Prohibition: America's failed "noble experiment"

Prohibition was the so-called "noble experiment" which had some rather ignoble consequences ... as Mo Rocca will remind us:

The nightclub ... the speedboat ... the mob ... men and women drinking together ... the spread of jazz ... the booze cruise ... the powder room ... the cocktail.

What do they all have in common? They're the results - direct and indirect - of Prohibition, the nearly 14-year period from 1920 to 1933 when the manufacture, sale or transportation of "intoxicating liquor" was illegal in this country.

The nightclub - the "speakeasies" of the time of Prohibition - led to the nightclubs of modern times. The speedboat made its debut during Prohibition; it was the transport mode of choice for crime groups smuggling liquor into the United States across the Great Lakes and other bodies of water.

"Booze cruises" would take passengers beyond American territorial waters - and out of the reach of the law - so that patrons could enjoy alcoholic beverages.

Before the era of Prohibition (which took effect about the time the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920), saloons were largely a "men only" affair. Speakeasies, on the other hand, were frequented by men and women alike. Jazz was often provided as entertainment at these clubs, dancing was common, and - as more and more women frequented these establishments - powder rooms became de rigueur.

Since much of the illegal liquor sold in the United State during the time of Prohibition was less than top quality, mixed drinks... cocktails ... grew in popularity, allowing bartenders to mask the taste of poor quality booze with juices and other beverages.

"Why do you love the story so much?" Rocca asked Daniel Okrent, author of "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition."

"It's the answer to that question, how the hell did that happen?" he replied. "I mean, it's just so improbable. How did this freedom-loving country put into the organic law, into the Constitution, this unbelievable stricture that said that you can't have a glass of beer? It's really hard to believe."

Part of the reason was simply that Americans liked to drink ... a lot.

"This country was very, very drunk," Okrent said. "In 1830 the average American over 15 years of age drank 7.3 gallons of pure alcohol a year. That's the equivalent of 90 fifths of 80-proof liquor, 1.8 bottles per week for every drinker in the country."

"We shouldn't forget that alcoholism is a serious social problem. It was a social problem in the 19th century which prompted Prohibition, it is today" said filmmaker Ken Burns.

Burns and producer Lynn Novick have collaborated on documentaries about jazz and baseball. In their newest film, airing tonight on PBS, they take on Prohibition.

Prohibition was billed, they point out, as the "one-size-fits-all" cure for the ills of American society.

"Prohibition was really sold as not just that it would solve the problem of alcoholism, it would solve poverty. It would solve child labor, it would solve prostitution, it would solve crime, it would get rid of slums," said Novick.

With so many problems to address, it's not surprising that the Dry coalition was dizzyingly diverse.

Suffragettes who originally wanted the vote so they could outlaw demon liquor ... small town Protestants threatened by the wave of Catholic immigrants and their city saloons ... the Ku Klux Klan, who exploited the pernicious stereotype of the dangerous black man with a bottle ... even Broadway producers who wanted patrons out of bars (and in their theaters).

It was, Rocca noted, the epitome of strange bedfellows.

Okrent agreed: "If you can imagine a very large bed that accommodates, you know, some guy wearing a KKK uniform, somebody from the Industrial Workers of the World, Jane Addams, and J.J. Shubert of the theater chain, that's a very strange set of bedfellows."