A century ago, signs of prohibition were on the horizon

Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

On page 4 of the Sept. 9, 1917 Miles City Daily Star was the headline “STOP MANUFACTURE OF BOOZE AT 11 O’CLOCK TONIGHT.”

The headline wasn’t completely accurate but it conveyed the idea. “Manufacturers of whiskey” will close. The initial effort to stop the manufacture of distilled liquors was to save grain for the war effort. It wasn’t full out Prohibition — yet.

It would be, within about a year, so this was also a warning to consumers of distilled liquors to start stocking up. (Maybe not officially, but a quite a few folks did.)

The Federal law to shut down distilleries wasn’t officially about Prohibition. It wasn’t to stop people from drinking, but to stop grain from being “wasted” on alcohol production. The article states that “of the 100,000,000 bushels of grain, or thereabouts, which goes into the distilleries each year, about 40 percent, experts estimate, comes out in the form of whisky or other distilled beverages.” That 40 percent could be made into bread and other necessary foods.

The remainder “eventually finds it way to perfumes, toilet waters, bay rum, medicines and industries where denatured alcohol is used.” For those of you who don’t know, toilet water was a more dilute form of cologne, not something in the toilet, and bay rum was a common aftershave.

The theory was that “few, if any” of the large commercial distilleries would have to shut down and lay off their work forces. They would continue to manufacture distilled alcohol for purposes other than social consumption.

That’s because there were a lot of distilleries in the U.S. and while the “dry” movement was popular with moralists, people who earned their living in the distilleries were probably less enthusiastic. In 1917, the economy was doing well, but to suddenly put  thousands of men out of work would have had an effect.

Smaller distilleries might be put out of business, the article stated, but not the large ones that employed hundreds or thousands of workers. 

“The California distilleries, it is thought, will continue to operate, in part, “for the manufacture of spirits for fortifying sweet wine.”

In other words, hard drinkers who liked whiskey might have trouble finding a drink but their grandmother would be still be able to sip her cream sherry.

Actually, by the time full strength Prohibition came into effect on  June 30, 1919, with July 1, 1919, becoming known as the “Thirsty-First,” those sweet sherries were on the banned list, too.

Another economic theory behind prohibiting the manufacturing of whiskey prior to actual Prohibition was that the price of whiskey would then skyrocket. Distilleries would still continue to make a profit selling off stored product while only the rich, probably the idle rich, would be drinking. The working class would be priced out of the market.

“In the opinion of some officials,” stated the article, “whiskey will be selling at $15 a gallon within 12 months, affording distilleries enormous profit.”

The article optimistically asserted that “a tremendous growth in the use of commercial alcohol is anticipated, which in time may result in the demand for a quantity of alcohol at least as large as the present output for all purposes.”

In other words, the rich men who owned the distilleries should have nothing to worry about.

The theory, like all of the theories having to do with Prohibition, proved to be wrong. A lot of rich men lost a lot of money, but the price of whiskey did go up.

The entire U.S. was dry by Jan. 1, 1920, at least officially.

By 1925, in New York City alone, historians estimate there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs selling distilled liquors.

Aside from the fact that no state or even the federal government really had the enormous resources to enforce Prohibition, alcohol was taxed. And taxed at a fairly high rate. 

Millions of dollars of tax income vanished abruptly, just as local and federal governments needed to hire thousands upon thousands of agents to enforce the Volstead Act, as Prohibition was formally known.

While alcohol use did drop considerably during the years it was illegal, it hardly went away. People could make it at home or smuggle it in from Canada, a particularly popular pastime in Montana. Estimates are that alcohol consumption dropped by 50 percent but that meant 50 percent of the drinkers were still drinking.

As early as 1925, there were signs Prohibition was not working. “Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor,” historian Lizabeth Cohen wrote. “A rich family could have a cellar-full of liquor and get by, it seemed, but if a poor family had one bottle of home-brew, there would be trouble. Working-class people were inflamed by the fact that their employers could dip into a private cache while they, the employees, could not.”

President Woodrow Wilson — who vetoed the Volstead Act but Congress overrode his veto — moved his own supply of alcoholic beverages to his Washington residence after his term of office ended. His successor, Warren G. Harding, relocated his own large supply into the White House after inauguration.

Organized crime, which had only a small influence in big cities, suddenly found the foothold it needed to spread throughout the country. Crime increased by horrific percentages in big cities during the early years of Prohibition.

Even the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which devoted its early efforts just to stamping out illegal alcohol, wasn’t up to the task.

By the time the Depression hit, governments wanted their so-called sin tax revenue back. Prohibition had been heavily supported by Suffragettes, who wanted the men in their lives to be sober. They had an unexpected influence at the ballot box in 1918 and 1919, when men were serving in World War I and women were voting for the first time. By 1929, the men were home, out of work, and wanted a drink.

Very often, what seems like a really good idea at first turns out to have unfortunate consequences. It did provide one advantage in Miles City. No one would testify against the ladies of ill repute in court but the madams could be arrested for selling illegal drinks. So they were. Regularly. And those fines helped keep the city coffers full.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or mcreporter@midrivers.com.)