By Charles Bush
Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink.
Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1834
Did you know that it was the Puritans that initiated America’s love affair with alcohol? It’s true! When the Mayflower docked at Plymouth Rock, her hold was filled with kegs of beer, not water – and for good reason. The Puritans were coming to the New World from Europe. In Europe at that time, sanitary engineering was almost non-existent. As a result, European public water supplies were often contaminated with the bacteria that caused epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever. Beer, wine and distilled spirits all contained enough alcohol to kill these bacteria and were therefore much safer to drink than water. Over-indulgence of alcohol to the point of public drunkenness, however, was still considered a sin against God.
As America grew and prospered, the majority of its population remained engaged in hard physical labor that worked up quite a thirst. Since old habits were hard to break, thirst was quenched with beer, hard cider and, of course, Demon Rum. As time passed, public drunkenness became more prevalent. Soon alcohol consumption became associated not only with public disorder but also with insanity, poverty and various types of criminal behavior. More importantly, the use of alcohol was thought to be the cause of the disintegration of social values and the family unit.
It was in this atmosphere that the Temperance Movement was born. Women and religious leaders became involved in a campaign for moderation in the consumption of intoxicating beverages. Initially, propaganda and moral suasion were used to address the problem.
Following the Civil War, abolitionists, who had fought to abolish slavery, went looking for new social causes to support. Well-organized and politically savvy, they joined the ranks of the Temperance Movement preaching abstinence and prohibition rather than moderation.
At this same time, America was experiencing a great influx of immigrants from Europe, including hundreds of thousands of Germans who brought with them their own love for beer.
By 1874, the same year in which the white ribbons of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union first appeared, there were more than 4,000 breweries in the United States. Most of these breweries were local operations with a relatively small customer base. However, with improvements in brewing technology and the advent of refrigerated railcars, some breweries, like the Pabst Brewing Co. of Milwaukee, Wis., became industry giants. The Anheuser-Busch Association of St. Louis, Mo., opened its doors to the public for guided tours and even sponsored floats in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade.
As the popularity of beer grew, particularity in the cities where many of the European immigrants had congregated for employment, many of the larger breweries began to open saloons.
Despite fierce competition, enormous profits could be made by selling beer and liquor by the glass rather than by the bottle. Saloons proliferated. By the early 1890s, there was one saloon for every 200 persons living in the United States. The saloon was a man’s world, and the only women allowed were strictly for the purpose of entertainment.
Such unrestrained growth by the “purveyors of alcohol,” combined with the “immoral activities” such as gambling and prostitution that were attributed to all saloons, certainly caught the attention of the Temperance Movement. In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League of America (ASLA) was founded by Howard Hyde Russell. Russell was a lawyer who had experienced a religious conversion and had become a minister in the Congregational Church. As a Temperance zealot, Russell used his organizational skills and his political influence to promote the Prohibitionist agenda.
While Russell chose to sway public opinion by flooding the market with propaganda in the form of books, journals, magazines articles and postcards, another Temperance reformer was taking a somewhat more direct approach.
From 1900 to 1910, Carrie Nation and her hatchet cut a swath of destruction through Kansas saloons. Arrested more than 30 times, Nation typically paid her fines with proceeds from the sale of souvenir hatchets.
With the advent of World War I, anti-German sentiment within the United States began to build. It reached a peak in 1917 with America’s entry into the War. As beer sales fell, Prohibitionists turned up the heat on politicians to outlaw the manufacture of all alcoholic beverages. On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, and exactly one year later, the Noble Experiment of Prohibition began.
The Volstead Act was passed by Congress to enforce the terms of Prohibition. Created by Prohibitionists, the new law was much more severe than the general public had been led to believe it would be. Worst of all, it forbid the manufacturing of beer with more than 0.5 percent alcohol content (beers produced prior to the enactment of Prohibition typically contained from 3 to 6 percent alcohol). As a result, the majority of the breweries in America shut down operations to the utter delight of the Prohibitionists. However, their celebration would be short-lived.
The large breweries like Busch, Pabst and Schmidt’s all modified their brewing processes to produce the permitted low alcohol content beer commonly known as “near beer.”
Other breweries diversified. In addition to producing three brands of near beer, the country’s oldest brewery, the Yuengling Brewing Co. of Pottsville, Pa., opened a diary and sold ice cream. The Schlitz Brewing Co. changed its name to the Schlitz Beverage Company and tried its hand at selling chocolate bars – a disastrous venture that ended up costing the company more than $15 million.
Determined not to be denied their beer, many Americans turned to making beer at home, an activity that remained perfectly legal. Some merely added other forms of alcohol to near beer. That proved dangerous, as certain types of alcohol (like wood alcohol) caused blindness and even death. Others tried their hand at actually brewing beer from scratch at home. This task was made easier when several of the major breweries that continued to operate began selling malt extract (sometimes called “wort”) to the public.
The malt extract was sold ostensibly for the purpose of baking muffins. In 1923 alone, statistics showed that Americans made more than 80 million hops-flavored malt muffins.
The home brewing craze was memorialized by a member of the New York Rotary Club who wrote: “Mother’s in the kitchen washing out the jugs; Sister’s in the pantry bottling the suds; Father’s in the cellar mixing up the hops; Johnny’s on the front porch watching for the cops.”
As other countries chuckled at America’s Noble Experiment, the Temperance Movement began to lose both popularity and support. Americans wanted their beer back.
When the stock market crashed in 1929 and Depression enveloped the country, the population lost all patience with temperance and began to demand an end to Prohibition. In March 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act allowing the manufacture and sale of beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol.
Finally, on Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was ratified and Prohibition came to an end. After 13 long years, beer was back and Americans sang “Happy Days Are Here Again”!
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Books we recommend on U.S. History:
The Slacker’s Guide to U.S. History
The Bare Minimum on Discovering America,
the Boston Tea Party, the California Gold Rush,
and Lots of Other Stuff Dead White Guys Did
By Don Stewart and John Pfeiffer
The Everything® American History Book, 2nd Edition
People, places and events that shaped our nation
By John R. McGeehan, M.A.