At 12:01 a.m., 75 years ago, beer became legal for the first time in thirteen years, but in only 19 states. Though it would be eight more months until Prohibition officially ended (on December 5), President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept his first campaign promise by encouraging Congress to modify the Volstead Act and they passed the Cullen-Harrison bill, which FDR signed into law on March 23. The bill allowed the sale and manufacture of low-alcohol beer (3.2% alcohol by weight/4.0% by volume), along with light wines, too. For brewers, it represented a return to brewing and those that had remained opening making non-alcoholic products quickly retooled. Those that had been shuttered for over a decade had a harder time re-opening, but some did manage it. Ultimately Prohibition did irreparable harm the industry as a whole and less than half of America’s breweries did not survive.
|The Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado, is again celebrating the day, this time as “75 Years of Beer,” marking the 75th anniversary of when 3.2 beer could again legally be sold before the formal repeal of Prohibition eight months later on December 5, 1933. That should gladden the heart of historian Bob Skilnik somewhat, though he’s still hard at work making sure everyone knows the true facts. Less than a month ago, things were still not too good in the media or the blogosphere. Skilnik, writing on March 13. “It’s already started and I find myself this week screaming at my computer screen, the TV and a few newspapers, and as it now appears, beer writers, breweries, and at least one brewing trade organization. April 7 does NOT signify the end of National Prohibition. National Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933.” He also added, magnanimously that “Julia Herz (the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Program Director) has, however, gone out of her way and changed their website info in an effort to get the history right. And for this, I tip my hat to her and the BA and their 75 Years of Beer celebration.)”|
The Brewers Association this year cleverly called the celebration “75 Years of Beer” since this year is the 75th anniversary of 3.2 beer being legalized in 19 states. But that won’t work next year, because “76 Years of Beer” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. From their press release:
Historians note that Prohibition officially ended on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. But earlier that year, newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt took steps to fulfill his campaign promise to end the national ban on alcohol. He spurred Congress to modify the Volstead Act to allow the sale of 3.2 percent beer in advance of the Twenty-first Amendment being ratified. Thus on April 7, 1933, Roosevelt himself received newly legalized beer at the White House to toast what was the beginning of the end for Prohibition. In the 24-hours that followed, more than 1.5 million gallons of beer flowed as Americans celebrated.
“April 7th is a day to recognize the past 75 years of beer and the beer community’s contribution to American’s quality of life. The explosion of creativity and innovation by those who make beer is an American success story,” said Charlie Papazian, President of the Brewers Association.
“As we celebrate this significant day in the history of beer, we also recognize the incredible contributions beer has made to our nation and the economy over the last 75 years,” added Jeff Becker, President of the Beer Institute. “Today, our industry contributes nearly $190 billion annually to the U.S. economy and provides more than 1.7 million jobs to our nation’s workforce.”
“April 7th is the perfect time to highlight the entrepreneurial spirit and economic contributions America’s beer industry brings to our country. Americans now have access to nearly 13,000 labels of beer — within the safest alcohol distribution system in the world — because of the state-based regulatory system that was established 75 years ago,” added Craig Purser, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA).
See, that’s a lot of angles that have little to do with repeal or the specific history of the event but which capture the spirit of the celebration, namely a holiday talking about beer’s virtues.
Another historian that I greatly admire, Maureen Ogle (author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer) tells the true story of the events surrounding April 7 in an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times.
Today, we look back on Prohibition as an exercise in temporary insanity, but the 13-year experiment in sobriety was rooted in our quintessentially American faith that we can perfect the world. A broad cross section of people — men and women, urban and rural, young and old — supported the ban on alcohol because they believed that it would reduce crime, alleviate poverty, strengthen the family and nurture a more perfect union.
That lofty vision collapsed under the weight of reality. Prohibition spawned an underground economy devoted to making, shipping and selling booze. The officials trying to enforce it earned more from bribes, kickbacks and the resale of confiscated alcohol than from their meager salaries. The poison of such corruption permeated daily life. It undermined respect for the Prohibition amendment and, by extension, for the Constitution itself. Worse, Americans realized that in banning the production of alcoholic beverages, one of the nation’s largest and most heavily taxed industries, they had closed the spigot on a significant source of both jobs and revenue.
Bob Skilnik also sent out his own press release in an effort to make sure the right story is told.
April 7th is Not the 75th Anniversary of the End of National Prohibition
“What was was once a trite beer history canard has become an outright lie,” says beer historian Bob Skilnik. “I can only hope that the apparent rewriting of U.S. brewing history is either an innocent result of poor research and not a shameful display of industry greed, just for the sake of a bump in beer sales.”
Bob Skilnik, author of “Beer & Food: An American History” (ISBN 0977808610, Jefferson Press, Hardcover, $24.95), argues that industry embellishments and poor research have distorted the true date of Repeal on December 5, 1933, which signified the revocation of the 18th Amendment and the enactment of the 21st Amendment and brought back the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages.
“Congressional events leading up to April 7, 1933 allowed only the resumption of sales for legal beer with an alcoholic strength of no more than 3.2% alcohol by volume (abv), weak by today’s standards. Congress had earlier passed the so-called Cullen-Harrison Bill which redefined what constituted a legally ‘intoxicating’ beverage. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill on March 23, 1933. The bill’s passage took the teeth out of the bite of the Volstead Act of 1919 and raised the Prohibition-era legal limit of alcoholic drinks from .05% abv to 3.2% abv.”
“Bringing breweries back online on April 7, 1933 in states whose legislatures agreed to go ‘wet’ again gave a tremendous shot in the arm of an economy in the throes of the Depression. In just forty-eight hours, $25,000,000 had been pumped into various beer-related trades as diverse as bottling manufacturers to the sawdust wholesalers whose product lay strewn on the floors of saloons. For the first day of nationwide beer sales, it was estimated that the federal tax for beer brought in $7,500,000 to the United States Treasury.”
In the next few months, scores of states held constitutional conventions which led to the passage and enactment of the 21st Amendment, the first time a constitutional amendment had nullified another. It also gave municipal, state and federal governments the time to sort out the taxation and regulation of the entire drink trade, a legacy that continues.
On December 5, 1933, the true end of National Prohibition became a reality when Utah signed on to the Repeal amendment, satisfying the requirement of needing at least 36 states for the enactment of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
I certainly admire his tenacity in trying to set and keep the record straight. As a history buff myself, I’m keenly aware that a lot of our history that we take for granted is simply wrong, for a variety of reasons. It’s quite remarkable to contemplate, but much of what was in our history textbooks is simply not correct, not exaggerations or off a little, but completely fabricated or with most of the facts incorrect. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me is a fascinating study on just how wrong is so much of what we were taught in school.
But I’m also a calendar geek (I guess we need a new word for that, too — perhaps holiday head or time bandit?) and the way holidays come about has almost nothing to with reality or the truth of when the events that are being celebrated took place. Christmas is the classic example, with their being no actual certainty when Jesus’ birthday was, and I’ve read accounts placing it in the spring, as well as other times of the year, too. Thanksgiving, if it ever really took place at all, was not when we celebrate it. The Declaration of Independence was actually adopted on July 2, and both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson believed that would be the date we celebrated American independence. It took two more days of making changes to the document which was then ratified with the modifications on the fourth. The rest is, well, history. You get the idea.
But there’s no law or ethic or whatever preventing a group of people from celebrating whatever they want whenever they want. What’s tricky is merely reaching a tipping point where enough other people agree to recognize the date as well. Mother’s Day, for example, is a relatively modern invention, with our version of it originating just after the Civil War, even though its roots are ancient. But different countries celebrate it on very different days. The actual date doesn’t really matter in the end nearly as much as the spirit of what is being celebrated. If we keep alive the notion that prohibition was a failed experiment that exacted a terrible cost on our nation, that legislating morality is a bad idea and you can’t really stop people from doing something that they find pleasurable, then who among us should be bothered by whether it’s remembered on April 7 or December 5? I realize the difference here is that we know with historic certainty that repeal did not take place on April 7, so we should definitely avoid calling it Repeal Day; that honor should go to December 5. But I see no reason not to also celebrate on April 7. With the neo-prohibitionists nipping at our heels once more with the vigor of a junkyard dog, setting aside two days each year to remind our critics that Prohibition will not work and celebrate how much beer enriches our lives, our economy and our society in positive ways seems like a good idea to me. Since it is the day that beer once more legally flowed after thirteen years, we can justifiably called it “The Return of Beer Day” or “3.2 Beer Day” or “Back to Beer Day” or even “New Beer’s Eve” as it was originally known.
To learn more about the history of Prohibition, here are some interesting links:
- Alcohol Prohibition Was A Failure, Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute
- Alcohol, Temperance & Prohibition, from Brown University
- April 7 is NOT the 74th Anniversary of the End of National Prohibition 2008, by Bob Skilnik.
- April 7 is NOT the 74th Anniversary of the End of National Prohibition 2007, by Bob Skilnik, with an excerpt from his wonderful book Beer & Food.
- Prohibition: A Lesson in the Futility (and Danger) of Prohibiting, from the book Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do
- Schaffer Library of Drug Policy History of Alcohol Prohibition
- Temperance & Prohibition History, from Ohio State
- The Day Beer Flowed Again, by Maureen Ogle
- Thinkquest’s Prohibition — The “Noble Experiment”