How Dry We Weren’t: Prohibition in Washington, DC

DC Lunch Room Raid

[Garrett Peck will be speaking at the 38th Annual DC Historical Studies Conference and leading his Prohibition Tour. Here’s his look at Ken Burns’ new Prohibition documentary.]

How Dry We Weren’t: Prohibition in Washington, DC

Between Prohibition on PBS this October and Boardwalk Empire on HBO, you’ve probably been thoroughly inundated by Prohibition, the “noble experiment” to sober up the country by changing the Constitution to ban the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol (1920-1933). While we may superficially think of the Thirteen Awful Years (as H.L. Mencken called it) as an era of bathtub gin, flappers, gangsters, jazz and scofflaws, in fact Prohibition was the result of a century-long social reform movement led by evangelicals: the temperance movement. It leveraged the crisis of World War I to marginalize the nation’s German population – the country’s largest ethnic group and also its brewers – to propose the Eighteenth Amendment.

But was there really a national consensus to change the Constitution? Most Americans didn’t quite fathom that the leading Prohibition proponent, the Anti-Saloon League, had taken an absolutist stance against alcohol, and that zero alcohol would be allowed – not the glass of wine with dinner, nor the occasional beer after work at the bar, and certainly not the cocktail. The temperance movement promised a sober utopia. It was a promise that it completely failed to deliver. Prohibition turned out to be full of unintended consequences, the results of which we continue to learn from and repeat today.

For more than three decades, film documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have tackled complex issues in American history through their documentary lens. We best remember them for The Civil War in 1990, a breathtaking show that aired just prior to the first Gulf War. With Prohibition, Burns and Novick organized a nearly six-hour movie into three thematic parts: “A Nation of Drunkards,” which covers the origins of the temperance movement and how the Anti-Saloon League changed the Constitution; “A Nation of Scofflaws,” which shows how Americans of all stripes willingly disobeyed the law of the land (did you know that the word “scofflaw” was invented in 1924?); and “A Nation of Hypocrites” tells how Prohibition came undone as Americans tired of the noble experiment and the Great Depression nailed the temperance coffin shut.

Prohibition was widely disregarded around the country, and the nation’s capital has its own distinct Prohibition history, as I covered in my book, Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren’t. The federal government intended for DC to be the model dry city for Prohibition, but it turned out to be anything but. Every week bootleggers illegally transported 22,000 gallons of booze to supply the city’s 3,000 speakeasies – more than ten times the number of legal saloons that existed before Prohibition. We lacked the organized crime of other major cities, so bootlegging was a field wide open to amateurs, and we likewise experienced little of the violence that overtook other cities. U Street boomed during the Jazz Age, an era that coincided with the Great Migration of African Americans out of the Deep South, as jazz and cocktails went together. Congress employed its own bootleggers, notably George Cassiday, “the man in the green hat,” who deeply embarrassed the dry cause when he told his story in 1930 in The Washington Post. Cassiday estimated that four out of five congressmen and senators drank. A nation of hypocrites indeed. Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933 when the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, less than fourteen years after it started.

Garrett Peck is the author of two books on Prohibition: “The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet,” and “Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren’t.” He leads the Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites in DC. He was also involved in the effort to have the Rickey declared as DC’s native cocktail by the DC City Council in July. Peck will present in the plenary session of the DC Historical Studies Conference at 9:30 am on November 5, and lead an abbreviated Temperance Tour that afternoon starting at 3:15pm.

DC Prohibition - Garrett Peck


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