Essay: Prohibition's Impact on Milwaukee

Aug 1, 2014

Garters helped hide this vice during the dry spell.
Credit Wikimedia commons

When you ask most people what they think of when they hear the word Prohibition, they will probably tell you “speakeasies and gangsters.”  Prohibition is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences-- a law meant to curb drinking that encouraged it. The widespread flouting of this law made criminals of people who would never have dreamt of breaking the law before it was passed. 

Prohibition came about as the result of the passage of a Constitutional amendment, and is a perfect example of why it isn’t a good idea to amend the Constitution for every current cause.  Since the Constitution is the operating system on which our country runs, passing a whole lot of amendments is like sticking apps into your operating system-- it just gums up the works. 

There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution.  Most of these have either fixed glitches in the operating system-- like the twelfth amendment, which put the president and vice president onto the same ballot-- or they have expanded individual freedoms, like the Bill of Rights and the amendments that gave the vote to blacks, to women, and to citizens between the ages of 18 and 21. 

The amendment that created prohibition-- the 18th amendment-- is the only one to have contracted individual freedoms, and the only one to have been repealed. 

The Eighteenth Amendment forbade the sale, importation, or transportation of  “intoxicating liquors” within or into the United States.  And Americans did drink a lot, and always had-- even in colonial times.  In an era before refrigeration, and when waste was dumped into rivers and streams, alcoholic beverages were among the safest of drinks.  In addition, alcohol was thought to have medicinal value, so it was consumed morning, noon and night. 

Social reformers were determined to end this widespread overuse of alcohol.  But as is the case with the use of drugs today, when people are determined to do something, they will find a way.  In the 1920s, they did just that. The law meant to curb drunkenness had the result of encouraging it instead.  The net effect of the Amendment-- and the Volstead Act that detailed its enforcement-- was to force drinking underground. 

The Volstead Act was named for the Minnesota congressman who was its author. It forbade the manufacture, import and sale of alcohol, but did not forbid its consumption. It made exemptions for alcohol used for scientific or medicinal or sacramental purposes, and even allowed people to produce a limited amount of alcohol for their own use, that of their family, and of bonafide guests.  The result?  It was estimated that as much as 700 millions of gallons of beer was brewed in homes in 1929.

But there were other results of prohibition besides the rise of a general disrespect for the law.  There was the inability of the government to regulate the content of home brews, which were known on occasion to poison people.  There was the loss of all the tax revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages.  And an entire industry was forced out of business.

Milwaukee, famous for its breweries, was hard hit.  While illegal enterprises related to the production of alcohol flourished in places like Chicago, or in the hills of Appalachia--where using souped up vehicles to outrun the feds became the forerunner of NASCAR racing-- in Milwaukee, local brewers took to alternate industries. 

Milwaukee’s former brewers turned to producing cheese, malt syrup, candy and yeast. The Uihlein family, who owned the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, entered into a disastrous experiment, making chocolate bars under their phonetically spelled name.  Among other things that went wrong with their candy was a fish-oil coated wrapper that spoiled the taste. 

The Uihleins also sold off their interest in many of the iconic Schlitz taverns throughout the city.

The National Distilling Company, which had produced hard liquors like whiskey and gin, had also owned the Red Star Yeast company. When prohibition came, they had to shut down the distillery-- and its famous “wet bar,” which had dispensed free gin to those who stopped in, including the local police who were patrolling the area. They took the name of their yeast division, and later lost the distilling name as a result of its disuse. 

But Milwaukee’s brewers did not disassemble their breweries. And when Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned on, among other things, repealing the 18th Amendment, American brewers contributed over $300,000 to his campaign.  When Prohibition, which had gone into effect on January 16, 1920, was repealed on December 5, 1933, they were in place to be up and running immediately.  A Constitutional blunder was remedied, and the rest is history.