Ratification of the Eighteenth amendment brought the darkest period imaginable for American Breweries and Beer Drinkers alike. Its supporters thought it a tonic for society’s problems; in reality it did nothing to abate or even slightly slow alcohol consumption; rather, consumption increased as prohibition wore on. Fortunately adoption of the amendment drew the immediate attention of people devoted to repeal of what was called the Great Experiment even before it proved itself the Great Failure.
Early among the anti-prohibition groups was the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA). Established in April 1919 it defined two main goals. 1. To prevent the country from going ‘bone dry’ and 2. Render the Eighteenth Amendment ‘forever inoperable’. Rank and file members read like a Who’s Who, including Vincent Astor, Marshall Field, Kermit Roosevelt and others. Unfortunately, the group was of minimal influence during those first dry years. That changed when Pierre DuPont joined.
On March 24, 1928 DuPont wrote a letter directed at the Saturday Evening Post in which he stated, “As I feel that the prohibition movement has failed in its original aim and has become both a nuisance and a menace, I hope the officials of the Saturday Evening Post will join in a move toward better things with respect to the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.”
It was a startling reversal for DuPont for at the onset of prohibition DuPont felt differently, believing that abstinence, made for a more productive worker and thereby contributed to greater profits. What changed his mind? First there was the decrease in federal revenue, the elimination of funds from alcohol taxes necessitated an increase in personal income tax, and the amount was staggering. From a total of $ 173,386,694 in 1916 loss of the alcohol tax required a corresponding seven fold increase of income tax to $1,163,254,037 by 1928. That shift in taxation forced business leaders like DuPont to rethink their position. Equally punishing was the impact on corporations. Only a cursory glance at corporate tax rates too revealed an equal seven-fold increase. Those stifling corporate taxes only deepened the depression that engulfed the country.
Closely following DuPont into the opposition was media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst went beyond merely endorsing repeal; he put up cold hard cash. Of course, he did it in a manner that would benefit circulation of his newspapers at the same time. “He sponsored an essay contest challenging readers for a solution. The prize of $25,000 was awarded to a New York judge who proposed modifying the Volstead Act to allow sale of beer and wine.”
Possibly the greatest endorsement for repeal came on June 7, 1932, with a letter from John D. Rockefeller to Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, noble prize winner, and opponent of prohibition, explaining how he (Rockefeller) changed his mind on prohibition, “All my life I have been a teetotaler….” Rockefeller said that he had “…slowly and reluctantly come to believe [that the benefits of prohibition] are more than outweighed by the evils that have developed and flourished since its adoption. Prohibition, therefore, should now be repealed.”
As early as 1928, repeal made it onto a Presidential campaign platform, when it was proposed by Al Smith of New York, but those favoring repeal were too disorganized and he was soundly beaten by Hoover.
By the next election candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed to support repeal. More than merely legalizing drinking, Roosevelt counted on the breweries to fight the depression. He wanted the brewers to resume production, creating both direct employment for those brewing and selling beer, along with indirect employment for skills such as barrel makers, malting houses and a host of other trades. Reopening would also increase government revenue while reducing unemployment.
On February 15, 1933 the US Senate voted on the proposal to approve repeal by means of the Twenty-First Amendment. This to be accomplished by state conventions; The Senate vote passed with 45 in favor, 15 against, and 36 abstentions. Five days later the House voted with 289 in favor vs. 121 against, with only 16 abstaining
Following those votes came one of those rare instances when Congress didn’t sit idle. Instead of waiting for results from the state conventions, they passed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 21, 1933 to nullify the Volstead Act by redefining the alcohol content of an “intoxicating beverage” effective April 7, 1933.
With beer legal, formal repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was almost anticlimactic. Submitted to the state conventions, the first state to ratify the 21st amendment was Michigan on April 10, 1933. Then, in a twist of fate, and as unlikely as it may seem, the 36th and deciding state, supplying the three-fourths necessary for ratification, came on December 5, at 3:31 local time from Utah
With that prohibition was gone; but what casualties lay in its aftermath? In 1910, there were more than 1,400 breweries in operation; by 1919 that number was reduced by three hundred. After Prohibition’s 13 deadly years only 31 breweries reopened by June of 1933.
With prohibition in the grave Americans prepared for a massive wake. The period’s master of words H.L. Mencken put it best, wryly observing that prohibition was, “…an elapsed time of twelve years, ten months and nineteen days… seemed almost a geologic epoch while it was going on, and the human suffering that it entailed must have been a fair match for that of the Black Death or the Thirty Years War.”
Around the country each state and city found its own way to celebrate. New York breweries agreed to hold deliveries until daybreak, as such the Big Apple was denied beer at the stroke of midnight. Undeterred, crowds gathered in the rain around several breweries. One such crowd in Brooklyn rushed a loaded truck and attempted to relieve it of its cargo. Fortunately, a riot was narrowly avoided and peace was restored.
In Philadelphia a similarly minded crowd descended on Schmidt’s shipping dock, surrounding the first truck awaiting its load. It took a police detachment to restore order and allow deliveries to proceed throughout the city.
Chicago saw much the same enthusiasm for the return of beer. The City’s Prima brewery, fearful of hijackings, requested a police escort to guard their trucks. Elsewhere, additional police were positioned around other breweries that night, restoring order as caravans of delivery trucks encountered nearly suffocating throngs.
St. Louis, was another city closely watching the clock move toward 12:01 am; except in St. Louis the clock watching was real; there a crowd stared up at the Anheuser-Busch illuminated clock tower. When it struck the appointed hour, a brass band began to play, joined by a cacophony of singing crowds, steam whistles, and bell ringing.
In the heart of Milwaukee repeal was commemorated in the cavernous bar of Mader’s German restaurant. From there, the eager, joyful and rambunctious merriment was broadcast over the radio. Those who couldn’t find room in Mader’s joined other giddy revelers roaming the streets in a giant party estimated at more than one hundred thousand.
Westward, Butte, Montana was delayed in launching its return to beer festivities not by law, but by transportation. It took four days for the town’s order of beer to complete its journey from Minnesota. When it arrived, “hundreds walked or drove to the railroad station; the supply was exhausted within a few hours.”
Las Vegas experienced one of the few times the city was late for a party, not receiving their beer until April 8th. At that time Vegas was more cow town than city, and the promised shipments of Old Bohemian, Acme and Pabst Blue Ribbon were somehow diverted to larger populations. Beer arrived at 9 a.m. on the eighth, but was delayed a second time by a shortage of bartenders who remembered how to tap a keg. With that issue finally resolved people jammed the streets and highways well into the night. In less than twenty-four hours the entire town was once again dry, but police reported no arrests for drunk or disorderly.
Los Angles was perhaps the most prepared for a celebration, with one of the best party’s orchestrated by George Zobelein of the Los Angeles Brewing Company (also known as the Eastside brewery) who reintroduce beer with splashy theatrics on April seventh. Befitting the drama of Hollywood, Zobelein wanted much more than merely sending trucks out the gates, he wanted an event, “…cars stood bumper to bumper and hundreds of the city’s night owls lined Main Street sidewalks to watch actress Jean Harlow break a bottle of beer on a delivery truck ready to roll with the Eastside Brewery’s first new batch of legal beer.”
Many breweries lay idle and would never reopen. Those resuming operations would face new obstacles in the coming years: a recession in 1937, short supplies caused first by the Dust Bowl, followed by rationing in World War Two. Though challenges remained things slowly returned to normal including the ability to safely share a beer with friends. Though not exactly the same the events of nearly 100 years ago a return to normalcy is something people can once again anticipate.
Copyright Gregg Smith – his latest book “American Beer History” is available through Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/American-Beer-History-Mayflower-Microbreweries/dp/108155410X/ref=sr_1_2?crid=3MQPV7SDGTT1P&keywords=american+beer+history&qid=1613412390&sprefix=AMerican+Beer+History%2Caps%2C232&sr=8-2