a toddler, held a sign that read,
"My daddy had beer, why can't I?" Some 40,000 Detroiters
held a similar event in the Motor City on the very same day.
Marchers in the parade chanted "Who wants a bottle of
beer?," baiting spectators to call back, "I do!"
Of course, the Depression
notwithstanding, the dry forces were still everywhere in
evidence. Both the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's
Christian Temperance Union remained in full force, spewing
propaganda and lobbing venomous rhetoric as aggressively as
ever. Henry Ford, a famously vocal dry, announced that if
Prohibition were repealed, he would abandon the automobile
business: "I wouldn't be interested in putting automobiles
into the hands of a generation soggy with drink." The New
Yorker magazine took particular exception to Ford's
ridiculous comment. Noting Detroit's unmatched reputation as
a smuggling center for Canadian beer and whiskey, the
magazine wrote, "It would be a great pity to have Detroit's
two leading industries destroyed in one blow."
Not surprisingly, Prohibition was a
hot-button issue at the 1932 Democratic National Convention.
In his speech, presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt
all but declared war on the dry law, pledging to "favor the
modification of the Volstead Act just as fast as the Lord
will let us—to authorize the manufacture and sale of
beer." It was, of course, the only stance he could take on
the issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, wet or dry,
voters understood that America was in economic crisis.
Unemployment spoke louder than intemperance.
Indeed, Roosevelt's strong pro-repeal
platform produced many political converts. Industrialist and
staunch Republican Pierre Du Pont, for example, made news
when he switched political parties solely on the basis of
the repeal issue. Then, too, many former supporters
of Prohibition itself had turned coat
by this time. Ardent dry activist John D. Rockefeller Jr.
stunned everyone when he announced in 1932 that he would no
longer support Prohibition, calling it a "regrettable
failure." Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was
another convert, and perhaps the most outspoken one. He put
his nationwide chain of newspapers to work preaching the
pros of repeal. After Roosevelt's landslide victory in
November of 1932, Hearst's newspapers carried a celebratory
article entitled "Beer By Christmas!"
Although Hearst's prediction was a bit
premature, congressional action on the matter did, in fact,
get under way even before the president-elect took office.
In December, hearings were begun for the purpose of making
severe changes to the Volstead Act. There was little
question that the legalization of beer would be the ultimate
outcome. There was disagreement, however, over what ought to
be the maximum legal alcohol content of beer.
Brewers were brought in to testify on the
issue. Among them was Boston brewery owner T. C.
Haffenreffer, who pontificated, "all brews improve in taste,
flavor and aroma directly in ratio with the increased
alcoholic content." That, said Haffenreffer, was the "prime
reason for desiring the maximum permissible alcoholic
strength of our products." August A. Busch echoed that view,
though his rationale was somewhat less tactful: "[People]
want and are demanding a beer in all respects satisfying,
and that will, so to say, furnish that warmth, satisfaction,
and contentment that a mild stimulant like a good, wholesome
The debate lingered into 1933. Nine days
after taking office on March 4, President Roosevelt sent a
directive to Congress urging them to settle the matter. In
the end, the figure of 3.2 percent alcohol by volume was
agreed upon as the new allowable limit for beer under the
Volstead Act. It wasn't the hearty 6 or 7 percent of
pre-Prohibition days, but it was a victory, nonetheless. The
Eighteenth Amendment, after all, remained in full effect, at
least for the moment. Congress was simply exercising its
right to modify the definition of an "intoxicating
beverage." But for beer drinkers, it was a banner day. After
13 long years, beer was finally back, and Americans
everywhere reveled in it.
Happy Days Are Here
At 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933, brewery
whistles around the country heralded the return of beer.
Throughout the night before (fondly dubbed "New Beer's
Eve"), jubilant beer drinkers lined up outside breweries,
anxious for their first taste of legal beer. In Milwaukee,
where crowds were said to have been 50,000-strong at the
breweries, beer drinkers hauled away their precious kegs and
cases in everything from wheelbarrows to baby carriages. In
New York City, movie houses played the newly-released film, "Beer Is Back!" Around the country, night clubs, hotels and
restaurants—most filled beyond
capacity—struggled to keep the taps flowing as
raucous crowds downed an amazing 1.5 million barrels of beer
during the first 24 hours that beer was back.
Many grateful brewery owners sent
complimentary shipments of beer to President Roosevelt.
August A. Busch made his presidential delivery in grand
fashion, employing a bright red beer wagon drawn by six
Clydesdale horses. The spectacle, of course, has since
become a sacred corporate symbol for Anheuser-Busch.
Officials at the Yuengling Brewery of Pottsville, PA, were
dismayed to learn that their shipment of beer to Washington
arrived missing 73 cases. Indeed, as truckloads of beer
crossed America's highways during those first few days, some
brewers were compelled to hire armed guards to protect their
beer shipments against hijackers.
Once all of the ballyhoo of New Beer's
Eve and New Beer's Day had subsided, beer drinkers and
brewers awoke to a sobering reality. The 5¢ mug of
beer—a time-honored institution before
Prohibition—was but a quaint memory now. For the
better part of a half-century before Prohibition, the
federal tax on beer was fixed at just $1 per barrel. Only
during times of war was the tax increased temporarily. But
those days were gone forever. Congress had re-legalized beer
largely on the basis of its potential as a government
revenue builder. Accordingly, the federal tax was set at $5
per barrel, plus a $1,000 annual license fee for each
brewery. Today, the prevailing tax of $18 per barrel (though
lower for production under 60,000 barrels) suggests that
beer's role as an important federal revenue stream remains
Heavy taxation of beer, however, is not
Prohibition's only surviving legacy. A strong regulatory
environment was also a key component of repeal. First and foremost, lawmakers
were eager to legislate against the historically tight
relationship between brewers and saloons. The "tied house"
system, according to its opponents, gave rise to the "poor
moral condition" of America's saloons and was the very fuel
that drove the Prohibition movement. Even today, there
remains a strictly-regulated separation between brewer and
retailer. The old-time saloon itself, in fact, was a
casualty of Prohibition. The designations "tavern," "club,"
"bar," and "cafe" were much preferred by entrepreneurs
hoping to side- step the stigma of pre-Prohibition
"grogshops" and Prohibition-era speakeasies. Some state
legislatures even sought to erase all remnants of the
old-fashioned saloon environment. Swinging doors, for
example, were outlawed in some regions. In others, the law
required that bar stools be provided for all patrons since
it was thought that standing at the bar—a venerable
saloon tradition—promoted excessive drinking.
Government regulation, however, did
little to restrain what was perhaps Prohibition's most
sinister outgrowth. The criminal groups which had made
widespread disobediance possible—and
profitable—throughout Prohibition emerged in 1933
strong, well financed and well connected. Crime was now
organized, and these criminal institutions are with us still
But, without question, the most critical
legacy of America's dry era is the wisdom offered by its
monumental failure. The Eighteenth Amendment was officially
and forever repealed on December 5, 1933, with the
ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment. To this day,
national Prohibition remains the only constitutional
amendment ever to be repealed.
Go to Part 1.
Copyright 2001 Carl Miller