Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Prohibition on PBS

Part 1
This Ken Burns documentary aired on PBS in NY over three days this week and educated me on a period in our history when it was illegal to drink alcohol (Ah!!).  I had always been aware of Prohibition.  My grandmother even bragged about making wine in her basement in the 1920’s.  But the political and social pressures that gave rise to this amendment to our constitution were unknown to me. 
For example, I was unaware that the abstinence movement was initially a female movement that was tied to women’s suffrage (voting rights).  Carrie Nation is a name I had seen on plaques in bars, but never knew what a powerhouse she was.  She went into bars wielding a hatchet and single-handedly closed down dozens of drinking establishments.  Frances Willard worked through the public schools to brainwash children against ever taking a drink of alcohol.  The textbooks of the day misinformed students about the dangers of drinking saying that one drink could destroy the internal organs.  These were some nasty ladies!
This is not to say that a little temperance wasn’t needed back in the good old days.  The Colonial American habit of having a beer or cider 3 or 4 times during the working day became a societal problem when they began distilling spirts with much higher alcohol content. Alcohol consumption in the early 1800's was pretty high: American males over the age of 15 consumed, on average, 88 bottles of whiskey per year.   Drunkenness led to physical and emotional abuse of women and children and a break down of the family.
However, there were many men who were "drys" and in favor of prohibtion.  A mostly male Anti-Saloon League was one of the most powerful political groups, what we would call political action committees, of the day.  They could use their influence to get officials elected into or out of office.  The league was led mainly by Protestant ministers, but it was the attorney Wayne Wheeler who was the leader that made “wet” or “dry” the litmus test for congressmen.  He eventually was able to get enough states to ratify the 18th amendment in 1920. Shorty after, women got the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment.  Prohibition had unintended consequences that are discussed in parts 2 and 3 of this series . . .


  1. This is a very interesting documentary which is true of all the programs done by Ken Burns. I think there are parallels today that they may have alluded to in the first part. Extremeism, in either direction, always seems to lead to us into trouble. There are certainly parallels with how the marijuana issue is handled present day.

  2. Tom, I was thinking the same thing. Interstingly enough, back in the twenties it was legal to have alcohol for "medicinal" purposes. Sounds familiar.