When a German U-boat torpedoed the RMS Lusitania on Friday, May 7th, 1915, Americans found two new enemies: Germany and the beer it was so associated with. Anti-German sentiment grew, and with it hostility to the breweries founded in the 19th century by German immigrants. Soon, the war effort and the temperance movement were linked: it was patriotic to abstain, and Prohibition became law.
How did America cope? They swapped their stool at the bar for a seat at the soda shop, listening to new radios and the first ever baseball broadcasts. But Americans’ thirst wasn’t ever fully quenched: they turned to family doctors who prescribed “medicinal alcohol,” and then finally to the bootleggers, moonshiners and rum-runners who made, smuggled and sold hooch of all types, from top-shelf French cognac to homemade swill that might just kill you.
For more about the Lusitania, check out Dead Wake: The Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.
Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition has more information on medicinal alcohol and how it was prescribed by doctors. To learn more about medicinal beer, this article by Beverly Gage for The Smithsonian is excellent.
The 1991 study “Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition” by Jeffrey A. Miron and Jeffrey Zwiebel, is considered the definitive study about how much people actually drank during the noble experiment. For more information on how Prohibition played out in the early days, check out Professor David J. Hanson’s, “Alcohol Problems and Solutions,” a comprehensive, interactive site that outlines all the various stakeholders in the Noble Experiment.
To read more about Americans behaving badly in Cuba and other places during Prohibition, check out Wayne Curtis’s And A Bootle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails, as well as Matthew Rowley’s Lost Recipes of Prohibition. And, to learn more about rum-runners, Daniel Francis’s book, Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-Runners and Border Wars is an excellent reference.
Further references can be found in America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops by Christine Sismondo.
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