Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pop History Moment: The Advent of Prohibition


The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified on this day in 1919, outlawing the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption throughout the entire country to begin on the same day in 1920. Supplemented by the Volstead Act - and championed by such pious busybodies as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as well as forward-thinking organizations* like the LDS Church, neither of which ought to have had any right to decide public policy in the first place - Prohibition would become one of the most massive failures in the history of social engineering...

Not only did it fail to stop people from drinking, Prohibition funneled vast profits to criminal gangs, strengthening organized crime and contributing to untold deaths - deaths either directly attributable to crime when rival gangs and police would engage each other in gun battles on city streets, or else as the result of poisoning from drinking concoctions derived from denatured alcohol and even explosions thanks to poorly-made stills. It also brought about the end of the so-called Progressive Era.

Still, in pop culture terms, Prohibition was a boon; I know my life would have been much less rich had I not watched the literally dozens of gangster movies I have... One such film, 1939's The Roaring Twenties, opens with the indelible image of a happy couple walking with a pram; the next shot reveals that it is filled not with a baby but with dozens of bottle of liquor. The film continues in that vein, making the case cinematically which law enforcement and the man on the street alike knew to be the case - that Prohibition hurt far more than it helped.

America would remain officially dry until December 1933 when, due to the efforts of the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt** the Twenty-first Amendment to the US Constitution rescinded the Eighteenth, and the Blaine Act undid the Volstead Act, finally effecting the repeal of Prohibition.

**Who'd made it one of the main planks of his election platform.

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Daniel said...

Nooooo! All that beautiful beer!
Great photo. I wonder if the photographer knew how iconic it would be (and how much he was paid for it)
I recently saw the episode of the Simpsons where Prohibition is reintroduced in Springfield and, of course, they had a scene based on the photo. Absolute class.

Rex Banner: 'Okay, rummy, where's the hooch? Is some blind tiger jerkin' suds on the side?

Barney Gumble: 'Er.... yes?'

It's coming to something when I can't remember which cupboard we keep the dishes in, but give me any line of dialogue from the Simpsons, and I can most likely give you the follow-up, and an in-depth synopsis of the episode.

michael sean morris said...

The photo is in the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection of the Library of Congress, so was probably taken by a staff photographer as part of his job. Without access to the relevant newspapers on microfiche that's the best I can do - if, in fact, the paper in question even gave its photographers a byline. They often didn't in those days.

I did find out that the man looking on (the one NOT in uniform) is New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, and the photo was taken circa 1921.,app,brum,detr,swann,look,gottscho,pan,horyd,genthe,var,cai,cd,hh,yan,lomax,ils,prok,brhc,nclc,matpc,iucpub,tgmi,lamb,hec

Daniel said...

You are truly a gentleman and a scholar...

michael sean morris said...

I try...