Secret Flask Hidden in Plain Sight

Here’s something every Prohibition-era drinker needed: a hidden flask. The “book” title, L’Antique Soif de Lire” translates roughly to Antique (or Ancient) Thirst of Reading. Hide your liquor in plain sight among your books and look like an intellectual at the same time! One thing confuses me, though–if this flask was actually made in France, what’s the need for subterfuge when France never had any prohibition laws? If it was made in the USA, then why make a French title? Maybe so the joke wouldn’t be obvious to the majority of Americans who wouldn’t have been able to read French?

Published in: on June 13, 2020 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Happy Prohibition Day!

One hundred years ago today, January 17, nation-wide prohibition went into effect in the United States. In some places, nothing changed, because state-wide prohibition was already in effect in some states, but for most states and cities, it was a HUGE cultural shift that resulted in a crime wave like nothing anyone had ever seen.

          Barrels of beer emptied into the sewer by authorities

People had a whole year’s notice to stock up before the big day. Many private clubs and wealthy people bought as much liquor, beer, and wine as they could afford or had room to store. The mother of Mary Pickford, silent film’s greatest star and one of the richest people in America, simplified matters when she just bought an entire liquor store and had the contents sent to her house. But most people couldn’t afford to do that. They were the ones who had to deal with the bootleggers, gangsters, international smugglers, and bathtub gin makers. Others looked for loopholes in the Volstead act that would let them get hold of liquor legally. What loopholes? Like the one for medicinal alcohol–all you needed was a compliant doctor to write you a prescription for whiskey.

So in honor of this day in history, I’m having a glass of red wine from our own winery, Valley Road Vineyards, in Afton, VA., thankful that I’m not breaking the law. Cheers!


Published in: on January 16, 2020 at 5:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Is Drinking Going Out of Style? Yes, says The Economist

In an article in The Economist special New Year issue for 2020, Slavea Chankova writes about the 100th anniversary of Prohibition and how drinking is changing. Read the entire interesting article here. 

“THE VOLSTEAD ACT to establish Prohibition in America, a ban on alcohol which lasted nearly 14 years, took effect in 1920. Now, a century later, it is seen as proof (as it were) that trying to ban drinking, when it is already popular, is not a good idea. Prohibition gave rise to organised crime, as mafia gangs made fortunes from bootlegging. Enforcement of the ban was feeble because it lacked popular support. According to one estimate, there were at least 20,000 illegal bars in New York City during Prohibition. When police in Denver raided a bar, they found the local congressman, the mayor and the sheriff having a drink.

Yet Prohibition is still around, and not just in the Muslim world. In America it exists in nearly 500 predominantly evangelical counties, including that of Lynchburg, Tennessee—the hometown of Jack Daniel’s whiskey (visitors to the distillery can take home a “commemorative” bottle of the stuff). Even so, in most places governments merely try to dissuade people from drinking by making alcohol more expensive through taxes, and restricting its sale and advertising. Such policies work. But drinking is now in decline for an unrelated reason: a shift in social norms among young people, which is charting a new future for alcohol.”

(Continue reading.) 

Published in: on December 21, 2019 at 8:56 am  Comments (1)  

Lecture Notes

I’m working on a talk about Prohibition that I’ve been asked to give next month, and in reviewing the literature, have come across some interesting tidbits I thought I’d share.

Everyone knows that liquor taxes provided the federal government (and some local ones) with an important percentage of their annual revenue. I had forgotten quite how much. During the decades after the Civil War, liquor taxes comprised between 30 and 40% of the federal government’s  revenue. That’s HUGE. No wonder politicians were reluctant to consider prohibiting alcohol manufacture and consumption–they’d be out of business. And what on earth would replace that money?

Published in: on September 2, 2019 at 9:17 am  Comments (1)  

Prohibition in Sweden

Skansen, Stockholm, Sweden

In America, we tend to think of Prohibition as an American phenomenon. When I was in Sweden last month, I learned the movement was strong in that country as well, and at the same time.

This is a picture of a Temperance Hall. I saw it in Skansen, which is a Colonial Williamsburg-sort of outdoor museum in Stockholm. Some of the buildings have been moved there from elsewhere in Sweden, and this was one of those.

According to the information I read, the movement heated up in Sweden in the mid-nineteenth century, which is about the same time it strengthened in the U.S. It never reach the stage of the legal prohibition of alcohol there–I suspect Swedes are a bit easier going in that regard than Americans, who tend to want to pass laws to make others conform to their own religious and moral preferences.

Anyway, Stockholm is a lovely city, the Swedes are gracious and hospitable, and I urge everyone to visit if they can!

Published in: on August 25, 2019 at 7:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Who was Lois Long?

Lois Long was only twenty-three when she started writing for the new magazine, the New Yorker. The Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois must have horrified her parents with her wild flapper ways. The stereotypical “minister’s daughter,” she covered the city’s nightlife scene with its speakeasy lifestyle, mixed race crowds, drinking and dancing, and flappers. But she didn’t use her real name–she signed her columns “Lipstick”–so maybe Daddy never knew . . . I got some good tidbits for my novels from her writing: for example, her choice of words and slang and her descriptions of the customers and speakeasies.

Click here to see the excellent Ken Burns 7-minute film about Lois Lang that includes some of her biting commentary on New York speakeasies.

Published in: on July 7, 2019 at 4:40 pm  Comments (2)  

Prohibition in Virginia Beach

While on vacation at Virginia Beach, we dined at the beautifully renovated Cavalier, a historic hotel that has sat high on a hill overlooking the ocean since 1926. They have a distillery in the basement, and I noted an interesting wall display that gave a brief, romanticized history of Prohibition in Virginia Beach for visitors who are unfamiliar with the topic.

In part, the script reads: Virginia had a long-established tradition of moonshining in the mountainous western part of the state. The Cape Henry area, from Norfolk to Virginia Beach, was a mecca for ‘shiners due to the demand for drink along that dry stretch. So dry, that region was actually referred to as the Desert.  . . . ladies and gentlemen flocked to the Cavalier, eluding the authorities as they satisfied their thirst for the illicit.”

For a longer, illustrated article about Prohibition on Virginia, click here.

Published in: on June 1, 2019 at 8:31 am  Comments (1)  
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Teetotalers Unite!

Well, what do you think the Merriam-Webster Dictionary word-of-the-day was for Jan. 18? (Hint: that is the first day that Prohibition was fully in effect.) Where does the word come from?

I was interested to learn that the word Teetotaler did NOT originate with prohibition, as I had thought.

Teetotaler–one who practices or advocates teetotalism : one who abstains completely from alcoholic drinks

A person who abstains from alcohol might choose tea as his or her alternative beverage, but the word teetotaler has nothing to do with tea. More likely, the “tee” that begins the word teetotal is a reduplication of the letter “t” that begins total, emphasizing that one has pledged total abstinence. In the early 1800s, tee-total and tee-totally were used to intensify total and totally, much the way we now might say, “I’m tired with a capital T.” “I am now … wholly, solely, and teetotally absorbed in Wayne’s business,” wrote the folklorist Parson Weems in an 1807 letter. Teetotal and teetotaler first appeared with their current meanings in 1834, eight years after the formation of the American Temperance Society.

Published in: on January 24, 2019 at 10:40 am  Comments (2)  

Happy New Year!

It wasn’t a very happy new year in 1920 for most people. Sure, those who backed the prohibition amendment were eager for the arrival of the liquor-free world, where there would be no violence from drunken husbands and no hungry children whose father drank up his paycheck. Most women were eager to vote for the first time. But for the majority of Americans who drank beer, wine, cider, or spirits, 1920 looked bleak.

People who had money and storage space had stocked up on their favorite beverages, but no one at the time labored under any illusion that prohibition would be temporary. With hindsight, we know it was repealed 13 years later, but they didn’t know that, and frankly, no one believed a constitutional amendment could ever be repealed. It had never happened, and there was no mechanism for it. Prohibition looked permanent.

On Jan. 17, 1920, the country went “bone dry.”

Published in: on December 28, 2018 at 9:49 am  Leave a Comment  

Vino Sano Grape Bricks

At a talk I gave a week or so ago, I mentioned Vino Sano Grape Bricks. That led some in the audience to follow the thread, and I’ve turned up a few more fun photos on this subject.

For those who don’t know, a grape brick is a dehydrated block of grape juice and pulp that was sold–quite legally–during Prohibition for people to make their own wine at home. Instructions couldn’t tell you how to make wine–that would be illegal–so they told you how NOT to make wine. Don’t add sugar and yeast and don’t let it sit in a warm place for 21 days or it might ferment! There were other brands too, but Vino Sano was the leader.

Here are a few other interesting illustrations I found. A want ad for salesmen to sell the product. This also revealed the price of a grape brick ($1.25), something I hadn’t known. 

And here’s another advertisement:


Published in: on May 16, 2018 at 2:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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