You'll never drink again: Sex, race, science and the real story of Prohibition

The war on alcohol was waged disproportionately in black communities -- and provided the start of the penal state

Published January 1, 2016 4:00PM (EST)


Excerpted from "The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State"

Between 1880 and 1920 over twenty million men and women immigrated to the United States, drawn by the voracious appetite of manufacturers large and small for their labor. The largest flows of immigration took place between 1900 and World War I. In 1907 alone, over one million immigrants entered the country, the largest single year of the nation’s late nineteenth and early twentieth-century massive wave. Large-scale immigration reached its highpoint in 1910, when 14.9 percent of the population was foreign-born. During the earlier nineteenth century, beginning in the 1840s, immigrants hailed largely from northern European countries such as Germany, Ireland, and Sweden. Chinese immigrants, contracted for work to build the transcontinental railways in the wake of the Civil War, contributed another flow. A successful racist campaign to end “coolie” labor, however, cut off the Asian immigrant stream with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Supplementing the stream from Germany and Ireland, immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century increasingly hailed from southern and eastern Europe. Poles, Italians, Greeks, Bohemians, Russians, and Slovakians settled in unprecedented numbers in the nation’s cities, seemingly overnight. New York and Chicago, the nation’s premier cities, became not only incomprehensibly large but were filled with distinctly foreign sights, smells, and dialects. In 1910, 41 percent of the close to five million inhabitants of New York City were foreign-born. In Chicago, in 1920, two-thirds of the population were either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents.

The large population of immigrant laborers and their children settled in dense ethnic enclaves in East Coast and midwestern cities. A thick web of Catholic parishes, Jewish ethnic institutions and synagogues, Bohemian welfare organizations, and Italian social clubs transformed the built landscape. For many of these European immigrant communities, alcoholic drink was part of community life, family celebration, religious ritual, and relaxation. Diverse establishments—ranging from Boston’s “Birds-in-Hand” and Milwaukee’s socialist-oriented Doerfler’s Saloon to Chicago’s Workingmen’s Exchange—were just a few of the sites of working-class drinking. The number of saloons, broadly defined, tripled in the last third of the nineteenth century.

The growth of saloons spiked beer consumption. Hard-liquor consumption declined sharply throughout the nineteenth century. It halved from 1830 to 1910, from over 5 gallons per capita annually to 2.3 gallons. With that decline many of the objective debilitating effects of excessive alcohol use eased. Beer consumption, however, rose from 2.3 gallons per capita annually in 1840 to 25.9 gallons in 1910, a rise of over 1,000 percent. Alcohol consumed per capita in the United States in the early twentieth century was in line with rates in industrializing Europe. Indeed, the amount of beer consumed lagged behind the heavy consumption rates of Germany and Britain. The exponential rise in beer consumption nonetheless was a visible, noisy, and for many Americans alarming harbinger of the immigrant makeover of American cities. The working-class drinking establishments became a lightning rod for cultural and class anxieties. The men who patronized these establishments, after all, were not only working-class, they were also largely foreign and heavily Catholic. Immigrant laborers, thus, not only altered the nation’s class composition but its religious and ethnic identity as well. Ethnic and religious divisions closely paralleled class cleavages in the United States. As a result, a potent alchemy of ethnic, religious, and class tensions fused in the battle over the saloon.

Antiliquor crusaders attacked saloons in the nation’s small towns of the west and industrial cities of the east as “cankerous sores” and a “social menace,” a “foe of the wage-earner,” and a contributing factor to the “bleak conditions of urban tenements.” Undisciplined sexuality in the all-male saloon also raised the risk of social disease. “Respectable” women, either by proscription or custom, did not patronize saloons. Some saloons, however, had side entrances for women and private booths in back rooms, and were sites of sex trafficking. New York’s Committee of Fourteen, established in 1905, worked to eradicate saloon-linked prostitution. Saloons and liquor sales, vice fighters argued, were deeply implicated in that trade. In 1912 Progressive luminary Jane Addams publicized one scientist’s finding that alcohol was the “indispensable vehicle” of the “white slave traffic.” Ella Boole of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union proclaimed, in turn, “There would not be any social evil,” a euphemism for prostitution, “if there was no saloon evil.”

For politically astute reformers, the drive to rein in the saloon was also linked to the saloons’ and urban proletarians’ role in politics. Ethnic working-class saloons were often informal political institutions, serving as the lowest rung and neighborhood hub of the local urban political party machinery. The saloonkeepers tended to be active in the local Democratic and Republican parties—and in industrial cities where socialism gained traction saloonkeepers were active in the Socialist Party as well. In Milwaukee’s vibrant center of “sewer socialism”—so named for its pragmatic brand of left politics focused on providing sewers, paved streets, and parks in working-class neighborhoods—saloons served as important havens for the party. Victor Berger, who served as an alderman in 1910 and who one year later was elected as a Socialist to Congress, dominated the lively discussions at John Doerfler’s establishment, where the local Socialist organization held its regular meetings. One former Milwaukee Socialist saloon owner later recalled that his place, for all intents and purposes, was an “educational institution.”

It was, however, in cities with large Democratic and Republican machines that saloons served most importantly as the storefront for local partisan politics. There, ethnic ward bosses and party precinct captains kept in close personal touch with their constituents, providing much-needed services such as jobs, a rent payment, or a Thanksgiving basket in exchange for constituent loyalty on election day. In a world of anemic public provisioning, powerful municipal political machines, characterized by widespread corruption, solidified their working-class voting bases through these clientelist practices. Clientelism, the exchange of services for votes, characterized party politics in societies structured by deeply asymmetric power relations and vast income inequality, among them the United States and parts of Europe and Latin America. Antisaloon sentiment became a focal point of reformers who sought to rid cities of corrupt and “inefficient” political machines.

The goal of “cleaning up” proletarian-based clientelist machines contributed to Progressive support for the saloon’s eradication. Historians of the United States have labeled the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the “Progressive Era,” after the energetic group of Protestant and largely elite men and women, self-identified as Progressives, and the reform wave they launched. These policy-oriented men and women were a diverse bunch. They included businessmen, social scientists, reform ministers, settlement-house workers, and labor advocates who sought to grapple with the problems wrought by urban industrialization. They worked to improve health, hygiene, and urban sanitation, to beautify their cities, and to provide social centers for immigrants. One central concern of these reformers was ending the municipal power of urban political machines. Meshed in networks of graft, kickbacks, and patronage, and providing routes for upward mobility for ethnic political brokers, this form of politics offended reformers’ sense of the civic public good.

The eradication of saloons, then, was also a political question. For some Progressives, this effort was imbued with a deeply antidemocratic impulse: Frances Willard, founder of the WCTU, made the linkage explicit as early as 1890: “Alien illiterates rule our cities today; the saloon is their palace; the toddy stick their scepter.” Close to a quarter century later, congressman Richmond Hobson deployed these arguments in favor of constitutional prohibition: “It is the degenerate vote that has in the past overwhelmed the liberties of free people. And it is the degenerate vote in our big cities that is a menace to our institutions.”

If the local political practices of those northeastern and midwestern working-class men who held the vote (many of the newest immigrants did not) and saloons as spaces for politics drove support for the war on alcohol in the north, a related but distinctive set of concerns inspired the antiliquor crusade in the south. Below the Mason-Dixon line, prohibitionist crusaders also attacked the saloons of “illiterate whites,” but their sharpest animus centered on “negro dives.” The specter of the collective gatherings of African-Americans, many recently disfranchised, in “colored only” saloons, beyond the eye of white surveillance, haunted white Southerners. Anywhere such saloons thrived, Prohibitionists warned, they posed a “deadly menace,” threatening the safety of women, of children, and of the home. Dance halls and “colored only” saloons, declared one Georgia reformer, were “veritable centers of vice, schools of iniquity, and hot-beds of crime.” Another Georgia commentator, in what became a common refrain across the south, averred that “the saloon was the ravager of the negro people. It plundered them at all points, robbed them of their wages,” and “fed their animalism.”

In the aftermath of African-American disfranchisement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the contest for tight control over politically dispossessed populations heightened the drive for prohibition. Atlanta Baptist minister and antiliquor crusader John E. White in 1908 referred to the “feeling of insecurity” in the rural sections of the south that had become a “contagion” because of roaming “drunken negroes.” A host of selectively applied laws and ordinances for petty violations, from loitering to vagrancy, already policed and criminalized African-American leisure and coerced their labor. A wave of novel and unevenly enforced dry laws in the south layered on top of these ordinances served as an additional means to target and discipline African-American as well as poor white leisure. The “dives” of “illiterate whites,” claimed southern reformers, threatened at any time to light the tinderbox of racial and class animosities into violent “racial disorders.” Race riots, racial pogroms, and lynch terror were an endemic feature in this system of racial domination. By scapegoating the saloon, white southern reformers explained such violence as an aberrant characteristic that might be controlled through saloon eradication. “Race war,” White warned, “is a perilous possibility” in “any Southern community with a barroom.”

Along with concerns over the destabilizing effects of intoxicating liquor on the South’s less civilized “dangerous” classes, a parallel alarm over the use of other narcotic substances snowballed at the same time. In southern states such as Tennessee and Georgia, state policing authorities between 1900 and 1914 warned of African-Americans “crazed by cocaine” who went on superhuman rampages of violence. “Many of the horrible crimes committed in Southern States by colored people can be traced directly to the cocaine habit,” charged Colonel J. W. Watson of Georgia in 1903. Such fantastical claims, including the rumor that the effects of cocaine shielded the user against gunshot wounds, fueled the adoption of state antinarcotics legislation and buttressed southern support for the first federal antidrug law in 1914.

During these same decades, scientific discourse increasingly identified alcohol as a dangerous narcotic drug. At the 1909 meeting of the American Society for the Study of Alcohol and Other Narcotics, one researcher, Winfield S. Hall, professor of physiology at Northwestern University, concluded, “Alcohol is a narcotic in its drug action.” Another participant suggested that alcohol be classed “in the list of dangerous drugs along with morphine, cocaine and chloral.” Scientific experts emphasized its damaging “poisonous” physiological effects and its addictive qualities. Such testimonies clothed older moral antiliquor arguments with new authority, enabling them to gain wider traction. The American Society for the Study of Alcohol and Other Narcotic Drugs, the Boston-based Scientific Temperance Federation founded in 1906, the Scientific Temperance Quarterly, and the American Medical Association took pains to debunk conventional medical homilies that emphasized alcohol as a valuable remedy that could nourish and exert special effects on the nervous system. Antiliquor crusaders popularized and widely exaggerated these findings: the “protoplasmic poison,” warned Richmond Hobson, “even in the smallest quantities,” lessened the activity of the brain. It acted most strongly on the “most recently acquired facilities” to “annihilate those qualities built up through education and experience, the power of self-control and the sense of responsibility.” The new scientific “facts,” many of them presented to Congress, bolstered support for the war on alcohol.

Antiliquor crusaders worked to educate the public about the dangers of alcohol through posters, pamphlets, graphs, and charts. Mary Hunt, director of Scientific Temperance Instruction, ensured that the nation’s school textbooks by the early twentieth century disseminated to the nation’s children the message of the dangers of the “seductive poison,” warning that even the most moderate amounts led to ruin. Such campaigns now spread among wider circles of reformers. Elizabeth Tilton, head of the Boston Associated Charities, warned of the dangers of alcohol through a poster campaign begun out of her home in 1912. Not content with dry scientific journals, the campaign borrowed tools from the new profession of advertising to counter the success of liquor advertising in poor neighborhoods. The drink custom, the posters warned, was a bane to the requirements of a modern, ordered world—a menace to health and the enemy of efficiency. “Liquor stands for waste,” proclaimed one poster. Success in a modern, mechanical age required “self-discipline, self-control, and respectability,” another announced. These secular messages no longer centered on the century-old concerns over “sin.” Instead, they adopted a modern, forward-looking ethos.

Along with these concerns over alcohol’s negative effects on health and efficiency, antiliquor crusaders drove home its social costs. Alcohol, they insisted, was responsible for “a good portion of insanity,” a “large part of all crime,” a “considerable part of pauperism,” and “most of child misery.” Worst of all, it was “a staggering economic burden.” Elizabeth Tilton, speaking before the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, drove this “fact” home with frightening statistics: alcohol was “directly and indirectly responsible for 42 percent of broken homes, 45 percent of children cruelly deserted, 50 percent of crime, 25 percent of our poverty, not to mention feeble mindedness and insanity.”

Bold and frightening posters, graphs, charts, and pamphlets distributed by prohibition forces linked alcohol, above all, to the bête noire of all progress-loving moderns: “degeneracy.” Late nineteenth-century popularizations of Darwin’s theories of evolution emphasized the application of natural selection to society. “Each generation must be an improvement over the previous generation if the nation is going to comply with the law of evolution,” cautioned Richmond Hobson. As the United States lurched onto the global imperial stage, anxieties over threats to the survival of the white race by the world’s “colored” populations permeated social purity campaigns, social hygiene, eugenics, and the war against alcohol. “Alcohol,” one scientist warned, “leads to race suicide.” Another antiliquor crusader decried the perilous “wave of degeneracy . . . sweeping the land . . . so appalling in magnitude that it staggers the mind and threatens to destroy this republic.” Abolishing the saloon was essential to combating that threat. Should they fail in this “mission,” warned E. W. Davis, the superintendent of the Chicago district of the Illinois Anti-Saloon League, “Anglo-Saxon civilization would ultimately disappear.”

Excerpted from "The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State" by Lisa McGirr. Copyright © 2016 by Lisa McGirr. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Lisa McGirr is professor of history at Harvard University and the author of the award-wining history of the new right, "Suburban Warriors"


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