Remember Prohibition? Me neither. It was way before my time.
But I’ve seen the movies. The History Channel is all over this story. Everybody knows it was an outrageous failure that flew in the face of American civil liberties…
Except I think we may have been bamboozled. So to speak.
According to TIME Magazine, there’s a little bit of the history that the photo above doesn’t bother to mention — and maybe we should make notes about this.
The rise of the United States is one of history’s amazing stories, even more remarkable when you realize how many of our forefathers were three sheets to the wind. John Adams drank hard cider with breakfast. James Madison drained a pint of whiskey each day*. By 1830 the average American was guzzling the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of hard liquor per week — three times the amount consumed today.*For those keeping score, that would come to 3.5 quarts (just shy of a gallon) of whiskey per week.
That’s right. Per capita, Americans drank an average AVERAGE of 1.7 quarts of hard liquor per week. That’s 32 drinks per week. 4 1/2 cocktails a day. Every day. Per person. Man, woman and child. And since we assume the children were not REALLY drinking their fair share, that means Daddy and Mama — who at that time had 7 surviving children per household — were actually drinking more than 15 bottle of booze a week.
Okay — there were a few single folks. And a few tea-totalers. So let’s split the difference and say all the drinking adults drank maybe 10 bottles a week.
That’s the equivalent of more than a fifth of scotch whiskey a day. Imagine living in a world where everybody drank a fifth of scotch a day. People would be getting in gun fights in the street. Wife and child abuse would be rampant. Babies would be still-born, damaged by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome — before anybody knew what it was. People wouldn’t live long enough to die of cancer or Alzheimer’s or heart disease or — well — of anything age related because they’d die of liver failure in their 40s.
Imagine that world. A place where there were no (or few) medical anesthetics or analgesics. Pain killers were narcotic or nothing. Want to alleviate the symptoms of menopause, or even horrific PMS? Have a bottle of corn liquor! Pain from childbirth? Have a drink. Migraine? Give me a break. Have a drink. Insomnia? Muscle cramps? Stress? Exhaustion? Relax. Get some sleep. Have a drink or two to unwind and then a couple more to put you to sleep at night. Is the weather a bit nippy? Aches and pains from all that rain? Arthritis warping you hands and the knuckles in your toes? Bourbon will fix that! You won’t feel a thing! Depressed? Blue? Burdened by nightmares? Trauma? (Think PTSD) — Bottoms up!
You won’t feel a thing. Ask anybody.
And that’s probably pretty much the truth. People drank to fix just about everything. Monks made liquor to pay their bills. Bitters — digestion aids — were loaded with wood spices, ginger, herbs and other medicinals and sold for their health benefits.
Everybody drank! An average of 1.7 bottles of hard liquor (not beer or wine or cider or mead….) every single week. So that 1.7 bottles of hard liquor was actually IN ADDITION TO any beer or wine or cider or mead that was consumed.
And the results were incalculable. Think of the productivity loss! Imagine walking the scaffolding to build skyscrapers with that much liquor in your system! No wonder so many people died building the Brooklyn Bridge! Or the Empire State Building! Think about working as a telephone or telegraph lineman — or walking the catwalks in the saloons and Vaudeville theaters! Or swinging a big knife as a butcher — or a scythe as a farmer! Every aspect of life gets more dangerous with that much liquor in flow!
My grandmother was almost beaten to death by her father for letting a pig escape from its pen — because her father was constantly altered by alcohol, and not quite in conscious control of his actions. He was a “strong silent-type” pioneer who farmed and ranched some of the most difficult land in the dusty Texas Panhandle. And he was a nightmare. None of his sons survived — so he worked his daughters like pack-animals — and he beat them just like he beat the mules.
And nobody thought anything about it.
Because it was common place. Everybody drank that much. Everybody beat their children and wives in fits of anger. Everybody.
1.7 bottles of hard liquor — the average — probably the minimum for a real drinking adult — is enough to change everything.
And that’s why Prohibition happened. It happened in concert with the first Women’s Movement that gave women their first voice in the US. Women finally got fed up.
Women got a voice, and one of the first things they said was; “put down that bottle!”
So — no. Prohibition didn’t last. Bootleggers found a way to keep making moonshine and bathtub gin. NASCAR was born via the car-chases — the result of moonshiners trying to outrun the local police on the backroads and dirt highways of the South. We wanted our freedom so bad that we were willing to break the law — and laugh while we did it — just to keep drinking. We made a sport of hiding away in private clubs and dark venues all over America —
And Prohibition was repealed — the Speak Easy died — bootleggers became political royalty — and gangsters moved on to organizing other crimes.
And, at least according to that first picture — Prohibition failed.
But the truth is — it changed the way we think about drinking in this country. We no longer look the other way when people drink and abuse their family. We don’t turn a blind eye to manslaughter with a vehicle when the driver was DUI. We don’t excuse costly errors due to hangovers or absenteeism. Suicide by alcohol — isn’t an unknown any more. And Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a known, rather than an unknown.
The town drunk isn’t a joke any more.
Public intoxication — to the point of doing harm to oneself or others — just isn’t cool.
And that’s not the way it was before. We think about how much we drink. We find designated drivers. We hold bartenders accountable for letting people get so drunk — for hours at a time — that they are a public threat.
We don’t tolerate those things. Now.
Prohibition may not be the law of the land any more — but a failure?
I don’t think so.
In the long game, Prohibition was what we needed to get sober enough — for long enough — to think clearly and re-prioritize our beliefs and values and goals. It was a sober night that let us grow up and choose better. And be better.
People still drink. There are still heavy drinkers. But now we are pretty clear about addiction and recovery. Drinking and alcoholism aren’t the same thing. But we might never have known that without Prohibition.
There are still good reasons to drink. And there are other choices that accomplish the same ends. But we might never have known that without Prohibition.
There are behaviors that can be explained by putting them in the context of a few drinks — but explaining is not the same as excusing. Alcohol is not an excuse for hurting others. Or breaking laws. Or failing — at anything. Alcohol may explain it – but it doesn’t excuse it. But we might never have known that without Prohibition.
We had to get away from that 1.7/per capita statistic long enough to stop thinking of it as normal.
Let’s talk about guns, our relationship to our guns, and the relationship to violence.