Ken Burns Prohibition


Anti-Saloon League paper, The American Issue, with headline, “U.S. Is Voted Dry”
January 25, 1919
Source: Anti-Saloon League Museum

Do you find yourself surfing Netflix and then adding a bunch of movies to your queue that you are holding to “watch later,” then it takes you ages to get to them? We have a tendency to do that. I have had the PBS documentary Prohibition sitting on my queue for ages now.

I finally got it together and started watching. For one the show is longer than I originally anticipated. I have only been through the first episode of the three part series (an hour and a half). But don’t let that scare you. I mean if you can sit through nine hours of The Lord of the Rings, this is a cake walk.

I will say most of the looks into prohibition I have done in the past have been surface level looks. Even with all that I have seen, which until now I thought was a lot, there is so much still to learn. I think that might be a sign of many of our problems right now too. We seem to only learn surface level information of the world around us. And then the deeper information comes back to bite us.

But that is the thing isn’t it. We learn just enough to make ourselves sound smart and in the process we miss the underlying reasonings and problems. Too often we end up repeating the same problems and mistakes because we only see the surface and miss where everything ties together. (look at this tangent … let’s get back to the real issue)

As you might expect there was a rehash of information that is widely known about the Temperance and Prohibition movements. And then there’s more. A few random thoughts I picked up from this first episode:

Before Prohibition many saloons were owned by the brewers and distillers. The tied house system is still in use in England now. One of the big reasons that we have the three tier system in the US now is to stop the power of the tied house. Granted we do find breweries and such with tasting rooms now. But these are meant specifically for their own products. For a bar or saloon to operate they have to buy their product from a distributor and of course have a specific license.

I noticed an interesting correlation between our world now and the world then, at least as far as political views and such.

It was the Progressives and the Democrats who did the major push for Prohibition. One of the reasonings (at least posed in the show) was to keep liquor from the hands of immigrants. When we look around us now it seems to be the opposite is the case. (I do want it known that this blog is a non political blog and my views will never be shared or promoted here. I just thought this was an interesting thought).

Adolphus Busch led the charge to fight against prohibition. Part of the methodology was to ally with German immigrants and such. This ended up working against him and beer in general when the US entered WW1.

I do believe I will need to do another viewing or two to get more of the information. So ya, if you haven’t had a chance to check this show out yet, put it on your list. It is well worth checking out.

12 thoughts on “Ken Burns Prohibition

  1. I think our country is entirely too prudish about alcohol. That’s not to say that we should all be lushes, but I think by teaching our kids that it’s bad, that they shouldn’t have it, that they can go to war and die before they can drink legally, we encourage excess and rebellion.

    • I agree. And many times when I talk about the pain that was prohibition I come back to that very notion. The worst thing is when you tell people they can’t do something they fight stronger to do it.

      It is our responsibility as parents to set a good example and show through our own actions responsible consumption.

    • The temperance movement and the prohibition movement are huge parts of both European and US history. They have strong implications in much of our lives now.

      The crazy thing is as big a part as they play in our lives, few people know or understand what happened.

      This series is a bit long but this is a reflection of all the years that went into the creation of the “Grand Experiment.”

    • There are certain times I like to have them playing. But when I am writing I tend to find music that fits the mood. Or I just stick with certain stations on iheartradio.

      I have been really into a station based on Voltaire recently (the singer). His song “Life is better when you’re evil” is one of my favorites lately.

    • I love documentaries. This is the closest I get to any kind of reality television. The ones about dinosaurs are some of my favorites. But then there are certain cooking and beer shows that I tend to play over and over again too.

  2. Thanks for the back story. I just read some letters home from an ancestor who was killed in the Civil War. He was a tee-totaler and anti-slavery, which is why he signed up to fight. I’d never heard those two issues put together before.

    • That is another aspect of prohibition we suffer through. Much of the US history where it pertains to booze has been wiped from the common records. It is a travesty to find so much history we lost because of this.

      As more is uncovered, the history is coming into the light. But it will take some time still to uncover and verify the veracity of much of what was lost. Old correspondence is one way for us to find out tidbits of information like this.

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