When Daniel Okrent kicks off Last Call, his sweeping history of Prohibition, by asking of the United States’ 14-year alcohol ban, “How the hell did it happen?,” you get the feeling you’re in for a rollicking ride. And Okrent doesn’t disappoint. The book, fast-paced and witty, includes enough fascinating details of this strange experiment to make you the star of your next cocktail party. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, too, particularly in the ways people got around the ban, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Take the Vino Sano Grape Brick, a dehydrated block of grape juice concentrate whose flavors included port, sherry, and burgundy and whose label warned consumers “to be sure not to add yeast or sugar, or leave it in a dark place, or let it sit too long before drinking it” because it just might ferment and become wine.
But don’t be fooled by how fun the book is: Last Call is a significant work of scholarship. Okrent, who was the first public editor of the New York Times, begins by establishing the context for the dry movement, describing the excessive drinking typical of the 19th century — “in modern terms… the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week.” He traces the early alliance between the temperance and suffrage movements — many women agitating for the vote wanted to use it to shut down the saloons — also weaving in the force of racist and nativist sentiment. One southern dry fretted about “drunken Negroes [pushing] white ladies off the sidewalks”; meanwhile, the immigrant composition of the political machines that controlled cities like New York and Chicago and that used saloons as their social and organizing centers was, Okrent writes, “an affront to the native Protestant’s sense of his own prerogatives.” While this big-tent coalition made passage of the Eighteenth Amendment politically feasible, it was made financially feasible by the passage of the income tax, which helped “break the federal addiction” to taxes on alcohol.
Okrent’s meticulous research brings new dimension to the enduring cultural images of the era. Sure, there were the storied speakeasies like New York’s 21 Club, which benefited from Prohibition’s underfunded, understaffed, and frequently apathetic enforcement. But there were also bootlegging rabbis who took advantage of an exemption for sacramental drink by organizing fake congregations through which they distributed wine and enriched themselves. The author shows how bootlegging, which began as largely local and nonviolent activity, was taken over by organized criminal enterprises, and he marvels at the “romantic glow” that has come to surround murderous gangsters like Al Capone.
The onset of the Depression worked in favor of Prohibition’s repeal — all that alcohol tax money began to look pretty appealing again, as did the jobs that functioning breweries and distilleries would provide. While experts were certain that repeal would never happen (in 1930 the Eighteenth Amendment’s author, Senator Morris Sheppard, declared, “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail”), it actually happened very quickly. Okrent, who will appear in Ken Burns’s upcoming PBS documentary on Prohibition, concludes that “in almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure.” The one exception? Americans did drink less, and for decades afterward continued to do so. The fact that post-Prohibition alcohol consumption was slow to rise hints at a “central irony”: repeal, bringing regulations that introduced closing hours, age limits, and Sunday blue laws, in fact “made it harder, not easier, to get a drink.”