SPIRITED • Prohibition in America

Saginaw Castle Museum Features Fascinating Exhibition on the Years of Temperance & Temptation

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles, Biography,   From Issue 902   By: Robert E Martin

17th September, 2020     0

Apart from military engagements such as the Civil War, two World Wars, Vietnam, and the shock of 9/11, no other experience in the lexicon of American history has carried such an enduring and monumental impact upon the fabric of American society as the era of Prohibition, which began in 1920 and lasted until 1933.

During this period Americans could no longer manufacture, sell, or transport intoxicating beverages; division in our country was not cast upon racial lines but between the ‘wets & the dries’; flappers frolicked while suffragists fought for women’s rights; bootleggers battled against temperance lobbyists; and legends such as Al Capone, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and William Jennings Bryan all took sides in this epic battle against the bottle.

All of this is brought to vivid life in a fascinating new exhibition that recently opened at The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History titled SPIRITED: Prohibition in America, which will be on display through October 20th.

The exhibition draws on the histories told from both sides of this divisive issue that riled passions and created volatile situations. In the end after a decade of wide-spread corruption, wavering public opinion, and the need to generate revenue from an alcohol tax, the 18th Amendment became the first ever repealed, which in turn led to the passage of the Federal Income Tax - something that remains controversial and contentious to this very day.

With the passing of the 21st Amendment, Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933 to a very different America. Prohibition’s legacy can be traced through state laws regulating alcohol, created to avoid the excesses before Prohibition and the corruption and lawlessness experienced during the roaring ‘20s.  And of course, history has repeated itself with our more recent ‘War on Drugs’ and the movement to legalize Cannabis across America today.

The items, photos, memorabilia, and stories presented in this fascinating exhibition were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities; and according to Castle Museum curator and historian Tom Trombley, prior to the start of Prohibition, Saginaw County had six successful breweries that were fully operational.  “Once prohibition went into effect, only four of them would survive after prohibition was repealed.  All of them had to adapt, but only Geyers based out of Frankenmuth survived, whereas National Brewing, Co. in Saginaw had to shift their operations over to Soda Pop, while Schemm and Saginaw Banner breweries attempted to make low-alcohol ‘Near Beer’, so once the 1920s got going Schemm and the Banner were bombing out, white National was focused on soft drinks and distilled water.  After Prohibition, Schemm and the Banner were re-started by new investors but didn’t last very long and Geyer was the only one that succeeded.”

Wet to Dry • How Did This Happen?

On January 17, 1920 a new day dawned as the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of intoxicating beverages, assumed the same status as freedom of speech, religion, and the abolition of slavery in this country.

What did those who wanted America dry hope to achieve and how did the ‘wets’ fight back?  Prohibition’s advocates said they wanted to improve the nation’s moral and physical health; and in some ways they succeeded, but at a great cost insofar as the nation also endured a radical rise in crime, corruption, and cynicism.  By the time Prohibition ended with the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, America had become a much different country because of these factors.

How much did early Americans drink?  As far back as 1737, Ben Franklin was able to compile a list of 228 synonyms for the word ‘drunk’. And by the early 1800s, the country was swimming in liquor. A barrel of hard cider sat by the door of thousands of farmhouses, available to everyone in the family. In many cities the tolling of a bell at 11 am and again at 4 pm marked ‘Grog Time’, when workers were granted an alcohol-soaked break while the wealthy drank evenings away in hotel rooms or at lavish dinner parties - as perhaps best chronicled in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

“In 1830 the average American consumed 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor and Americans over the age of 15 were guzzling 7 gallons of pure alcohol each year,” notes Trombley. “This is the equivalent of 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor or 4 shots every day, which is three times higher than current levels.”

In a world where sanitation was far below modern standards, many people did not drink water. Alcoholic beverages in America as well as Europe were regarded as a healthful part of daily life and culture, developing tolerance at an early age.   Colonists brought beer and wine with them, but neither drink became widespread. Beer cold be made locally, but transporting it was difficult.

Traditional wine grapes did not grow well in N. America and importing wine was expensive.  Grain, however, was plentiful. Wheat, rye, corn and barley could be distilled into whiskey that was easily transported and sold at great profit. On the east coast molasses arrived in trade and was distilled into rum, so whiskey, rum and hard cider became the drinks of choice.  Most people were drinking hard liquor every day and this led to an impact on how America’s drinking problem was perceived.

By the early 1800s, many saloons became standardized due to the efforts of large brewing companies and almost all of them were owned by German immigrants. Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz and Pabst built their brand names by making exclusive agreements with saloon owners - sell only our brand and nothing else; and in exchange we’ll provide the glassware, furniture and even pictures adorning your walls.

At this juncture, early anti-alcohol campaigners preached ‘temperance’ - a ‘loosely defined’  term meaning everything from moderation to total abstinence. Closing the saloons would help men to stop drinking so it was perceived as a worthwhile goal. This shift in tactics began on Christmas Eve in 1873.

Inspired by a visiting lecturer - Eliza Thompson - of Hillsboro, Ohio, she led a group of women to each of that town’s saloons. They knelt outside in the snow and prayed. Within days, 9 of Hillsboro’s 13 drinking places had closed their doors. Soon ‘Mother Thompson’s Crusade’ spread across much of the country. Though it didn’t last, this movement sparked the basis of the campaign that eventually led to the passage of the 19th Amendment - proving how seemingly small ripples led at a local level can have expansive national repercussions if you tap into the right artery.

Another significant standout figure in the march to Prohibition was Carry Nation - a famous saloon buster. She was 6 feet tall, with the biceps of a lumberjack, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache. Using these assets to promote her cause, she became famous when she strode into a saloon in Topeka, Kansas and pulled out a hatchet. Nation smashed all the bottles and the mirror behind the bar, threw the cash register to the floor and broke open the beer barrels.

Then you had orator and statesman William Jennings Bryan. Inspired by his political views as well as his religion, Bryan thought prohibition could improve the lives of ordinary Americans. He was a supporter of the amendments to establish an income tax, provide for the direct election of senators, and grant the vote to women.

But perhaps the most significant player was Wayne B. Wheeler, chief strategist for the Anti-Saloon League, who figured out how to swing elections by controlling small blocs of voters, state by state. Wheeler and his allies sent dry candidates into office.  After decades of promoting temperance, the anti-liquor forces determined that only a constitutional amendment could make this country dry - the man who made it happen was Wheeler. His strategy was simple: if you support us on prohibition we’ll support you. In state and federal elections across the country, Wheeler delivered the votes that spelled the difference between victory and defeat for hundreds of legislative candidates.

Taking advantage of an income tax amendment, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and a world war, Wheeler shepherded the 18th amendment to its ratification on Jan. 16, 1919 - and a new era arrived in America.

This in turn led to perhaps the most profound and long-lasting ramification of Prohibition, as the Federal Income Tax Amendment became the law-of-the-land. National prohibition could not become a reality as long as the Federal government was dependent on alcohol taxes. Enacting the 19th Amendment to authorize a Federal Income Tax, government now had a new revenue source - one that remains controversial to this day.

Be Careful What You Wish For, You Just Might Get It

On Jan 17, 1920 when the 18th Amendment went into effect, two groups benefited from Prohibition: Baptists and Bootleggers.  Baptists - and those who agreed with them - had succeeded in passing a constitutional amendment. The nation’s 5th largest industry in terms of invested capital was put out of business overnight and American’s did start drinking less - for the first few years of Prohibition, as much as 70% less alcohol was consumed than before 1920.

This, however, was short-lived. Bootleggers benefited from the unintended consequences of Prohibition. In well-stocked speakeasies, men and women began drinking together in public. Vast governmental corruption eroded the nation’s respect for law and rampant criminality - along with well-placed loopholes in the enforcement laws - put illegal behavior on the front pages of newspapers daily.

According to the law, you could not arrest people for consuming alcohol, because legislators knew there would be no way to pass the Amendment if you penalized the consumer; therefore, the thought was to go after the suppliers and manufacturers.  Without doubt this was the biggest hole in their logic, as vast fortunes were made by figures such as Al Capone and Joseph Kennedy.

The Local Angle

“The great thing about Traveling Exhibitions such as this one is they allow us to juxtapose the national story within the context of the local story,” reflects Tom Trombley. “Prohibition was such a defining period of our modern history and it’s amazing how many people were drinking during this period.  All along the 100 block of Jefferson Street and along Water Street and Hamilton Street you had dozens of saloons and taverns; and people were making their own alcohol in their basements.”

“Even children were drinking beer,” continues Trombley. “Newspaper ads would have tag lines like: ‘Even Children Drink Beer, It’s More Nutritious than Milk!’ And what I really like about this exhibition is that people who come to view it will learn something.  Even a lot of patented medicines at the time had high alcohol content, which is why people often joke today how they drink for ‘medicinal purposes’.”

“In Saginaw there would be many police raids against stills, so eventually many of them moved to houseboats because they were untethered property,” notes Trombley. “Houses, barns and other places were also used to manufacture alcohol. And breweries such as Geyer and National would sell mold extract for ‘healthful purposes’ so people could purchase that and then go make their own beer from it.”

“It’s funny because people don’t usually think of the 1920s as being shaped by Prohibition,” concludes Trombley. “When you read or see The Great Gatsby and see all that alcohol flowing, you don’t think about how alcohol was basically illegal during the great Jazz Age of flappers and the Charleston.”

SPIRITED: Prohibition in America is on display at The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History through October 20th. The Museum is open Sunday from 1 - 4:30 pm; Monday - Wednesday 10 am to 4:30 PM; Thursday 10 am - 7 pm and Friday & Saturday 10 am - 4:30 pm. Admission is only $1.00 for adults and 50 cents for children and members are Free. The Museum is located at 400 Federal Ave. in Downtown Saginaw.








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