What Was America’s Fifth Largest Industry in the Twenties?

I don’t know what the fifth largest industry in the U.S. is today, but in 1920, at the start of Prohibition, it was alcohol. When you tallied up all the breweries, distilleries, and wineries in the United States, and all the support industries like barrel makers and glass bottle manufacturers, and threw in all the bars, saloons, private clubs, and caterers who served the stuff, you come up with the fifth largest industry in the country. Think of the jobs lost when Prohibition went into effect! Think of the family businesses destroyed . . . like this one:

Christian-Moerlein, one of the countries largest breweries until Prohibition (Cincinnati)

Of course, not all liquor, beer, and wine producers went out of business. Some wineries made grape juice and Communion wine, the only wine still allowed for religious reasons.  (The demand for Communion wine skyrocketed, but an even better way to get it legally was with a prescription for medical reasons, which also skyrocketed.) Some saloons turned into restaurants; others became speakeasies and sold alcohol illegally. Some breweries produced malt extract, a legal product that could be used in the home to make beer; others hung on by selling nonalcoholic beverages. But thousands and thousands of jobs and businesses disappeared. Sure, some started up again after this stupid law was repealed, but it was too late for most. 

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 4:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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