Monday, June 11, 2012

Reading About Prohibition

Did you see the Ken Burns PBS documentary about Prohibition?  I found it fascinating, and wanted to know more.  I bought the DVD so I could re-watch it, as well as a book it featured: Last Call by Daniel Okrent.

I'm a little over halfway through the book, and there are so many good things that I couldn't wait until I finished reading it to start chatting about it.

I've always been curious about how our country went from the ideal of freedom to such restriction in a rather short amount of time.  Also, I had a pretty terrible education and was always left wondering about the details of the first part of the 20th century in general.  This book does a fabulous job at explaining all of that.  Rather than confining its scope to the alcohol agenda, the book explores all the aspects that joined together to make Prohibition a reality.  Plus, the writing is entertaining and there are ton of interesting tidbits.  For example:

Did You Know?
  • The seed scattered by John Chapman--'Johnny Appleseed'--produced apples that were inedible but, when fermented, very drinkable.
  • Per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you'll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like.
  • By 1875 onward, fully one-quarter of federal revenues came from the beer keg and the whiskey bottle.
  • By 1909 some 70 percent of American saloons--in New York and Chicago, more than 80 percent--were owned by, in debt to, or otherwise indentured to the breweries.

I had no idea how pivotal this time was for our country.  From slavery issues left over from the Civil War and Reconstruction, to women's rights, immigration, and the income tax, and the whole idea of what role the federal government should play in general, Prohibition was much more complex in the making than a simple feud over alcohol.  Everyone got involved and used whatever agenda they needed to in order to reach their own goals.

I'm currently reading about California wine country, and loving the insight.  Truly, I feel like this book tells a more thorough story of modern American history than anything else I've experienced.  And did I mention the writing is great too?  I can't wait to delve into organized crime and more details about the social drinking that F. Scott Fitzgerald was so familiar with.  This book has been like a bowl full of candy for me so far.  Mmmm.


  1. So interesting to read. I've just finished reading The Paris Wife & at the beginning it sparked a thought of wanting to know more about Prohibition. Looking forward to reading more about your reading.

  2. I had to study this period in school and I loved it. But, what I found most interesting is how the human mind can change and adapt to new situations. Before the Prohibition, I am sure most Americans who acutally broke the law in order to get a drink would have never ever broke another law.

    This seems like a great historical reading. Thanks for sharing it. I must admit I tend to avoid historical readings (either fiction or non-fiction).

  3. I find it very satisfying to make the history connection to the literature that we love. I've had some terrific history courses at college. Have you ever read Historian Howard Zinn's essays and books? I think you may really like his stuff.

  4. Sounds awesome! There's nothing like a good nonfiction book to feed your curiosity. I finished Roll, Jordan, Roll finally. It was fascinating--but very long!

  5. So glad you all find this to be interesting too!

    Joan, I didn't realize that The Paris Wife was around that time period? Is it a book you'd recommend?

    booksandreviews, I think you are exactly right--it spurred law-abiding citizens into uncharacteristic behavior. It's been interesting to read about the famous names and businesses that really took off during Prohibition (such as Walgreens!)

    Belle, I'm unfamiliar with Howard Zinn (except that there's a readalong of one of his books going on somewhere in blogger-land) but I'll have to check him out. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Heidi, I have set Team of Rivals aside simply because of its heft, so I hear you there, but am planning on picking it up and reading in a more systematic (read: disciplined) manner once I finish Last Call. Congrats on finishing Roll, Jordan, Roll!


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