By 1932, Prohibition had obviously failed. But how could the U.S. legally bring back booze? A constitutional amendment had authorized the ban, and only another one could erase it. Luckily, during the Great Depression, anti-Prohibitionists had an economic argument.
Defiant “drys” mocked “wet” schemes to refloat the economy by legalizing beer with low alcohol content and taxing it, which they said would create jobs for craftsmen, bartenders and teamsters, and raise much-needed federal revenue. The jobs claim was bogus, for tens of thousands were working daily, if secretly, to slake the nation’s thirst for suds. But the taxation point had merit.
In 1914, the government collected $68 million in customs and excise tax on beer taxed at $1 a barrel, a rate that rose first to $3 during World War I and then $6 in 1919.
Estimating that Americans illegally consumed more than 2.5 billion gallons of beer in 1930, on which no taxes were collected, the New York Times calculated that almost $500 million in lost revenue could be recovered annually if beer was re-legalized and the federal charge of $6 a barrel was restored. State governments could most likely collect an equal sum.
The challenge was to put a political process in motion toward this end.
Enter New York Mayor James “Jimmy” Walker, political showman and the target of a New York State Legislature corruption investigation. Following Virginia Governor Harry Byrd’s proposal that the 18th Amendment be repealed, Walker announced a “beer-for-taxation” march down Fifth Avenue to take place May 14.
Cynics crowed that the “foxy mayor” was just creating a distraction to shift public attention away from his fiddling with city contracts and funds. But what a great distraction it proved to be.
Veteran U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler announced that he would bring “a large delegation” and that he personally would carry two signs, reading “Never Say Dry” and “Open the Spigots and Drown the Bigots.” In response, Wet Leagues, political clubs and labor unions quickly started planning parades in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and other cities.
In New York, students, society matrons and the unemployed created divisions to march alongside veteran organizations including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Grand Army of the Republic (a group of Civil War survivors).
On the day of the parade, more than 100,000 New Yorkers marched. Police monitored the huge crowds from a blimp. The procession, planned to end at 6 p.m., lasted until midnight.
Chicago's Beer for Prosperity gathering drew 40,000 marchers, and most of Daytona Beach, Florida’s 17,000 turned out for its two-mile parade. This one, like others, ended with civil disobedience, as marchers “drank beer from an old-fashioned 20-gallon keg.”
Boston city councilmen, with Mayor James Curley’s blessing, served free beer on the Boston Common, warning: “Don’t blame us if the brewer makes a mistake and delivers a beverage of more than half a percent alcoholic content.”
The Anti-Saloon League fumed, but Prohibition's days were clearly numbered.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers in Camden, New Jersey, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To read more from Echoes, Bloomberg View's economic history blog, click here.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author of this story:
Philip Scranton at firstname.lastname@example.org