“Alcohol is the devil’s tool. Alcohol destroys families. Alcohol is bad.”
For almost a half century, progressives, preachers, suffragists, and xenophobes waged a war on the evils of alcohol. They believed that alcohol alone made people do bad things. The “devil baby” was used to display how husbands that drank too much and beat their wives disfigured and damaged the unborn. The impact of over-indulging could be seen all over the United States. Combined with a sophisticated propaganda machine, the teetotalers demanded that all alcohol be forbidden. Temperance was not taken seriously by the drinking public, until the moralist won.
But then, the unimaginable happened on January 17, 1920. The United States of America went dry. Federal law prohibited the transportation, manufacturing and selling of any alcoholic beverages, Brewers, distillers, saloon and tavern owners, and the drinking public could no longer legally obtain or make booze. A rumor started that claimed doctors could write a prescription for whiskey, rum, brandy and the like. What? Instead of taking two aspirins and calling the physician in the morning, people were making appointments to get a prescription for a pint that they could fill at the local druggist. This is the story of legal drinking during Prohibition in the United States.
Bad Water is Better than Booze
America changed rapidly during the 19th century. The telegraph made instant communication over long distances possible while the railroad transported raw materials to factories and then shipped out consumer goods to the hinterland. Foreign laborers flooded into the country to work in factories and live in cities. New customs and cultural institutions began making their mark on the nation. Concerned citizens began forming groups to attack and curb these new influences.
For working men, women, and children, Sunday was a day of leisure. It was the only day of the week where factories were closed. Workers relaxed and enjoyed drinks to unwind before their six-day workweek resumed. The pious considered it taboo to drink on a Sunday and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union challenged local governments to shut down taverns on Sunday. As they enjoyed their successes they began to focus on eliminating alcohol all together. What began as localized chapters swelled into a national movement.
By 1900, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had formed into the Anti-Saloon League. People from all walks of life supported the Anti-Saloon League’s efforts to shut down liquor production and distribution. Collectively many wealthy, poor, religious, and even politicians believed that America had a serious drinking problem. The League was particularly harsh to one immigrant group, the German Lutherans.
Beer gardens were a cultural institution for German Lutherans. They gathered there on Sundays to converse with family and friends, exchange news from home, and share in a communal meal all while drinking beer. Members of the Anti-Saloon League believed that these places were pure evil and not just because of the alcohol served. Many believed that the Germans were plotting to overthrow the government of the United States on the eve of the First World War.
Further complicating the Anti-Saloon League’s argument was the fact that water simply was not safe to drink. At the turn to the 20th century, raw sewage was still thrown onto the street from chamber pots, outdoor toilets, and communal buckets in tenement buildings. In Chicago, for example, landlords were required by city ordinances to provide water to a building, but there was no ordinance that stated the water had to go up to the 5th floor. In working class, poor, and rural areas, outdoor toilets were the norm. Solid wast sanitation facilities existed, but they were not sophisticated. As such, water-borne illnesses like tuberculosis, dysentery, and cholera continued to make people very sick. Water could kill. Distilled beverages were the safer choice.