September 28, 2010

BOOKS: Last Call, Daniel Okrent (2010)

Okrent's history of Prohibition is everything a good volume of history for the layman should be. It's informative and educational without being overly academic and entertaining without reducing the story to fluff.

Okrent draws connections between Prohibition and other issues that aren't always obvious to those of us who aren't experts on the period. I had never realized, for instance, that the Prohibition movement is the reason we have an income tax. At the beginning of the 20th century, roughly 1/3 of the Federal government's income came from liquor taxes; Prohibition's advocates knew that they couldn't achieve their goal without first providing a source of income that would make up for that lost revenue. Their solution was the income tax, which also played a large part in the eventual repeal of Prohibition; wealthy Americans saw Repeal as a way to eliminate the tax on their personal and corporate income. (That part of the equation never did happen, providing an early lesson in how hard it is to turn off a government's revenue source once it's started flowing.)

We also meet fascinating people who were major figures of their day, but have been largely forgotten over time. Wayne Wheeler was the head of the Anti-Saloon League, one of America's first major lobbying groups; it was Wheeler, in fact, who coined the term "special interests" as it's now used in politics. Or how about assistant attorney general Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who for most of the 1920s was responsible for enforcing the Volstead Act (the legislation that established the rules and regulations for Prohibition), making her the most powerful woman in the country? And of course, there's an enormous cast of politicians, gangsters, bootleggers, clerics, activists, and agitators working on both sides of the issue; Okrent has a fine gift for the colorful details that bring them all to life.

There's unexpected humor in some of the ways that people circumvented Prohibition. I particularly reading about a product called Vine-Glo, which was essentially a large brick of powdered grape juice. It came with instructions to reconstitute the juice by adding water. Those instructions went on to warn the user not to add sugar and yeast, or to leave the juice in a dark place, or to let it sit too long before drinking. Why, if you were foolish enough to do all of those things, your juice might ferment into wine.

This is a marvelous book.

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