Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Cover of Daniel Okrent's Last CallDaniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is ostensibly a history of America’s attempt from 1920 to 1933 when, in response to the 18th amendment, the nation outlawed “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” In actuality, Okrent has written a careful, readable and interesting history that looks closely at the roles of the temperance movement, the women’s emancipation movement, and the burgeoning interest in civil rights for all in the context of the rise and fall and rise again (after December 5, 1933 when the 21st Amendment reversed the 18th) of spirituous liquors and the saloon, the brewery, and the speakeasy.

Okrent’s history begins on January 16, 1920, the eve of Prohibition, when streets were running with booze and customers were doing their best to stash or imbibe all they could. The rise of the Temperance movement had close ties with election politics (and funding) and with growing “nativist” attitudes as the flood of European immigrants brought their love of brewing and beer, creating beer magnates like Adolphus Busch (of Budweiser fame) who, like many other German brewers suffered from World War I anti-German sentiments.

One of the most interesting aspects of Prohibition in terms of where people drank and how is the way co-ed drinking became acceptable via the development of restaurants who also functioned as speakeasys, and the close ties between drinking establishments and jazz (and eventually led to racial integration, of a sort), and even the popularity of the cuisine of Southern Italy, as plates of pasta were accompanied by servings of homemade wine and grappa at Italian boarding houses that doubled as speakeasys. Another fascinating result of Prohibition was the rise of Coca-Cola (“The Drink That Cheers But Does Not Inebriate”).

This is a fascinating, well-written and well-documented history of an era. Along the way, Okrent explores (and explodes) several myths, including the one we’ve all heard about Joseph Kennedy and bootleg, and exposes the more seamy underside of the Temperance movement.

(Scribner, 2011)

Daniel Okrent has a website. There’s an excellent NPR interview of Okrent about Last Call.

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