This is the third in a short series of posts riffing off Daniel Okrent’s
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Buy his excellent book here.
One of the goofier anecdotes Daniel Okrent dug up during his Prohibition research involved chemical magnate Pierre du Pont
. In the late 1920s, the dynastic businessman organized and bankrolled the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment
, a group of aristocrats whose well-funded national publicity campaign helped popularize the idea of full repeal. (Their frustration with the 18th Amendment had much more to do with the government’s new reliance on the income tax, a substitute for the discarded excise tax on liquor, than with the crime and corruption Prohibition spawned.)
Leading a group like AAPA was natural for Pierre, whose managerial prowess emerged early in life. His father Lammot -- a talented chemist who patented a new recipe for “blasting powder
” that made the company a national power -- died in an explosion at a young age, forcing Pierre to assume his dad’s familial responsibilities. It was a role both he and his siblings took a little too literally:Although he was only fourteen, as the eldest song among ten children Pierre became not just the nominal head of the family but the actual one. His siblings -- even his sister Louisa, older by two years -- marked his role by calling him “Dad” and its variants, a familiar habit that would survive the passing decades. It’s both jarring and somehow touching to encounter, in Pierre’s vast correspondence, a letter from his brother Irenee addressed “Dear Daddy.” At the time -- 1920 -- Pierre was fifty; Irenee, president of the world’s largest manufacturer of explosives and other chemicals, was forty-four.
Following the ratification of the 21st Amendment, both Irenee and “Daddy” were active in the short-lived coalition known as the American Liberty League. That political group, a descendant of AAPA, was established by anti-Roosevelt Democrats furious with the new president for using revenue from the reinstated liquor tax to help pay for the New Deal instead of providing tax relief to the wealthy. With unemployment at 25 percent, the “alliance of multimillionaires profoundly out of touch with the agonies the Depression had imposed on most Americans” was not a big hit. It ceased meaningful operations after Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936.
This is the second in a short series of posts riffing off Daniel Okrent’s
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. The first, on the drugstore chain Walgreens, is here. Buy Okrent’s excellent book here.
For chemists with a predilection for danger, the era of Prohibition was ripe with lucrative business opportunities. Anastassoff Sreben, a Bulgarian-born and Chicago-based scientist, didn’t let it pass without cashing in.
Sreben was one of many alchemists during the Roaring 20s who “redistilled” industrial alcohol -- a substance used in everything from perfume to medical supplies -- into potable liquor. The Volstead Act did not limit the production and distribution of this toxic ingredient, and bootleggers ultimately stole or purchased it by the barrelful. (Okrent cites “impartial authorities” who estimated that illegal traders siphoned off 60 million gallons in one year!) Before they could sell it off, though, crime syndicates needed to find a soul willing and able to remove from the denatured alcohol
the additives that made it poisonous to consume. It was a process Roy Haynes -- the stooge placed in charge of the Treasury Department’s Prohibition enforcement efforts -- once claimed
“was “impossible.” He either underestimated the ingenuity of modern scientists or lied through his teeth.
from the February 12, 1930 edition of the Uniontown Morning Herald
summarizes an indictment eventually brought down on a $50 million bootleg ring ($636 million in 2009), one that touched 158 people, 31 “corporations,” and was “described by the government as the largest to quench illicit thirsts of Americans since the advent of Prohibition.” Sreben was at its center:The name of Anastassoff Sreben, [a] mysterious Bulgarian chemist who was reputed to have discovered a secret method whereby denatured alcohol easily could be rendered non-poisonous, was mentioned repeatedly in the 96 closely typewritten pages of the indictment as being head of the syndicate.Sreben established a disinfectant company here in 1923, said the indictment, and shortly thereafter discovered his million dollar formula, which extracted essential oils from hair tonics, perfumes, disinfectants, and flavoring extracts and left a pure alcohol base. [...]The chemist, who never renounced his Bulgarian citizenship, soon became tremendously wealthy and it was not long before scores of perfumeries, medicinal plants, and tonic manufacturers all over the country were applying for unprecedented amounts of alcohol with which to manufacture their products, the indictments continued.
The magic took place at a compound of “cover houses” on the city’s North Side, a cluster of dummy companies (with wonderfully generic names) “whose ostensible business,” Okrent writes, “required large quantities of industrial alcohol.” It’s safe to say that the Southern Disinfectant Company wasn’t trafficking aftershave.
The ease by which Sreben and others cracked the redistillation puzzle eventually drove both drys and enforcement officials nuts. Once they realized what was going on, Treasury Department personnel scurried to develop a substance they could add to industrial hooch that was more noxious, more difficult to extract, and less toxic to drink. But in a bout of desperation, and facing intense pressure from Anti-Saloon League superlobbyist Wayne Wheeler, the government forced distillers to dump even more lethal denaturants into their products until they could devise a safe and effective replacement formula. That punitive, shortsighted decision had severe consequences; by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the “federal poisoning program” (as Deborah Blum calls it
) may have killed at least 10,000 drinkers.
Former New York Times
public editor Daniel Okrent has enriched my life considerably with two wonderful creations: fantasy baseball
and the book “Last Call
,” his popular history of Prohibition. The latter is a delightful narrative romp through an important, astonishing period of American life, one I somehow understood at only an elementary level. Okrent’s work, which I recommend you read in full, includes hundreds and hundreds of tiny anecdotes that receive just a passing mention but are totally fascinating in their own right. Over the next several days, I thought I’d devote a few posts to some of those nuggets.
Let’s start with Walgreens, the ubiquitous drugstore chain that now boasts 7,600 outlets
in all 50 states. Before it was a corporate behemoth, Walgreens was a just a tiny string of stores Charles Walgreen operated on Chicago’s South Side. (A replica
of the first Walgreens, in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood, is on display at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry.) During the first two decades of the 20th century, the inventive Walgreen slowly expanded his operation, adding to each emporium elements -- an efficient prescription department, for example, and the milkshake -- that would become popular staples over time. The company’s creed
was nothing if not earnest: “We believe in the goods we merchandise, in ourselves, and our ability to render satisfaction. We believe that honest goods can be sold to honest people by honest methods.”
During Prohibition, the druggist experienced explosive growth, opening over 500 stores by 1929. “Walgreen’s expansion strategy was very simple,” his plaque
reads at the American National Business Hall of Fame. “He would duplicate his basic store model whenever and wherever the company’s cash flow would permit.” That stream was certainly bolstered by the popularity of his lunch counters. By organizing a buying cooperative
with other independent local outlets early in his career, Walgreens outlets always offered affordable prices, too. But booze almost certainly gave the pharmacy additional, um, liquidity.
How? The Volstead Act, the legislation enabling enforcement of the 18th Amendment, contained four major exemptions
: alcohol that was stored in one’s house on the day the law went into effect, “fruit juices” brewed by small farmers (the same folks who made up the base of support for the crusading Anti-Saloon League), wine produced for sacrament, and liquor distilled for “medicinal” purposes. People found a myriad of ways to abuse all four exceptions, but druggists and doctors were arguably the most aggressive. Every 10 days, for about three dollars a pop, any “sick” man could get a “prescription” filled for a pint of whiskey by a pharmacist looking for a little stipend on the side. “The cash flow from few enterprises gushed with quite the velocity that Prohibition brought to the drugstore business,” Okrent notes.
claims the high road. “True, certain unethical customers (in concert with unethical doctors) might have slipped a Walgreens pharmacist an occasional prescription for “medicinal whiskey,” wrote a sympathetic company historian in a 2004 book
, “but there is no indication such behavior was countenanced by the company, which kept its sterling reputation throughout the era.” Still, several hints suggest otherwise. In an interview from the same book (that Okrent excerpts
), Walgreen’s son admits that any store fire nearly gave his dad a heart attack. “He wanted the fire department to get in as fast as possible,” he remembered, “because whenever they came in we’d always lose a case or two of liquor” from the back. On top of that, Al Capone, “like so many other Chicagoans … was a regular
These days, alcohol is a standard (and legal) offering at most Walgreens branches. Indeed, the company just began selling
its own house brand lager at just $.50 a can. Reviews suggest
that consumers, like their Prohibition-era forefathers, might be better off brewing their own suds.
I’ve got a few things to take care of at Khakles
HQ this morning, including some telephone calls to Baltimore City
, so I’ll leave you with Mike D'Angelo’s excellent textual analysis
of “Do The Right Thing.” Like he did for his misdiagnosis
of the Iraq invasion, I think Joe Klein needs to atone for his ridiculous review of this masterpiece in New York
, which Spike himself tore to shreds
in the magazine’s letters section shortly after it was published. If the film was good enough for Barry and Michelle’s first date
, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
Within the past seven days, four of the five light bulbs in the track lighting unit above our sink burned out. Their collective, almost choreographed demise was funny, and genuinely surprising. Nowadays, given the ubiquity of the compact fluorescent light bulb
(CFL), it seems like lamps can operate without interruption until hell freezes over.
I assumed that little environmental wonder was a recent invention, but it were initially cooked up in 1976 by Ed Hammer, then an engineer at General Electric. On the heels of the 1973 energy crisis, the multinational conglomerate asked Hammer to develop a light bulb that could reduce power consumption for anxious homeowners and tenants. The task was tricky: Hammer wanted to use a fluorescent lamp -- it converts energy into useful light more efficiently than Alexander Graham Bell’s incandescent variety -- but the material was generally tubed-shaped. That meant it was incapable of replacing existing bulbs unless manufacturers bent the light up like a balloon animal, creating substantial reflection loss
and dooming the project altogether.
Hammer, as his name metaphorically suggests, would not be deterred. Through a series of tests, he came up with a way to curl up the tube
and distance its new spirals far enough apart to cut down deflections (three lumens per watt, for the nerds out there) while still maintaining a bulb-like design. The result was a shape so ingenious that it still dominates the market today. (For five months in 2008, Hammer recorded a series of podcasts, hilariously titled “Drop the Hammer
,” on the history of his engineering feat.)
GE, though, didn’t profit immediately from the innovation. The company, despite a massive portfolio
, wasn’t prepared to make the capital investment ($25 million) needed to build CFL production facilities, and the prototype was shelved
. It was only after the design was leaked and Chinese manufacturers started whipping up CFLs in the 1990s that Hammer’s employer got into the game.
More recently, Congressional Republicans have launched a curious, misguided cultural war
against a newish regulation that tightens efficiency standards for lighting. Brad Plumer ran through
the details of their disgust in November. Considering that each CFL reduces annual carbon dioxide emissions by about 170 pounds, it’s high time that somebody drops the hammer, so to speak, on those troglodytes.
At a practical level, athletes wear jerseys so they know which players to pass to and which to tackle. Early uniforms were extremely basic; European football players wore scarfs
on top of their work clothes, for instance, while their American counterparts donned
turbans or smoks. Over time, as gear became more detailed and distinctive, teams began using their attire to project an image of their club to the world. Some aim for elegance
and class, others brashness
. Nike’s new, expensive
, and awesome design
for the French national men’s soccer team suggests the western European nation is confident in its own (much maligned
No team in history used their jerseys as a psychological tool more effectively than the 1938 Italian World Cup squad. Beginning in the quarterfinals, in front of an anti-fascist French home crowd, the Azzurri abandoned
its famous blue shirts in favor of black, an intimidating symbol of the nation’s feared paramilitaries
. During the national anthem, the starters even performed a fascist salute, reminding Les Bleus of Mussolini’s growing strength on the continent, and probably of their own liabilities on the pitch. The Italians won that match 3-1 before upending Hungary 4-2 in the title game for its second consecutive championship.
Legend has it that Mussolini ordered the team to wear the ebony kits, as part of a motivational strategy that included sending
a telegram to the players before the finals that read, quite cryptically, “vincere o morire” (“win or die”). The story is appealing but probably false; the footballers were by all accounts loyal to the dictator, and the phrase was used colloquially at the time to mean “victory or bust.” Hungarian keeper Antal Szabo, however, preferred to believe the literal interpretation. "I may have let in four goals,” he told reporters after the match, in a clever bit of revisionism, “but at least I saved their lives.”
Thanks to Alavert, the best OTC seasonal allergy medication on the market, mid-March is one of the most magical times of the year. Winter's wrath is behind us, baseball players are working off their off-season rust, Oberon
is back on the shelves, and college basketball assumes its rightful spot atop the hierarchy of sport.
Fans of the most dramatic athletic tournament in the world owe a debt of gratitude to two unsung heroes with Illinois ties: H.V. Porter and Eddie Einhorn. The former, a native of Washington
and accomplished athletic administrator, was instrumental in the development of the molded ball
, a durable replacement for the irregular, cumbersome, and erratic laced ball
of Dr. James Naismith’s era:
Porter also coined the phrase “March Madness,” in a 1939 essay for the trade publication Illinois Interscholastic
, to describe the Prairie State’s high school basketball tournament. (In 2004, Brendan Koerner detailed
the court battle that ultimately freed the NCAA to use the moniker.) Here’s the last stanza of a poem Porter penned in honor of postseason basketball three years later, months after his country entered World War II:With war nerves tense, the final defenseIs the courage, strength and willIn a million lives where freedom thrivesAnd liberty lingers still.Now eagles fly and heroes dieBeneath some foreign archLet their sons tread where hate is deadIn a happy Madness of March.
March Madness as we know it today wouldn’t exist without Eddie Einhorn, the current minority owner and Vice Chairman of the White Sox. As a 1L at Northwestern Law in 1958, Einhorn came up with the genius idea
to syndicate nationally a radio broadcast of the NCAA men’s final -- with the assistance of legend George Mikan as his color man. Five years later, he moved into television, airing the Cincinnati-Ohio State title game on regional affiliates in the Buckeye State. Basketball fans, Einhorn realized, cared deeply about their local cagers and would tune in (in big numbers) to watch meaningful games if given the opportunity.
Einhorn got his big break in 1968, when his fledgling network telecast in primetime the “Game of the Century
" between Elvin Hayes’ Houston Cougars and Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins. The success of this regular season brawl intrigued NBC, which paid $500,000 for the rights to broadcast the NCAA title game the following year, the first major network to do so. That price, as Gus Johnson might say
, was a steal
The potential nuclear catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant is horrifying
, and the sacrificial efforts of the 50 or so engineers battling to cool down
the reactor inspiring. It’s hard to focus on anything else.
Selfish person that I am, one of my first thoughts this morning was parochial: is Illinois, a state that’s home to Exelon and generates half its energy from nuclear sources, in any serious danger of a similar meltdown? Chicago’s
Whet Moser did the legwork
for me and found that the probability of a disaster triggered by an earthquake is rare, though other potential risks (like tornadoes) certainly exist.
My second thought was historical. Most experts seem to agree that Fukushima is the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the Ukrainian meltdown that transformed life in the former Soviet Union 25 years ago next month. The scale of that calamity is mind-boggling; nobody is legally permitted to live within an 18-mile ring of the former plant, cleanup in the region has cost billions, and the Ukrainian government is still soliciting aid to build a new shelter (or “sarcophagus”) over the reactor as well as facilities to process nuclear waste.
The health impact is a matter of fierce debate. A comprehensive UN report published
five years ago estimates that roughly 4,000 people could eventually die because of the radiation to which they were exposed. At the time of the study, nine children had already fallen victim to thyroid cancer, though the survival rate is high. The greatest threat to public health actually proved to be mental
:The Chernobyl accident led to extensive relocation of people, loss of economic stability, and long-term threats to health in current and possibly future generations. Widespread feelings of worry and confusion, as well as a lack of physical and emotional well-being were commonplace. The dissolution of the Soviet Union soon after the Chernobyl accident, and the resultant instability in health care, added further to these reactions. High levels of stress, anxiety and medically unexplained physical symptoms continue to be reported among those affected by the accident.
Obviously, 21st-century Japan is a much safer, stable place to recover from trauma than the Soviet Union on the eve of its collapse. But I can’t help dread what obstacles lie ahead for those in the area.
For more on Chernobyl, flip through Der Spiegel's three-part series
from 2006 on the “Pompeii of the nuclear age.”
I've got a deadline to hit before the tournament starts later this week, and this morning has been a struggle, so posting will be light at least for today. In the meantime, enjoy Daniel Feinberg's write-ups of the Apatow crew reunion
at PaleyFest, in which we learn that Neal Schweiber was slated to join show choir in season two of Freaks and Geeks and that Jarrett Grode (seen below) literally works at Seth Rogen's medical marajuana dispensary:
Nick Graham is an atypical tycoon. His business of choice? Tiny grocery stores.
A native of Truman, Minnesota, Graham purchased (and thus saved) his town’s only market in 2006 while still in high school, using a small community loan and cash he had saved working on his uncle’s turkey farm. The bold move was documented by several national media outlets at the time, including CBS:
Operating a successful grocery store is not for the faint of heart. Supermarkets typically run on razor-thin profit margins and require owners to log long and inconvenient hours. The energy needed to maintain gigantic cooling units as well keep stores adequately lit inflates utility bills. And competition is fierce, especially since giant retailers like Walmart and Internet purveyors like Peapod jumped into the food game, using economies of scale to provide cheaper prices and, in turn, gobble up market share (pun intended).
In rural America, sustaining a local store is even more taxing. Depopulation, particularly of young families, leaves stores without an adequate customer base or workforce from which to draw competent employees. Meeting minimum buying requirements established by food distributors is a headache when business is slow, too.
Graham’s initial motivation was social: the youngster didn’t want to see another of his community’s anchor institutions collapse, particularly one that provides neighbors with sustenance and that serves, in the words of rural policy expert Jon Bailier
, as “an economic driver, community builder, employer, and meeting place.” But he soon found that these stores could net a profit if run in creative ways. He started wholesaling for nearby restaurants and convenience stores, for example, and stayed open long enough to service locals with busy schedules.
Four years later, he’s built a mini-empire
in rural Iowa, having sold
the Truman branch for a good price in 2008, and has tentative plans
to expand into several other towns. If Graham and researchers at Kansas State University
have anything to say about it, America's new generation of farmers
will soon have a new generation of sellers to supply.