This weekend our daughter had an Alice in Wonderland themed birthday “tea” party with a few of her friends (the tea was really lemonade). One of the girls finished her tea early and wanted to go play outside, but her mother told her she had to “keep [her] bottom in a chair” until the other girls had finished up. Kids are so smart – she waited until her mother wasn’t looking, then quickly moved into Little Mama’s “little red chair, ” a light-weight, child-sized chair that is easy to carry around. Careful to keep the chair firmly attached to her rear end, she then walked herself outside to play. No rules were broken (unless you count the second or two it took her to switch seat).
This section of the book is all about loopholes (I read through Chapter 14). There were plenty of exceptions to the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, and people used these as loopholes to have alcohol if they wanted it.
Loophole One: each person was allowed a certain amount of homemade fermented fruit juice (it wasn’t technically assumed to be alcoholic, and was supposed to allow people who grew fruits to make use of some of their harvests). Grape growers got exceptionally rich by shipping mashed up grapes all over the country. Okrent says that, for a time, grape prices got so high that former wine makers were earning nearly exponentially more by just shipping grapes than they did making and selling wines (of course, some of them lamented that the quality of home-fermented wine was sub-standard, but they kept ion shipping the grapes. I vaguely remember making my high school science class making wine – as I recall, it wasn’t that hard to do (of course, no one was allowed to taste it, and it might not have been potable at all).
Loophole Two: Alcohol remained legal for religious purposes. In short, their motives were noble ones and, in the end, some priests and rabbis also managed to become very wealthy because of Prohibition. Also, a surprising number of people became Catholic or Jewish during this time. Here is a quote:
American Jews had opposed the Eighteenth Amendment with the near unanimity and absolute vehemence that seized American Catholics. For both groups, it wasn’t simply a matter of protecting the free practice of their respective religions. Like the Catholics, the Jews peered behind the Prohibition banner and saw the white-hooded hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and the foaming xenophobia of the nativist pastors who dominated the Methodist and Baptist churches. It was a view summarized by a speaker at the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1914: the effort to place Prohibition in the Constitution, the rabbi declared, could be attributed to “the ambition of ecclesiastic tyrants.”
Loophole Three: Alcohol remained legal for medicinal purposes. Evidently a lot of doctors and pharmacists prescribed straight whiskey or other spirits for various ailments, or used it in their various tonics. Some of them fancied up their prescriptions by calling it “Spiritus Frumenti” which means “spirit of the grain.” This reminds me of the current situation with marijuana – it is legal for medicinal purposes in California and other places, and I often hear people joking about how easy it is to get a prescription for it: Headache? Medical marijuana. Hangnail? Medical marijuana. Seems like the same thing was going on with whiskey back in those dark days of Prohibition.
They still put alcohol in some medicines, don’t they? When we were kids, they used to give us “Baby Percy Medicine” whenever we had stomach problems. That stuff contained quite a lot of alcohol, and it worked every time – as I recall, it made us fall contentedly to sleep, but you’ll have to check with my mom or grandma as to whether this was really the case. I Googled it and found an assortment of websites listing the alcohol content at 5% (don’t quote me on this – I made no attempt to verify this). Hm – doesn’t Nyquil have a fairly high amount of alcohol too?
Here is my favorite quote from this section:
Charles Walgreen…had built his Chicago-based chain from nine locations in 1916 to twenty just four years later. In 1922 Walgreens introduced the malted milk shake, which family historians have credited with the chain’s next growth spurt. But it’s doubtful that milk shakes alone were responsible for Walgreens’ rocketing expansion from 20 stores to an astonishing 525 during the 1920s. The author sites, as evidence, a quote from one of the heirs, about having to call the fire department to the stores and hoping that they would leave quickly “because whenever they came in we’d always lose a case of liquor from the back.”
Not another loophole, but the book mentions that soft drinks did well during Prohibition, and not just because they gave the compliant something besides water to drink. Soft drinks were also used to mask the awful taste of home made spirits.
Footnote: The URL for the Percy Medicine is (wait for it): www.walgreens.com