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The recent airing PBS documentary by Ken Burns on Prohibition is a three part, five and a half hour series which explores the historical and ideological implications of the time period. The first part details the growing alcohol problem as more potent forms of alcohol were introduced and the population of larger cities grew.
One historian compared the British to the Americans, saying the British couldn’t do anything without forming a dinner around it and the American’s couldn’t do anything without a drink in hand. The hold of the Mayflower was filled with barrels of beer. At Valley Forge George Washington did his best to see his men had half a cup of rum every day. John Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider.
With the shift to stronger, alcohol content beverages it took a while for American culture to recognize there was a problem. By the 1830’s the average American consumed three times what people do currently and American’s spent more money on alcohol than the total expenditures of the federal government.
The documentary is interspersed with narrative and historical pictures. Historian Daniel Okrent was a major presence in Burn’s documentary, initially giving Burns the idea for the project.
Catherine Gilbert Murdock, a historian said, “Alcohol consumption at that point was a sign of masculinity that took away masculinity.” Women spearheaded the temperance movement before they were allowed to vote and groups like the Washingtonians sprung up with former drunks sobering up and helping others sober up, as well.
The first part of the documentary details the long trail that lead up to the eighteenth amendment which was prohibition, the temperance movements and the saloons, the influx of German immigrants and the towering breweries, making alcohol the fifth largest industry in America.
As soon as the amendment was passed the dry supporters were optimistic, but already trouble was brewing and organized crime had begun. The strange experiment of prohibition proved difficult to enforce. Thus ends episode one, catch the entire series on