It’s Last Call

'Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,' by Daniel Okrent, is one of those great books that's about so much more than its ostensible subject.

In telling the story of the Eighteenth Amendment — which from 1920 until it was repealed in 1933 made it illegal for alcoholic beverages to be manufactured, transported, or sold within the United States — Okrent also tells the story of women’s suffrage, the federal income tax, international trade, organized crime, the Ku Klux Klan, immigration, Democrats and Republicans, men and women, sacramental wine, Welch’s Grape Juice, and cigarette boats. And, of course, meetings and conventions, which over the course of decades is where Prohibition was discussed, debated, extolled, condemned, enacted, and repealed. Indeed, more pages than not in Last Call seem to mention a meeting of some kind, somewhere.

Here are just a few examples, beginning some 70 years before America went dry:

“[Susan B.] Anthony had given her first public speech in 1849, to a group called the Daughters of Temperance. … In 1852 she was not allowed to address an Albany meeting of the Sons of Temperance specifically because she was a woman. “The sisters,” said the group’s chairman, were there not to speak but “to listen and learn.” The same year, at a New York State Temperance Society meeting in Syracuse, the same result. It happened again, at a World Temperance Society convention in New York City…. Finally Anthony cast her lot with [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton (who had declared alcohol “The Unclean Thing”) and proceeded to give half a century’s labors to the cause of suffrage.”

Around the turn of the century, as the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) gained ground:

“Thomas Gilmore, [United States Brewers’ Association Secretary Hugh] Fox’s counterpart over at the liquor distillers office, told his employers at their 1908 convention in Louisville that the ASL was ‘the most remarkable movement that this country has ever known.'”

During World War I, when Prohibition forces attacked the German-American-dominated U.S. Brewers’ Association:

“‘Does anyone doubt,’ [ASL Superintendent Purley A.] Baker asked an ASL conference in Columbus, ‘in the light of the immediate past, that if there had not been a strong, virile Prohibition movement to combat the propaganda of this disloyal but well-financed organization, that American would have been sufficiently Germanized to have kept her out of the war?'”

In 1924, four years into Prohibition, when the Democratic National Convention was held in New York City:

“Official ‘reception committees’ could direct the visiting delegate to Manhattan’s five thousand speakeasies; unofficial hosts — hotel bellmen, cabbies, prostitutes — knew where to get a bottle a delegate could enjoy in his room. ‘Good rye is hardly obtainable,’ Variety had said in one of its regular market reports, so Democrats had to make do with lesser merchandise. Wet operatives kept dry leaders entertained at endless social events, almost as if trying to seduce them with the wonders of Sodom.”

And in February 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, was ratified:

“The remaining two clauses outlawed the transportation of intoxicating liquors into states that chose to forbid it and stipulated a ratification process requiring approval not by state legislatures but by state conventions called for this specific purpose.”

Today, of course, the relationship between intoxicating liquors and meetings is better, shall we say, understood.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.