Prohibition in St. Louis: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

As German immigrants arrived in Missouri, many settled in St. Louis, where a lot of breweries were created, but none as famous as Anheuser-Busch (1879). After signing the legislation to ratify the 21st Amendment, ending prohibition, FDR said: “I think this is a good time for a beer.”(All About Beer, 10 Nov. 2014) April seventh is celebrated as New Beer’s Eve as that was the day that the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized alcohol. The prohibition experiment lasted slightly more than a decade and was ultimately repealed as a result of a series of unintended political, social and economic consequences.

Some of the political problems during Prohibition were partially due to some peoples’ religious orientation. During the presidential election of 1928, Herbert Hoover was the Republican nominee and the Democratic nominee was Alfred E. Smith, the four-time governor of New York. Smith was a Catholic and he opposed prohibition. He chose Joseph G. Robinson of Arkansas, who was known as the “Protestant Prohibitionist” in order to even out Smith’s Wet Catholic stance. Hoover promised more vigorous enforcement of Prohibition, but the American public’s aversion to Smith’s Catholic background was enough for Hoover to win the election of 1928. ( Miller Center, 1 Aug. 2017) Prohibition only outlawed the sale, transportation and, manufacturing of alcohol, but not the possession or the consumption. Alcohol was still allowed to be sold and purchased for religious reasons. (Lerner, Micheal “Unintended Consequences”)

One of the key goals of prohibition was to end recreational alcohol consumption, however, it did so temporarily for about a year the rates lowered but then rose again. (Thorton, Mark. “Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure.” Cato Institute, 17 July 1991). This increase led to one of the unintended consequences of prohibition - the rise of organized crime in society. Like alcohol consumption rates, homicide rates lowered for about a year after prohibition began. Then after that year was over the rates began to rise dramatically over the next few years. Then when Prohibition was over the the rates began to decrease in the following years. (Thorton, Mark. “Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure.” Cato Institute, 17 July 1991). The rise of organized crime and the fight over the turf and selling area likely helped lead to this huge rise in homicide rates.

In addition to the negative social and political consequences, prohibition negative effect on the economy. Prohibition supporters originally hoped for huge growth in sales of household goods and real estate, and companies expected growth and high profits. Because of cleaner neighborhoods, rent was also expected to rise. Then the opposite happened, businesses started closing and the government started losing money. (Lerner, Micheal “Unintended Consequences”) This was based on the assumption that people would take the money they were spending on alcohol and spend it on their products but that didn’t happen. In addition, when people got the money illegally, which wasn’t taxed, government revenue decreased.

This increase in illegal revenue was partially due to the widespread number of speakeasies. One of the most prominent was the one in the Trust Company Bank Basement in St. Louis. Al Capone supplied alcohol to the speakeasy. Capone then robbed the bank when it refused to launder money for him. The bank never really fully recovered after the speakeasy and its “brush with the criminal underworld” and eventually was forced to merge with the Mercantile Bank Corp. (“Fascinating History of Local Landmark”, The St. Louis Times)

Not all companies resorted to illegal activities. Some brewing companies stayed open by simply branching out their operations, which demonstrated their resilience as a company. Anheuser-Busch branched out to refrigerator trucks, paddy wagons and they sold some of their property to stay open. Although Adolphus Busch’s earlier idea of near beer (with alcohol content level 0.5 or less) or non-alcoholic beer did not initially work, it did eventually catch on with other breweries. (“Brewers and Distillers Found Creative Ways to Survive During Prohibition.” 05/16/19) Breweries, vineyards, and distilleries had to find creative ways to survive prohibition. Dairy products were very common alternatives for breweries since they already have huge refrigeration equipment. Anheuser Busch, whose Budweiser brand was the first nationally distributed beer and was one the most innovative breweries. They made over 25 non-alcoholic different products, including soft drink, corn syrup, frozen eggs and truck bodies. (“Brewers and Distillers Found Creative Ways to Survive During Prohibition.” 05/16/19)

Prohibition caused more problems than it solved. The intended political, social, and economic consequences lead to its ultimate failure. Due to innovative practices companies like Anheuser-Busch were able to grow and prosper into international corporations.

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