Vice Squad
Friday, March 26, 2004

Alcohol Prohibition in America was largely brought about by the efforts of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Founded in Ohio in 1893, the ASL became a national organization in 1895. The League’s construction along a single anti-alcohol dimension resulted in enormous political influence. The ASL endorsed candidates from any party, for local, state, and national elections, provided they were committed to its "dry" agenda. With significant sway over single-issue dry voters, these endorsements reduced the number of major party politicians willing to adopt a "wet" stance. Its influence growing, in 1913 the ASL called for a Constitutional Amendment to institute a federal alcohol ban, and the Amendment became reality in 1919.

Why would a large group of people and resources coalesce around an organization formed in opposition to saloons? Much of the reason is that pre-Prohibition saloons differed significantly from modern bars or bars/restaurants. Saloons were all-purpose alcohol establishments, encompassing both on-site consumption and take-away purchases. What they generally did not encompass was a welcoming environment for "respectable" women. Saloons were viewed, often rightly, as hotbeds of public nuisance; most notably, they were associated with gambling and prostitution, the toleration or encouragement of which were often conscious marketing elements for the saloons. Many saloons were decidedly odious, at least from the point of view of non-patrons.

I just finished reading The Old-Time Saloon, by George Ade (New York: Ray Long and Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1931). The author was a journalist in Chicago in the 1890s, and he wrote his book during Prohibition -- there had been no legal saloons for more than a decade, so he wanted to record what they were in fact like. Ade places the "blame" for Prohibition primarily on the liquor industry itself:

"The trouble with the drink places was that they tried to think up cute ways of making a fool of the law instead of wisely endeavoring to keep up a semblance of decency and placate the non-customers. In communities which attempted to enforce midnight closing they went in for double curtains and heavy blinds, so that when the place seemed dark from the outside it was very much illuminated and going full blast on the inside. Keeping open on Sundays and holidays, selling to minors, harboring outlaw elements, lining up voters who could be bought -- these were some of the major offenses [p. 23]..." Ade says that in the Chicago loop, the day a saloon opened (so the story went), the owner threw the key to the place into the river, because it was never going to be needed again.

Not only does Ade view the extremism of the saloon owners as the cause of their undoing, he correctly foresaw a similar unwillingness to compromise as a threat to the continuation of Prohibition -- in words that should gladden the heart of those of us opposed to today's War on Drugs:

"The ultra-Drys have had their day in court, and now they are in danger of getting on the nerves of those who do not happen to absolutely agree with them. They are so militant in their goodness that they attribute the basest motives to all opponents. They should remember that the American public will not stand for intolerance, in the long run, and that it has a way of jumping from one extreme to another...[pp. 169-70]."

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