When the Indianapolis Health Department shut down Charles Mulligan's, Ron Swanson was devastated. His reaction was understandable; if the fictional director of Pawnee’s Parks Department can’t dine at the “best damn steakhouse in the damn state
,” where else could he scarf down delicious food on mandatory trips to the state capital?
Many sportswriters and football fanatics descending on Indy for the Super Bowl this week share Swanson’s frustration. The largest landlocked city in America is not especially cosmopolitan, a reputation Jon Bois lampooned
in his Super Bowl culinary preview.* What the Crossroads of America lacks in charm, though, its downtown makes up for in accessibility, a trait Will Leitch advises
his colleagues not to overlook. For a fun football weekend, all fans need is a stadium they can reach without hassle, a few drinks, and unbridled enthusiasm.
In 1948, a merry band of cowboys from Alberta, Canada proved that point when they visited Toronto to cheer on the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup,
the title game of the Canadian Football League. It was a charmed season for the franchise, which had rejoined the CFL (with a new team name) just three years prior. First-year head coach Les Lear—a tough bastard who played in four Grey Cups as a player for Winnipeg and was the first Canadian to star in the NFL—transformed Calgary’s roster, bringing on four “gnarly old pros
” from the States who would make key contributions all year. Among the American imports was 34-year-old Woody Strode, a half-Native American, half-black defensive end from California who played with Jackie Robinson at UCLA before integrating the NFL in 1946. Strode was named an all-pro for anchoring Lear’s 4-3 defensive scheme, a formation that was used sparingly north of the border and routinely confused opposing coaches.
On the other side of the ball, the Stampeders relied on the rocket arm of Keith Spaith, the first NFL-style quarterback to join a CFL team. It was easy to convince Spaith to sign with the club; the year before, he and several other teammates on the Hawaiian Warriors were banned indefinitely from the Pacific Coast League for betting a combined $6,700 on their own team
in the league championship tilt. (They didn't cover a 14-point spread and then were caught and penalized by league officials, which just seems cruel.) With Spaith under center, Lear employed an aerial attack the likes of which Canadian defenses had not seen. On the year, QB1 threw for 1,246 yards, almost 1,100 more
than the Stamps’ previous passing leader. Regina and Winnipeg, the two other squads in the Western Division, could not match Calgary’s athleticism or creativity, and the Stamps rolled off 12-straight victories
, the first (and only) team in CFL history to finish the regular season undefeated. “We were outlaws,” Strode later said
. “We were the misfits, but we’d gone into a foreign country and become the kings over football.”
With a Grey Cup matchup against the Ottawa Rough Riders looming, football fever swept through Alberta, a province of homesteading farmers and ranchers in the midst of its first oil boom. Not content to listen to the game on the radio, several town members met at the Petroleum Club to make arrangements for a championship trip. The idea was to give Toronto a taste of Calgary: on a 13-car train, they packed horses, a chuckwagon
, a western band, Sarcee tribe members dressed in full native regalia, 250 fans in western attire, and an enormous supply of beer donated by Calgary Breweries. For three days, the party didn’t stop. As the train pulled into tiny towns along the route, the celebration would spill out onto the platform
, giving passengers the chance to “bribe the conductor to hold the train for a little while longer so they could send somebody to the liquor store to replenish the rapidly dwindling stock.” And when they arrived in Toronto 72 hours later, morning commuters were confused to see “cowboys, Indians, square dancers, and horses pouring off the train from the West.”
The game lived up to the Calgarians’ lofty expectations. In front of 20,013 fans, the Stamps—written off as “young, lightweight, and inexperienced” by the Eastern press corp—relied on trickery to secure its first lead. Driving deep into Ottawa territory in the second quarter, Spaith completed a pass to Strode on one side of the field. Receiver Norm Hill, standing yards away from the play on the other side of the field, immediately dropped to the ground near the new line of scrimmage. The Rough Riders, scrambling to reset its defense, lost track of him. Before they could find the 11th Stamp, Spaith called for the ball and floated a fluttery pass toward the hidden Hill, who slipped on his way into the endzone but caught the pigskin from the seat of his pants. In the biggest game of their lives, Lear’s boys had executed a controversial “sleeper play
,” and their boldness was rewarded with a 6-1 advantage.
The Stamps’ winning score was preceded by a play almost as bizarre as the “sit-down touchdown.” Deep into the fourth quarter, hanging onto a thin lead, Ottawa’s quarterback tossed a screen pass that landed wide of its target. The Rough Riders assumed the pass was incomplete, but the ball actually fell to the ground behind the line of scrimmage. Strode alertly grabbed the football, looked around to make sure the referee had not whistled the play dead, and rumbled all the way down to the Ottawa 11-yard line, the beneficiary of a botched lateral. Rookie halfback Pete Thodos busted into the endzone on the next play to secure a 12-7 victory.
The fans who had made the boozy cross-country journey to cheer on their Stampeders took the inevitable celebration seriously
. Globe and Mail
reporter Jim Coleman watched on
(November 29, 1948) as fans tore down the goalposts and walked them into the lobby of the swanky Royal York Hotel, where several party members had rented rooms. Men on horseback soon followed. The Winnipeg Free Press
(November 16, 2006) later described the carnival as a “collision between highbrow hotel manners and rodeo-style rabble-rousing.” “The gaudily caparisoned Calgary supporters were boisterous and noisy,” Coleman added, “but well-behaved and courteously declined to ride their horses into the elevators.”
A Stamps' surprise win and the ensuing exploits of their wild Albertan fans made the Grey Cup relevant
. These days, it’s Canada's largest annual sports event, attracting millions of television viewers and drawing tens of thousands
of diehards to the host city each year in search of a “Mardi Gras-like atmosphere.” Hill, who caught the “sit-down” score, is convinced his team’s triumph put the growing city of Calgary on the map, too. "It was the beginning of Calgary, in a sense," he told the Calgary Herald
years later (November 18, 2008). “There was a sense of progress in the city that whole year. Of purpose. The belief that anything was possible. "You could actually feel the adventurous western spirit beginning to build, to take shape.”
*To make “Shish-Ke-Bobby Knights,” mash ground beef into tiny balls, boil the meat until it takes on a “wonderful grey hue,” and skewer the spheres onto dowel rods.
President Obama is close to setting a modern record, one his liberal base is unlikely to applaud. The Democrat still has not commuted one prison sentence since taking office, a constitutional right every president
except George W. Bush exercised earlier in his first term. Obama’s been stingy
with his presidential pardons, too, officially forgiving the crimes of just 17 Americans, despite a massive backlog of applications. The Village Voice
published a lengthy analysis
of the trend a few weeks back, assigning blame to Obama’s political team, a skittish Attorney General Eric Holder, and the “arcane internal activities of the Justice Department,” which author Graham Rayman argues has “dismantled the administrative functions of the pardon office.” For those who've been wronged by the criminal justice system or have rehabilitated themselves following their initial incarceration, the light at the end of the tunnel is dimmer than it used to be.
Of the 17 people who did receive clemency from the current administration, most committed minor crimes (coin mutilation, alligator hide possession) decades ago. Not that they aren’t grateful; depending on the jurisdiction, ex-felons of any kind forfeit some of their core civil rights, including the right to vote, to hold public office, and/or to serve on a jury. Indeed, Junior Johnson
-- one of the most accomplished Americans ever to file for clemency -- considered his 1986 presidential pardon one of the great thrills of his life.
And Johnson had many. The first superstar of NASCAR, Junior won 50 major stock car races between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s and another 139 as a team owner in the three succeeding decades. Behind the wheel, he perfected two racing techniques that forever changed the sport: the power slide and drafting. The former, when the driver slows through a turn by cocking the wheel to the left and gunning it before
hitting a bend in the track, allows the car to come out of turns more quickly than consistently laying on the brake, while the latter -- when one car trails in the wake of another to minimize wind resistance -- helps slower cars keep pace with souped-up competitors.
It was on the dusty roads of Wilkes County, North Carolina where Junior gained his dexterity behind the wheel. Like thousands of Scot-Irish descendants before him, Johnson ran untaxed moonshine* through the back country woods. To the locals, it was a business with no less legitimacy than any other. Junior worked for his father, who operated one of the biggest individual copper-stills in the region. On a given night, young drivers could make $300 transporting a few dozen cases of mountain dew**, so long as they outran the federal tax agents known as “revenuers
,” which Johnson always did. “I never got caught behind the wheel running," he later bragged
. “I've still got my marks on a bunch of those trees all along the roads there.”
Yet he was clipped once, in 1957, when officials staked out his father’s home and found the son on his way to fire up the family’s still. Johnson was arrested and served 11 months and three days in federal prison, the crime for which he was eventually pardoned. In a funny way, the booking was a blessing; as an older man, the driver claimed that in prison he “found out that I could listen to another fellow and be told what to do and h'it wouldn't kill me." His felony helped reinforce his bonafides as a rebel, too, setting the stage for his emergence as legitimate southern folk hero.
That image was solidified in 1963, the most memorable season of his career. The good ole boy grossed $100,000 in earnings and set multiple qualifying records driving a Chevy, an inferior car not bankrolled by Detroit’s two earliest NASCAR investors, Ford and Chrysler. Those qualifying runs were often more thrilling to fans than the races themselves; because a stock car track is a giant oval and circling it requires very little handling ability, the sprints became, as Tom Wolfe describes it in his famous profile
of Johnson, “a test of raw nerve -- of how fast a man is willing to take a curve.” In those early days, nobody was quite as fearless as Junior.
Last year, Johnson was one of the inaugural inductees
of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an honor he shared with legendary mustachioed driver Richard Petty. Since 2007, he’s also returned to his liquor roots, distilling and distributing
Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, a legal moonshine. (Reviews are mixed.) Working through an authorized dealer is certainly preferable to rejoining the underground industry, which investigative reporter Max Watman
says “shows no signs
of letting up.” If he ran into trouble again, Johnson would probably have less success convincing the new occupants of the White House to throw him a bone.
*A home-brewed whiskey distilled from corn, potatoes, or anything that would ferment.
**Other hilarious nicknames include White Lightning; Kickapoo, Joy Juice, Hooch, Ruckus Juice, Happy Sally, Hillbilly Pop and Panther's Breath.
If you’re into U.S. history and sweeping shots of sepia-toned still photographs
, be sure to leave some space on your DVR Sunday night for the first episode of “Prohibition
,” the latest film in Ken Burns’ quest to document the entirety of American culture in his distinctive, polarizing style. I’m excited for the project because the PBS mainstay “exchanged ideas, research, and sources” with Daniel Okrent, author of the insightful and entertaining 2010 book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
. As dedicated readers of the blog know, I devoured Okrent’s tome this spring and wrote a series of posts exploring a few of the choice, quirky anecdotes he reported but did not have the space or inclination to write about at length. If Burns tells a similarly engaging tale, it should make for worthwhile viewing.
To wet your whistles for the six-hour documentary, I thought I’d repost my work below. If you haven’t read the pieces yet, or don’t remember anything about them, I hope you’ll click through.Did Walgreens' Milkshakes Bring the Boys to the Yard?
: On the explosive growth of Walgreens and the chain’s (possible) connection to bootlegging.The Killer D's
: On Anastassoff Sreben, a Bulgarian-born and Chicago-based scientist who made a fortune during the dry years “redistilling” industrial alcohol.Daddy Du Pont
: On the weird family life of chemical magnate and influential repeal advocate Pierre du Pont.Was Prohibition All Bad?
: On the modest benefits of the 18th Amendment.
At the recommendation of a fellow comedy nerd
whose taste I respect, I’ve started revisiting “Cheers
,” NBC’s long-running sitcom about the titular Boston bar. (Netflix Streaming has made all 275 episodes available, for those with an account.) My folks loved “Cheers,” so it’s one of those older shows that, through the beauty of syndication, I caught fairly frequently as a kid. Watching it now, it’s striking how similar it feels in both tone and style to the network’s latest mainstream success (and one of my favorite shows of all time), “The Office.”
Obviously, the conceit of the “documentary” sets the British import apart from its Thursday night predecessor. That said, the two workplace comedies mirror each other in very elemental ways: each has a talented ensemble with full, actualized personalities; the writers can tactfully veer into absurdist or screwball territory and generate big laughs because the show is generally so grounded; they treat their hilarious cold opens like little set pieces, few of which have any relevance to the storyline of the subsequent episode; and the comedy is never cynical or mean. Bill Carter, in his 1993 “Cheers” obit
, boiled down the show’s core appeal, one that could just as well describe the work of Greg Daniels and Michael Schur (a noted
“Cheers” fan himself):"Cheers" is as much a throwback as a step forward. After "All in the Family" in the late 60's, it seemed almost obligatory for sitcoms to take up social causes, especially if they wanted to score Peabody Awards along with their Nielsens. "M*A*S*H*" was a vehicle for antiwar outrage; "Family Ties" poked fun at Reaganomics and the me-first ethic of the 80's, "Roseanne" takes the measure of class divisions. Every sitcom seemed to want to do "very special episodes" about drug abuse or illiteracy or someone's death and what it taught us about life.On "Cheers," the lessons are incidental, and its subtext will have to be unearthed or imagined by the sociologists of the future. Rather, what the show's creators aimed to do was deliver pure comedy that was sophisticated but not pretentious, "I Love Lucy" as told by Noel Coward.
“Cheers” called it quits after 11 seasons when its star, Ted Danson, decided to leave his post inside the bar. “The Office” is taking the opposite strategy
. Whether or not the creative team can recapture the magic of seasons two through five sans Michael Scott is yet to be seen. Perhaps they should fire up their Rokus for a little inspiration.
Before Las Vegas, there was the Free State of Galveston.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Americans craving debauchery and gaudy shows did not fly out to the Mojave Desert (or the Ozarks)
. Instead, they fled to Galveston, the “sin city of the Gulf Coast,” located 50 miles southeast of Houston. With Prohibition on the books, this Texas island city -- once a bustling port and center of the nation’s cotton trade -- became a premiere tourist destination
, a slice of America where prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging “flourished
under the benign eyes of local authorities.”
The story of Galveston’s transformation starts with Spindletop, the East Texas oil field that launched
the modern petroleum era. When the first gusher in nearby Beaumont blew, oil became the region’s dominant industry. But Galveston had experienced a devastating hurricane
the year before, which made it a poor location to establish refineries. Oil companies preferred inland Houston, because of its proximity to railroads, and the neighboring town quickly superseded Galveston as the economic hub of the region. By 1920, Galvestonians needed a new way to make some scratch.
The city’s proximity to the water might have been a liability to oilmen, but it was a feature for gangsters looking to import newly-outlawed hooch. Beginning in 1919, schooners dispatched from the Caribbean started depositing barrels of liquor onto nearby deserted beaches. Wholesalers subsequently forwarded the booze into Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, and other Midwestern cities, quenching the nation’s irrepressible thirst and infusing locals with new (illegal) revenue.
Some booze stayed in Galveston, too. Rose and Sam Maceo, two suave immigrant barbers from Sicily, became the city’s preeminent bootleggers, providing rich Houstonians and troops from several nearby military compounds with drinks and safe spots in which to consume them. In 1925, working with an outfit known as the Beach Gang, the pair opened the Hollywood Dinner Club, a sophisticated night club with “Spanish architecture, a hardwood dance floor for 500, crystal chandeliers, rattan furnishings, an elegant menu, and gaming tables.” They followed that up by constructing the Balinese Room
(pictured above), a state-of-the-art casino that attracted top entertainers and high-rollers from across the country. (Galveston's preeminent historian, Gary Cartwright, noted that "the casino was strategically situated at the end of a two-hundred-foot-long pier so that, in the event of a raid, there was time to fold slot machines into the walls and convert craps tables to bridge tables.") With speakeasies, hotels, bathhouses, and gaming operations dotting the town’s main drag, city officials felt confident erecting a 60-foot sign declaring Galveston “The Treasure Island of America.”
All of this activity, of course, was illicit. Yet it wasn’t in the economic interests of the island’s overground businessmen to clamp down on the Maceo’s underground empire. Indeed, Galveston’s veteran sheriff claimed he never raided the Balinese because it was a private club and he wasn't a member. More from Cartwright: “Had they chosen to, the Island’s ruling families could have shut down the Maceos with a few phone calls. But they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t notice, or maybe they didn’t care. An article in the
Chicago Journal in 1930 suggested as much: “Galveston generally seems to be a community satisfied to live withdrawn in the smugness and fallacies of it’s selfappraisal and conceit.” But there was something else about the Maceos, something near and dear to the hearts of Galveston’s upper class. The brothers from Sicily had a primary instinct for laissez faire, and they always took care of business first. The Maceos had their own private police patrol, a group of hoods known as Rose’s Night Riders, whose job it was to protect slot machines and maintain law and order in the gambling joints. Crime was down, at least statistically. There was no unemployment. Everyone was making money. The banking and insurance businesses had never been better. The Moodys’ hotes were full, even in the winter. Without the Maceos, it seem, the Island might dry up and blow away.”
When Las Vegas legalized gambling in 1931 and the Hoover Dam made life in the desert bearable (if unsustainable
), Galveston lost its competitive advantage. In 1950, the Maceos made a major investment in the Desert Inn, then the most elaborate casino on the Vegas Strip. Shortly thereafter, the Texas Rangers began a sustained campaign to destroy Galveston’s gambling and prostitution infrastructure. Without those vices, tourists had no reason to visit, and the economy bottomed out once again. But for a few magical decades, there wasn’t a hipper spot in all the land.
This is the fourth and final post in a short series riffing off Daniel Okrent’s
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Buy his excellent book here.
By most accounts, America’s experiment with Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster; the embargo on booze (only loosely enforced) robbed the government of revenue and encouraged wide-scale, professionalized criminality and corruption. But seen through a much wider and sympathetic lens, one could argue that the 18th Amendment was a partial success. While Americans didn’t stop drinking entirely, this thirsty nation cut back its liquor consumption considerably during the “dry” years. Some limited themselves out of respect for the rule of law. Others abstained because practical roadblocks made hooch trickier and more expensive to obtain. Whatever the reason, drinking certainly declined. From Okrent’s epilogue:Back in the first years of the twentieth century, before most state laws limiting access to alcohol were enacted, average consumption of pure alcohol ran to 2.6 gallons per adult per year -- the rough equivalent of 32 fifths of 80-proof liquor, or 520 twelve-ounce bottles of beer. Judging by the most carefully assembled evidence, that quantity was slashed by more than 70 percent during the first few years of national Prohibition. It started to climb as Americans thirsts adjusted to the new regime, but even Repeal did not open the spigots; the pre-Prohibition per capita peak of 2.6 gallons was not again attained until 1973.
This behavioral shift was famously memorialized by Tin Pan Alley troubadour Albert Von Tilzer
, who in the early 20s penned a hit novelty song “I Never Knew I Had A Wonderful Wife (Until The Town Went Dry).” The lyrics
are kind of sweet, in a deeply misogynistic way. “I used to make excuses and go out to the club/And when I think of what I missed I knew I've been a dub.” Here’s a fresh rendition of the tune, courtesy of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (which I still need to see):
While he collected lots of royalties for this (now-forgotten) song, Von Tilzer’s most famous contribution to American culture should be familiar to everyone. It’s a little ditty called “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”
What, you thought I’d let Opening Day pass by without a little tribute?
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.
Working on a pitch about beer appreciation, I came across this epigram attributed
to emperor Julian the Apostate
, who ruled the Romans for three years (360-363) and has been described by historians as "the military commander, the theosophist, the social reformer, and the man of letters:"Wine from the vine has a fragrance like nectar;
wine from barley stinks like a goat.
Wine from the vine comes from Bacchus, son of the goddess Semele;
wine from barley comes from bread.
The Roman Empire didn't crumble because of open homosexuality
. Poor taste in booze did them in.