Last call : the rise and fall of Prohibition

by Daniel Okrent

Hardcover, 2010

Status

Available

Publication

New York, NY : Scribner, 2010.

Description

Okrent explores the origins, implementation, and failure of that great American delusion known as Prohibition. "Last Call" explains how Prohibition happened, what life under it was like, and what it did to the country.

Media reviews

User reviews

LibraryThing member jztemple
An excellent narrative history of Prohibition in the United States, starting from the first stirrings in the 1840s through the end in the 1930s. As you might imagine, covering this period of time introduces many characters and situations to keep track of, but Okrent makes it manageable by focusing each section and chapter on some specific aspect or event. His style is lively and entertaining without being trivial or frivolous. Some folks might be put off a bit by some of his quirkiness, for instance at one point he compares one personality to someone in "The Simpsons" TV cartoon show. He also jokes how the unique spelling of "drys" defeats the best efforts of Spell Check. I think most readers will find the quirks a nice counterpoint to some of the more serious discussions in the book. I think "Last Call" is the best general history of Prohibition I've ever read, entertaining yet quite thorough and informative.… (more)
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is a stupendously fascinating account of the18th Amendment and its fall. It is filled with amazing amounts of incidents attendant on the adoption, existence, and end of Prohibition. Even though I read have other books on the same subject (Deliver Us From Evil on 6 Apr 1995, and Prohibition 13 Years That Changed America on 5 Feb 1999), I found this book vastly informative especially in regard to the means used to sell the 18th Amendment to the country and the pitiful story of the events which finally doomed it (even though Senator Sheppard said it is more likely that a hummingbird will fly to Mars with the Washington AMonument on its tail than that the 18th amendement would ever be repealed). .… (more)
LibraryThing member CSMcMahon
When I stumbled across a review of Okrent's book this past summer I knew I had to read it. A book featuring the 1920s, politics, speakeasies, and gangsters? It hit upon several of my interest points.

This book is an incredible narrative of the history of the 18th Amendment. This book is dense and reads like a text book. Its full of rich details. But it was missing something. Maybe its because I've been reading biographies lately that I wished that the author had chosen to focus on a couple characters and told the story through their perspectives. I found it difficult at times to keep everyone straight which I probably why I finally finished reading this only after several false starts during the past six months.

That being said, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for more information about Prohibition.
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LibraryThing member allthesedarnbooks
This is an extremely readable, interesting, and fascinating history book. It tells the story of Prohibition, from the first dry movements, to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, life in the "roaring Twenties", and finally, to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. While there's plenty of sensational material for Okrent to work with, he never lets gossip or emotion overtake the story, which is interesting enough on its own. He presents people and stories from both the "wet" and the "dry" side with respect. A fascinating read, especially if you've got any interest in American politics... the Temperance movement, whether you agree with their goals or not, was a clear predecessor to every lobbying campaign that was to follow. Fans of clear, concise, and interesting historical nonfiction will enjoy this, as I did. Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member jevanloon
100 pages in, and liking it a lot. Content so far is 19'th century root of prohibition, connections to suffrage movement, and underlying political machinery. I'm enjoying the writing style, which includes a wry sense of humor.
LibraryThing member hedera
This is a fascinating exploration of how the U.S. came to ban the use of alcohol, and then later repeal the ban. What amazed me was how little has changed in American politics; the ploys that the "drys" used to pass the Eighteenth Amendment are still in use today. Wayne Wheeler, without whom it probably wouldn't have passed, is the spiritual father of Karl Rove, and in his day was just as powerful - maybe more. The split between the "drys" (mostly white, rural, evangelical Protestant) and the "wets" (mainly urban, with all that implies) is still with us; they just aren't arguing about booze any more. The power of that minority in the 1920's was astounding - the "drys" managed to delay the 1920 census for almost 8 years, because they knew that the redistricting would give more representation to the growing cities, and erode the political power of the less populated rural states. The name Bronfman will never look the same to me again; read and learn why. Did you ever wonder why we pay income tax? It's in here. The initial income tax act in 1913 was trivial compared to this. Without the "drys" it's entirely possible that women wouldn't have gotten the vote in 1920; they put their power behind women's suffrage because they knew women would vote to ban alcohol. If you have any taste for history at all, you must read this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member FredB
I read 73 pages of this book and did not have the time to go any further before the library needed it back. It is really good, but just more detailed than I could take in. The lessons of prohibition still resonate today and the colorful story of its rise and fall is fascinating. The book jacket mentions a PBS documentary. I think I am going to watch that for the abbreviated version.… (more)
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Absolutely fascinating history of the events leading up to America's failed experiment with denying residents legal access to alcohol. The author delves into all the political, social, and economic forces that played a role in the passage of the 18th Amendment and its repeal via passage of the 21st Amendment less than a decade and a half later.
The book is filled with anecdotes that illustrate the turbulent nature of this period.
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LibraryThing member RSFox
Fascinating history that reads with the smooth narrative flow of superb journalism. More than a story about simply the attempt to eliminate alcohol from America's habits; this excellent book shows the interrelationship of several apparently conflicting political movements linked together by shrewd political operatives in their single-minded quest for a "dry" state. It shows the role Prohibition played in women earning the right to vote as well as the establishment of an income tax. A great read!… (more)
LibraryThing member jmcilree
Fascinating history. Prohibition was a failure almost from the start and certainly avoided from the start. A perfect example of how good intentions lead to bad laws and unintended consequences that take years to unravel, if they can ever be set right.

I read it with our recent Health care/health insurance regulation law in mind and imagined the terrible and perverse unintended consequence that piece of legislation will have.… (more)
LibraryThing member pikarun
Wonderful book on how Prohibition came about (and how it fell apart). The politics was absolutely fascinating and frightening. Truly do humans repeat history over and over again.
LibraryThing member libri_amor
Daniel Okrent's Last Call, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is not an easy read. However, it is well worth the effort and the reader will be rewarded with a new perspective on an era of American history that shaped many of today's institutions. The diifculty with Last Call is not with Okrent's style or writing expertise but rather the breadth of the prohibition subject and his thorough treatment. The implementation of national prohibition, its enforcement and then repeal touched the entire nation (and international relations) cutting across economic segments for almost 14 years. It is still the only constitutional amendment (18th) to be repealed (21st).
Last Call is an enlightening account of how a small fringe organization (ASL, Anti-Saloon League) led by a savvy political operative (Wayne Wheeler) orchestrated a masterful prohibition strategy. The ASL strategy of targeting key congressional districts with vulnerable incumbents, alone, would not have swung the country. However, in politics timing is everything, Wayne Wheeler and the ASL happened on the scene at the right time to capitalize on historic changes sweeping the country.
For example, Wheeler expertly aligned the ASL with growing women's suffrage movement. The 19th amendment was passed a year after prohibition. Further, the ASL was aided in the early campaigns against the large brewers (Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Schlitz) by anti-German (and later anti-immigarant) sentiments from WWI. Finally, the nation's demographics were changing. Rural population was in dramatic decline as the cities grew at an unprecedented rate driven greatly by immigration. In summary, the confluence of all these forces makes for quite a compelling story.
Of course, the story only gets more interesting once prohibition takes affect in early 1919. For the next decade, battles between "wets" and "drys" were waged on the streets and US borders across the country. Again, it was a confluence of events that brought an end to prohibition. In 1927 the ASL lost its commanding force when Wayne Wheeler died. Of course, prohibition was the law by constitution amendment and no amendment had ever been repealed. But, gradually there was a recognition that prohibition was doing more harm than good. Large crime organizations were created and financed by the massive illegal trade. Millions of ordinary citizens were becoming criminals for simply wanting an easily obtained drink. The final death knell for prohibition was the stock market crash and economic depression. Prohibition and the 16th amendment had revolutionized government finances. Gone were excise taxes on alcohol to be replaced by income taxes. But, with the depression income tax revenue dropped precipitously and the Government needed all the revenue sources it could find. To put the financial implications in perspective, in 1929 "Canadian revenue liquor export tax revenues accounted for 20 percent of all Canadian revenue collections, both federal and provisional." This represented twice as much as Canadian income taxes. Of course these revenues were coming from the pockets of American consumers in the purchase price of the illegally imported (but legally exported from Canada) alcohol.
Last Call is necessary reading for anyone that wishes to be knowledgeable on the 20th century history of the US and the major forces that have shaped our country.
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LibraryThing member phyllis01
Excellent perspective on the alcohol industry; how prohibition basically invented the mob in America; and the ingenuity of Americans in the face of the loss of something they really, really want.
LibraryThing member MHelm1017
I have not previously read a full book about Prohibition, only sections in books devoted to more general topics, so I should not have been surprised at how much I learned from it. Instead, I was continually amazed at the many fascinating aspects of this complex time in history so vividly and wittily related in this work.
LibraryThing member nog
An absolutely fascinating and entertaining account of how the 18th Amendment came to be, of how astonishingly unsuccessful it was, and of how the 21st Amendment came to be. This is all going to be covered in Ken Burns' documentary this fall, but this book will undoubtedly be its perfect companion. Did you know that alcohol consumption actually decreased after Repeal?… (more)
LibraryThing member Asperula
Wonderful account of a wild chapter of American history - literally. Prohibition happened less than100 years ago. Okrent chronicles how it all happened, brilliantly! I can't wait for the Ken Burns series this fall!
LibraryThing member ElizabethChapman
In 1890, Americans happily guzzled an amazing 855 million gallons of alcohol a year and by 1920 its production represented the fifth largest industry in the country -- so how on earth did a constitutional amendment banning all sale, transport, and consumption of alcohol ever get passed? Author Daniel Okrent answers that question in fascinating detail in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

The story behind Prohibition is a case study for the old expression, “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Members of the Klu Klux Klan joined with political progressives and women’s rights advocates to support Prohibition. The rich sided with ostracized immigrants -- and individuals opposed to legislation to reduce infant mortality -- to fight Prohibition. Had there been a nationwide popular vote, it is a near certainty Prohibition would have failed. But by laser-beam focus on a single issue and relentlessly punishing any politician that dared to cross them (sound familiar?) the temperance forces won the day.

We have an income tax today because the government had to make up for revenue lost when alcohol taxes dried up, and I (as a woman) can vote because Prohibition supporters pushed for suffrage for women since they cast their ballots against drinking. Prohibition was the only constitutional amendment to curtail the rights of individuals, and the only amendment ever to be repealed.

It’s enough to make any sane person’s head spin, but luckily Okrent is a masterful guide through the bizarre and fascinating thicket of movements and individuals that made Prohibition a reality -- and that got it revoked 14 years later. If I have any complaint, it’s that Okrent spends much more time on how Prohibition was passed rather than how it was repealed. But that’s understandable since the former was so improbable and the later so inevitable. I definitely recommend Last Call for anyone with an interest in American history and even a passing curiosity about our shared past and present.
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LibraryThing member NewsieQ
A solidly researched, well written book about the rise and fall of prohibition. It's the story of how a small minority could force its will on the majority by influencing the outcome of a very few key Congressional races. Although the author takes pains to avoid comparing that era to today, any reader who's at all aware of our current political landscape will make the connection.

I particularly like the author's focus on the key players in both the 18th amendment and its repeal -- most are not household names but very interesting nonetheless. The excesses in enforcement of the Volstead Act are chilling. This book goes way beyond Eliot Ness -- who, as it turns out, was a very minor player.

A companion book to a new PBS documentary by Ken Burns. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member santhony
Prohibition is a fascinating period of American history, and except for vague references contained in 1920s period pieces, I’ve never seen a non-fiction work which examines it in detail. This is just such a book.

From the years leading up to passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, the machinations (both political and social) required in order to see it through Congress and the various state legislatures, the years in which the amendment was in force, and finally the steps taken to repeal it, this book is a comprehensive guide to the subject. In addition to the historical facts and the political backdrop, the book does an outstanding job identifying and examining the numerous personalities that arose on both sides of the issue during the period in question.

Of particular interest to me was the extent of alcohol consumption prior to passage of Prohibition. According to the author, the average American adult consumed 1.7 fifths of 80 proof alcohol every week. While Prohibition put a dent in consumption, with repeal, usage returned to a rate of 1.4 fifths per week. That is a stunning statistic, especially when you consider the substantial number of teetotalers in the population.

Also interesting was the connection between the income tax and the alcohol excise tax. Prior to Prohibition, the excise tax on alcohol was the primary source of government revenue. With Prohibition, the income tax came into favor as a means of funding government operation. Some of the biggest foes of Prohibition and advocates of repeal were wealthy Americans who saw the alcohol excise tax as a method of eliminating the still nascent income tax. Silly people, thinking that a new means of government revenue would lead to a reduction in other sources. More money, more spending!

While this is a very worthwhile book and is comprehensive in its detail and analysis, I would be remiss in failing to point out that it does drag at times and can bog down in seemingly minute detail. The style is somewhat more academic than one would encounter in purely pleasure reading. Nevertheless, as an enlightening look at a seldom discussed topic, I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in U. S. history.
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LibraryThing member Scapegoats
This is a very good book about Prohibition. It charts its roots in the 19th century and how it was passed through a series of unlikely alliances. It does a great job showing how poorly it was enforced, through lack of will and lack of money. And it shows that it was repealed because of how poorly it was enforced, how rich people wanted it removed so they could repeal income tax, and bringing the booze industry back into the legal world would help the economy and government finances after they had been hit by the Depression.

This is written to a mass audience, citing few sources but using tons of entertaining stories. Even with that, it keeps an informative narrative that stay true to its title. It does trace the rise and fall of Prohibition. I don't think I would use it as a sole textbook for a class on the era, but I would love to use parts of it to spice up the class. And I would definitely recommend it to friends whether they are historians or not.
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LibraryThing member EricKibler
I read this, or rather listened to it, as it was this month's selection of my book club. I used the 2x speed on my iPhone and knocked out most of it on a drive to and from Columbus.

The book is a history of Prohibition in America. Why it happened, how it happened, who the major players were, who gained from it, who lost out, and why it didn't succeed. I expected it to be much drier than it turned out to be. It was chockfull of fun facts and interesting anecdotes.… (more)
LibraryThing member loraineo
A really good history with much detail about the 14 years of prohibition, from the beginning to the end. What an interesting time in America ! I learned a lot from reading this book on this interesting topic.
LibraryThing member yeremenko
A wonderful piece of nonfiction. Okrent covers the forces that caused prohibition and the how they ultimately unraveled. Skillfully written including the time to personalize the personalities of this broad story.
LibraryThing member lindap69
or wait for the PBS special by Burns!
LibraryThing member Carlie
Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment, was such a strange time in American history; it is hard to believe it really happened. Liquor was part of American life since the Pilgrims, but in the 1840s there was a change of heart the resulted in outlawing all “intoxicating liquors.” This was supposed to be a panacea that would result in a better country where men took better care of their families and became more responsible citizens. The actual outcome, however, was far from what the reformers had hoped for.

The trajectory to enacting Prohibition wove together many themes from this time period. Women were the strongest advocates of temperance and Prohibition, and the suffrage movement arose from these. With a rise in immigration in the late 1890s, the country’s alcohol consumption also rose, further fuelling xenophobia and racism. Coalitions arose around the temperance movement that included racists, progressives, suffragists, populists, and nativists. Each of these groups used the Prohibition movement to advance their own ideologies. Immigrants and blacks were used as scapegoats and examples of how alcohol consumption could ruin lives and threaten the order of the land.

Once Prohibition became law with the help of legislative malapportionment that allowed rural areas to dominate the political process, criminality began almost immediately. Rich Americans purchased entire liquor stores’ stocks and stored them in their basements, and liquor crossed the border from Canada on day one. It didn’t help that enforcement of the law was poor due to lack of funding and corruption within local and federal offices was rampant.

Speakeasies sprang up all over the country, and in the 1920s drinking in novels and films became common. New inventions emerged around alcohol, such as house parties, brand name booze, inter-gender and inter-racial drinking, liquor tourism, and liquor made from low-grade products that poisoned, maimed, blinded, and killed. While the rich certainly drank more than the poor, everyone drank more than before Prohibition.

Prohibition resulted in the most hypocritical time in American history. As it became more and more apparent that enforcement levels were never going to be as high as was needed, that police and politicians were either not interested in enforcing the law, not equipped to, or were drinkers themselves, and that nontaxable money was being made hand over fist by gangsters and other criminals, sentiment to repeal Prohibition was rising. By the time of the Jones Law’s mandatory minimum sentences, the number of people against Prohibition was at the apex.

In the late 1920s, business leaders and high society ladies began to campaign for repeal of Prohibition while groups that supported Prohibition, such as influential lobbying arms, rapidly lost power, tenacity, and influence. In February 1933, the Senate voted for repeal 63-23 and the House 289-121. “Of the twenty-two members who had voted for the Eighteenth Amendment sixteen years earlier and were still senators, seventeen voted to undo their earlier work” (p. 352).

Prohibition lasted 13 years, 10 months, and 19 days. The only success it had was in convincing Americans to drink less. The Eighteenth Amendment was an utter failure that created institutionalized hypocrisy, caused criminality and corruption, and made it easier than ever to get a drink.
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