A reoccurring theme working as a Business reference librarian at the Library is helping researchers who are doing historical research on various industries. One that comes up every once in a while is the alcoholic beverage industry. Every time I do research in this area, I am reminded that Prohibition profoundly divided this industry into a “before” and “after.” There were several anniversaries earlier this year–Prohibition began in a January and ended in a December, so I felt this was an appropriate time to write a post that has long been in the back of my mind.
First, a little background.
The U.S. has always had an uneasy relationship with alcohol and attempts to curb alcohol started long before the 18th Amendment. In 1826 the first of the temperance societies, American Temperance Society (ATS), formed. While it had some success, it wasn’t until the proliferation of saloons after the Civil War that the temperance movement gained more traction. In 1873 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded and the temperance movement got its most forceful voice. The histories of the temperance movement and the women’s movement were often linked, which explains why the WCTU originally proposed the ban of alcohol as a method for preventing abuse from alcoholic husbands. The WCTU spent many years building the movement though education and local and state laws, and in 1881 had a big success – Kansas included a ban on alcohol in their state constitution. It is at this time that Carrie Nation came to prominence by attacking saloons with a hatchet. However, saloons still maintained their popularity though that popularity was on the decline during the Progressive Era (1890–1920) when the hostility toward saloons became widespread. The push for prohibition gained momentum, often with women and Protestant congregations leading the way.
World War I came and with it, a temporary prohibition on alcohol production. There was also a pronounced anti-German sentiment pushed by the Anti-Saloon League and since many brewers were German and often the loudest opponents of prohibition, this temporary situation dealt a serious blow to the anti-Prohibition forces. The support for a ban on alcohol grew. On December 18, 1917 a constitutional amendment to prohibit alcohol was proposed in the Senate, and in October 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act (National Prohibition Act), which was the enabling legislation that set down the rules for enforcing the ban on alcohol and defined the types of alcoholic beverages to be prohibited. The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919 and the country went dry at midnight on January 17, 1920.
Prior to Prohibition various types of alcohol were produced all over the country. The chart above, which originally ran in my A Chart is Worth a Thousand Words post, shows how widespread production of alcohol was in the U.S., as well as the variety that was produced. (You can see vestiges of the way things were – California was and is, the biggest wine area in the U.S. and Kentucky and Tennessee are where to go for bourbon and whiskey.) Of course alcohol didn’t entirely go away with Prohibition. The wealthy, including many politicians, bought out the inventories of the retailers and wholesalers, and of course there were the bootleggers who also helped keep the supply flowing.
Eventually Prohibition – and the violence surrounding it – wore out its welcome. By 1930 the anti-Prohibition forces had strengthened their hand in Congress and the need for tax revenues at the federal level during the Depression hastened Prohibition’s demise. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen–Harrison Act, an amendment to the Volstead Act, on March 22, 1933, allowing for the production of some beer and wine and on December 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was ratified. Since many places still retained enough knowledge and people that worked in the industry prior to Prohibition, they were able to pick up production relatively easily in 1934, although that was not the case everywhere. New federal rules and regulations were a big barrier to re-entry as were the still simmering anti-alcohol sentiments evidenced in various restrictions that were in place in many communities. The years after Prohibition saw production become less geographically diverse than it had been prior to prohibition.For those doing research, statistics are a good place to start. In searching for statistics on alcohol, for government purposes it is often reported as the tax revenue generated or by amount in taxable gallons. For example the 1929 Statistical Abstract in Table 822 does still have some fermented liquors and distilled spirits data which unsurprisingly stops in 1920. Table 537 reported on exports of liquors from the U.S. and Tables 191 and 192 reported tax receipts from distilled spirits and fermented liquors – even for those years during Prohibition.
Trade literature is another good source , although during Prohibition there was no official alcohol industry and no need for trade literature. Before and after Prohibition there is a good body of trade literature. Unfortunately, some of what was published prior to Prohibition did not come back after it was repealed. In previous posts I mentioned two publications that I found – Mida’s Criterion and Bonfort’s Wine & Spirit Circular, but there are many, many others including Biles’ Whiskey Price List, Brewers’ Almanac, and the Year Book of the United States Brewers’ Association. Some titles like the Modern Brewery Age persisted and picked up not long after Prohibition ended and continued to publish for decades. New publications include Handbook Advance (formerly Jobson’s), Adams Fact Book (also formerly part of Jobson’s), and information from the Beverage Information Group. Of course there are many others that can be found in our catalog so if you want to do a subject browse, here are some Library of Congress Subject Headings:
- beer; beer industry; malt liquors; brewing industry
- rum; rum industry
- whiskey; whiskey industry
- wine and wine making; wine industry
- absinthe; liquors; liqueurs; liquor industry; gin
- vodka; vodka industry
- alcoholic beverage industry; alcohol industry; alcoholic beverages; distilling industries; distilleries; liquor industry executives
- cocktails; drinking of alcoholic beverages
- liquor laws; Prohibition; temperance