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

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“In 1920 could anyone have believed that the Eighteenth Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices, soft-drink marketing, and the English language itself? Or that it would provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal sydicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage, and the creation of Las Vegas? As interpreted by the Supreme Court and as understood by Congress, Prohibition would also lead indirectly to the eventual guarantee of the American woman’s right to abortion and simultaneously dash that same woman’s hope for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
Prohibition changed the way we live, and it fundamentally redefined the role of the federal government. How the hell did it happen?

In-depth, well-researched, and very readable – I think this book would be appreciated by both hardcore Prohibition scholars, and newcomers like me. As Okrent says in his introduction, the book has two main goals: examine how the Eighteenth Amendment was created, passed, and then repealed (the first Constitutional amendment to ever be repealed); and its effects on numerous and far-reaching aspects of American culture. Prohibition was more than an amendment; it represented a huge turning point in both the political and the everyday landscape of the United States. Okrent’s book follows the trajectory of the Prohibition movement, beginning with the first significant push by the temperance movement in the late 1800’s, ending with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933. In between, we meet the major players of both the “wet” and the “dry” movements and see their various political maneuverings, the ways life changed under Prohibition, and how bootleggers operated and the creative ways they circumvented the law. This was probably the most fun for me, and where I learned the most. For instance, something I learned from this book: home brewing was still legal under Prohibition, alcohol could be sold for “medicinal purposes”, and wine could still be legally produced for religious purposes (which led to a huge boom in grape farming in California and, hilariously, fake rabbis popping up all over the country and claiming that they needed barrels of wine for their nonexistent temple services). Also, the famous claim that Joe Kennedy was a bootlegger is debunked here – although Kennedy sold alcohol during Prohibition, loopholes in the Eighteenth Amendment allowed him to do so within the confines of the law.

One last thing, and this is more of a caveat than a criticism: this book is focused primarily on the political aspects of Prohibition, instead of the more sensationalist elements, such as mobsters and speakeasies. Of course, that was what really interested me – I wanted to read more about speakeasies and how they operated, the rise of mob culture, and generally how Prohibition affected the average American. Not that the political stuff isn’t interesting, of course, and Okrent does oblige us by tossing in some anecdotes about bootleggers or Al Capone every few chapters, but for the most part, he’s concerned mainly with showing us the political maneuvers that created, maintained, and ultimately destroyed Prohibition. Interesting stuff, sure, but if you’re looking for a lighthearted flapper-filled romp through speakeasies, look elsewhere.

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