In many ways it’s almost unfathomable to think that there was a time when drinking alcohol in the United States was illegal. The US has a deep history with distilled spirits dating back to the country’s inception, when sugarcane and molasses were shipped from the Caribbean to the colonies where it was made into rum. Even the nation’s first president, George Washington, made it a point to have aged Barbados rum prominently served at his inauguration.
It’s even more surprising considering that the turn of the century was a real renaissance for distilled spirits with the emergence of the cocktail (an event often mis-attributed to the prohibition era). Combine all that with an influx of European immigrants who brought with them generations of distillation and beer making knowledge and you would have expected the 1920s to be a celebration of spirits, not an elimination of them.
In Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, author Daniel Okrent deconstructs the complex web of events and people which made prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment happen, and dispels a number of myths about this period in American history. One of the most interesting parts of Last Call is its examination of how people acquired their booze during prohibition, and the cat-and-mouse game played between the bootleggers and the prohibition enforcement agencies.
Some of the most interesting tidbits in Last Call are:
- The women’s suffrage movement was inexorably tied to both the temperance movement and the repeal of prohibition, and women were admitted to bars and speakeasies during prohibition when previously they were barred from these establishments.
- Prohibition was a key incubator to organized crime in the US, and the network of moving alcohol caused gangsters from different cities to get together and work together.
- Al Capone was in his early twenties when he was at the apex of his power, not nearly as old as he is often portrayed in films about him.
- Thousands of people died during prohibition due to poisonous wood alcohol used to spike industrial alcohol so it couldn’t be consumed. It was well known that people were dying but the enforcement divisions wouldn’t change what they were using to something non-poisonous.
- The ‘powder room’ was created during prohibition so that women could have a place to freshen up at bars and speakeasies which didn’t permit women before prohibition.
- The cruise industry has its roots in prohibition, with booze cruises or cruises to nowhere so people could drink outside of the US.
- Coca-Cola considered releasing a Coca-Cola beer after prohibition.
Last Call is expertly written and impeccably researched. I appreciate Daniel Okrent’s attention to detail and his ability to balance an immense amount of information with story arcs that move the book along and breathe life into the prohibition era. The book is also a precursor to an upcoming documentary series by Ken Burns (which is set to air in 2011). Okrent makes a point of explaining in his acknowledgement that he and Burns had intended to work together but ultimately went their own ways. Highly Recommended