Last call : the rise and fall of Prohibition

by Daniel Okrent

Hardcover, 2010




New York, NY : Scribner, 2010.


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.

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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a hummingbird will fly to Mars with the Washington AMonument on its tail than that the 18th amendement would ever be repealed).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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 DowntownLibrarian
Truly a remarkable book. Okrent has such a command of the personalities and movements involved. Did you all know that the suffragettes and the KKK both supported Prohibition? If you like social history, this book is a must-read.
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 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 gaeta1
My great-grandfather was a bootlegger. He didn't start out as one, of course--he learned his trade as an electrician in Parma, Italy, but according to my grandfather (who was understandably rather bitter at being dumped off, after his mother died in childbirth, at the local monastery to be raised by the holy brothers) there was always something a bit shiftless about him even after he started a new life in Canada and the United States. Unfortunately, he wasn't a very good one. After commencing his new profession in the waters between Windsor, Canada and Detroit--the famous "City on a Still"--wettest of the many prohibition defying cities--beating, according to author Daniel Okrent, such booze-loving towns as Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco-the gunplay-and "probies"-became too intense for the casual criminal and he moved his operations to Vancouver. Even that semi-rural area, whose low population density never attracted the same amount of interest for criminals and the federal government alike-proved to be too much for the amateur he remained. He was caught by prohibition agents, despite scuttling his boat and making a run for it--and promptly deported. All of this--the start in the thirsty East--the ignominious end in laid-back West where highly organized criminal operations never gained a real foothold--the swift deportation as the US government used any excuse to get rid of immigrants--turned out to be a perfect template laid out in "Last Call". I just didn't realize it until this summer, when I both read the book and talked to my mother and her youngest sister about their grandfather's activites. (Any attempt to bring the subject up with my now-deceased grandfather invariably produced atypical agitation--even vitriol-as the passing of the years did nothing to mitigate my grandfather's annoyance with his own father).

For you see, my grandfather's life--indeed the fate our our entire family--got caught up with my great-grandfather's decision to run a bit of Seagrams through the San Juan Islands. My great-grandfather was refused entry back to Italy--Mussolini was in the middle of his big purge of home-grown organized crime and wasn't exactly interested in importing criminals. The French, however, were more sanguine. He settled in Cannes, where he remained through the outbreak of the war. Times were hard in Vichy France; my great-grandfather wrote a letter to his son in Canada pleading for money. My grandfather did the duitiful thing, stuffed some bills in an envelope, and as he was busy that day--gave the letter to his cousin and business partner to mail the letter in the United States, as the US was still neutral. (Back then, the border was more a slightly interesting concept than something most people paid attention to, and people flitted back and forth all the time). The cousin did mail the letter-except he forgot to mail it in the US and instead mailed it in Canada. My grandfather was promptly hauled in by the Canadian government, which wanted to know why he was aiding and abbetting the enemy.

My grandfather never got over his arrest. One of my mother's favorite anecdotes is the story of her father, white-faced and trembling, returning after his grilling by authorities and burning every communist magazine and tract in the house.(Parma is a very red part of Italy.) Anyway, my grandfather was finished with his adopted country from that moment. He insisted, until Alzheimer's overtook him, that his real reason for leaving was his inability to handle for any longer the quaint Canadian habit of leaving dead bodies in storage until the spring thaw, but the rest of the family knew better. He began plotting his escape. After the war, he moved to Southern California, despite my grandmother's protests, and set himself up as an electrician/glassblower, where he did his part to make the Southland the neoned tacky glory it was in the 50's and 60's.

All this is just a long-winded way of saying I have more than a normal interest in American Prohibition, and view it as the reason why I was born a Californian, or indeed why I was born at all. Of course, for all of us, there are a million causalities as to why we are here on earth, and if anything, I should point a finger at the idiotic cousin WHO COULD'T FOLLOW THE SIMPLEST INSTRUCTIONS. But this is my narration, and I'm sticking to my story. I like a grand historical spin.

But back to the book I'm supposed to be reviewing. It's wonderful. Yes, it could seem that I don't have the clearest perspective, but honestly, it is a great read, and an essential one for anyone who is interested in American history. I admit that I am a bit low-brow, and would have preferred a few more "Chicago typewriters" (tommy-guns) in the tale, but I know, as much as I like a bit of "Boardwalk Empire" sleaze, that the story of how the United States sort-of swore off booze for a dozen years has just as much to do with sweeping sociological movements and legislation. Daniel Okrent entertainingly explains how United States has always been awash with alcohol, and how there has always been an opposition to all that drinking, and how the anti-saloon movement started to gain force after the Great Awakening. I was the most annoying person while I was reading this book, prone to shooting out random tidbits of trivia whenenver anyone wandered within earshot. Did you know the Clan was dry-and pro suffrage? Did you know that plea-bargaining started as the government was overwhelmed by all the cases in the docket? Did you know that the federal income tax really started as a way of recouping projected lost revenue? Did you know that all the said lost revenue by illegal bootlegging was equal to the ENTIRE federal government budget--including the military--in 1926? Did you know....and so on. Everyone in the household was relieved when I finished the book.

All of this could have been as dry as some of the midwestern counties which actually OBEYED the Volstead act, but Okrent is a witty writer, and a master of the trenchant character sketch. On the axe wielding Carry Nation: "Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd nation was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache." Or Calvin Coolidge's idea of governing " was if he viewed government as a vestigial organ of the body politic." And there are many amusing anecdotes along the way, from the time of the colonial distilleries, to the repealing of the Volstead act (which ironically helped to make many municipalities drier than they had been previously).

A fun read. For those who yearn for more than a bit of Al Capone-type action and are impatient with legislative maneuvering, 4 stars. For political wonks and those who are here on the planet thanks to American Prohibition, 5 Stars.
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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 JazzFeathers
This is not the first book on Prohibition I read, but certainly it's the best so far.
It covers basically every possible aspect of Prohibition, from the way the movement started in the XIX century, to how it ended and why.

I like the first part particularly. It detailed the social, ethnic and even religious reasons why the idea of a legal prohibition of alcohol became acceptable in the United States. Many were against it from the beginning, because they thought a federal law should not regulate the personal life of citizens, but the majority finally had they way because of a tightly knotted array of reasons that spanned from social issues like actual abuse of alcohol, to (true or imagined) issues concerning race and immigrants (this part was new to me and particularly enlightening), to politics, religion and economics. I had never realised before how complex the situation was, but here it was detailed clearly, with a lot of documentation and a crisp style that made it easy to read.

The central part was the hardest for me. It goes into a lot of details about every conceivable aspect of Prohibition, from the sacramental wine, to bootlegging, to the involvement of politics and low enforcement. Some of this was already known to me, some was new, but - personally - I found it too detailed and too much of everything. There wasn't a focus, and it seemed to me as if the matter was all over the place. I did find the information interesting, but I think I'd absorbed it more easily and effectively if I'd had less of it, but more focused.

The last part was back on track. It detailed the reasons why Prohibition was finally repealed. There wasn't anything particularly new here (not as much as in the first part), but the narration followed a line, and it was easy to read and understand.

This is certainly a precious source of information for anyone interested in Prohibition in particular, and American history in general. It is well-informed and rich and generally well-written. It does focus on facts more than people and I think this is a weakness of the book. Some important protagonists of Prohibition are merely mentioned in short parts of chapters and I wouldn't even knew who they were had I not read other books on the matter. That is something to complain about, but for the rest, I found it invaluable.
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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 Philip100
Last Call is the best history of Prohibition that I have read. If you have any interest in American History you need to read Last Call.
LibraryThing member lindap69
or wait for the PBS special by Burns!


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