The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution took effect on January 17, 1920. Known as the Prohibition Amendment, it outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors in the United States. It did not ban consumption.
The largest force behind the passage of the 18th Amendment was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Founded in 1874, and based in churches throughout America, its members were concerned with both the spiritual and physical well-being of children and the family. The union chose the colors blue and white to represent their movement.
When Prohibition went into effect, there were some three dozen breweries in St. Louis with roughly 50,000 employees. By the end of 1920, most of the breweries were forced out of business.
Anheuser Busch stayed in business by making syrups, brewer’s yeast, malt extract, near beer, and ice cream. The Griesedieck family, producers of Falstaff beer, stayed open by using their brewing establishments to produce smoked ham and bacon!
Brewing Beer at Home during Prohibition
It is said “if you can make bread, you can make beer.”
St. Louisans certainly had the experience and the expertise to brew beer at home during Prohibition. But homebrewing did not start then. From the founding of America all the way up through the mid-1800s, Americans brewed beer at home. Homebrewing was an unglamorous necessity: a domestic chore akin to baking bread. Women, servants, and enslaved men and women were America’s original homebrewers. Most brewed low-alcohol “small beer” that was less popular than cider and far less potent than rum, but safer than water to drink.
With the immigration of professional German brewers in the mid-19th century, beer became big business in the United States. Americans no longer needed to brew at home. But then, looking to a future without beer at the close of World War I, brewers concocted malt syrups and beer extracts, encouraging consumers to brew at home. When national Prohibition went into effect in 1920, some breweries continued to brew surreptitiously, as “wildcat” operations supplying local customers and funneling ingredients to homebrewers. Most Prohibition-era homebrewing was not up to snuff, however.
Prohibition gave rise to underground clubs called ‘speakeasies’ which served drinks illegally and provided great music and entertainment. Jazz musicians found ample employment opportunities in the numerous new nightclubs, and formed friendships with gangsters who were often their biggest fans.
Although Webster Groves was “dry” nearby towns were not, and saloons were situated all along Manchester Road.
Beaded gowns were all the rage during the 1920’s. Glass beading on net, chiffon, and silk created the “fabric” with elaborate art deco designs. These are the gowns that you probably think of as “flapper dresses.” They were handmade and could be very heavy, with up to thousands of beads. Most gowns were imported from Paris and were extremely expensive. The Hawken House has several on display for the Prohibition exhibit.
Medicinal Alcohol – One way to obtain alcohol legally during Prohibition was by obtaining a physician’s prescription for it and purchasing it from a pharmacy using a government regulated form. States only allowed druggists to fill a certain number of these prescriptions each month or face prosecution.
It wasn’t illegal to drink alcohol during Prohibition. By law, any wine, beer, or spirits that Americans had stashed away in January, 1920 were theirs to keep and enjoy. The Webster Kirkwood Times reported on four gallons of whiskey, a case of champagne, and a 15 gallon cask of wine stolen from the home of Dr. FJ Guilbault located at 614 Mildred Avenue in Webster Groves. Burglars entered the basement by forcing open a window. The article went on to say that this incident should serve as a warning to other locals who stored liquor at home.
Throughout the 1800’s and into the 1900’s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti Saloon League had argued that alcohol was the root of numerous social problems plaguing the growing American nation.
The over consumption of alcohol resulted in lost wages, unemployment, neglect of children, and domestic violence – a serious issue in an era when it was unacceptable for women to divorce their husbands.