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Daniel Okrent's Last Call
May 6, 2010 7:30 AM   Subscribe

"Women and men drink together in a bar? Well, then, you have to have bathrooms for the women. That's the invention of the powder room. That's a phrase that actually comes from Prohibition. They could tuck a tiny little room with a toilet and a sink underneath a stairwell or in a corner. Table service in bars can also be traced to Prohibition, because men and women together, they're not bellying up the bar, but sitting at a table. And the dance band: if you have only men in a bar, you're never going to have a five-piece jazz band there; but you are going to if you have men and women who might dance together." Daniel Okrent and the history of Prohibition.

"And that was even more remarkable, because it's the only time that a part of the Constitution was repealed. There were a number of factors that played into the reversal. There was a growing concern about the loss of respect for law in the U.S. -- a lot of concern. If you are seeing a tenet of the Constitution and a series of laws that come out of it being broken on a daily basis -- an hourly, minute-by-minute basis across the country -- as was the case by the late twenties, then how can anybody have respect for law? There was a very strong conservative movement that wanted to get rid of Prohibition for this reason."
posted by geoff. (30 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
This interview is so full of correlation/causation fallacies it's hard to parse!
posted by Pollomacho at 7:41 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


where's the Laphroig?
posted by infini at 7:44 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is a great interview, and I can't wait to read this book. It looks absolutely fascinating and well put together, and there's nothing I love better than this kind of well-researched popular history book. But I did want to note that Okrent's argument, presented as as surprise to him and to the interviewer and probably the general public, that there was a real need for prohibition that related to the human rights of American citizens, particularly women and children, has been discussed in the world of academic history and women's history for some time - Okrent isn't the first to have made the connection. Alcoholism was a serious problem impacting families; at a time when women's earning power was constrained and many women were dependent on male earners for a household income, and they had no individual representation in politics or under the law, alcoholism among men was a direct cause of poverty and domestic violence, creating chronic conditions of lack of education, dangerous surroundings, lack of medical care, frequent injury, and many other issues. That it was a fairly logical response to advocate for controlling the substance of alcohol should not be so surprising to us, as the same rationale applies to the prohibition of illicit drugs today: illicit drugs are banned largely bacause of the social arguments that they contribute to public health hazards, endanger families, and reinforce chronic poverty.
The amount of drunkenness -- particularly at the edge of the frontier, in the Midwest, in the rural areas -- was terrifying. Women had no legal rights at the time, and husbands were off getting drunk, drinking away the family money, not doing their work, coming home, hitting their wives, treating the kids badly, sometimes bringing home venereal disease from the prostitutes connected to the taverns. It was a real, real problem. So beginning to build a movement around the idea of home protection, as the Women's Christian Temperance Union called it, that was really, really important.


Thanks for the post. It looks like a pretty amazing, accessible synthesis that will be fun to read.
posted by Miko at 7:55 AM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is fascinating. I'm surprised there was no discussion of today's prohibition of cannabis, which has certainly led to an extensive underground culture and considerable organized crime, as well as today's version of "moonshiners," people who grow and sell to a limited circle of clients. How many people are languishing in jail right now for cannabis? Yet it's been acceptable to make jokes about it, to laugh at movies about it (Cheech & Chong vs. Reefer Madness); even Johnny Carson admitted to trying the stuff.

Someday perhaps books will be written about all of that, as well as the rise of hydroponic sales, the impact of "weed" on entertainment and the development of ever-stronger strains of the stuff. Right now, too many people are making money from the prohibition itself, although cracks are beginning to appear here and there.

Thanks for this post... very thought-provoking. Fascinating about the Las Vegas link. Speedboats were mentioned but not NASCAR, which claims to have its roots in moonshiners outrunning "revenooers," yet another product of the 18th Amendment.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:57 AM on May 6, 2010


And the dance band: if you have only men in a bar, you're never going to have a five-piece jazz band there

I guess someone forgot to tell Weimar-era Berlin.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:57 AM on May 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


And the end of the Cold War, that was also from Prohibition! The Berlin Wall wouldn't have come down if it weren't for severe social unrest in East Berlin, which unrest was kept alive by the leakage of Punk music into the Soviet states, and Punk is a movement that was born of a distrust of the government, which was of course exacerbated by Nixon's resignation, a move that was due in no small part to the actions of John Lennon and his struggle with being deported from the US, which was officially over a drug-related crime, and Lennon wouldn't have been doing illegal drugs if he hadn't been introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan, a figure whom the Beatles would not have had a desire to meet had he not been prominent in the folk music scene, a scene popularized by Woody Guthrie, who was named by his parents after Woodrow Wilson, who enacted Prohibition in 1920.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:02 AM on May 6, 2010 [8 favorites]


This interview is so full of correlation/causation fallacies it's hard to parse!

It's really not all that out there, folks. These aren't stretches - they're well accepted historical perspectives about the interlinked phenomena tied to the successive 19th/20th century waves of Progressive/Reform movements.
posted by Miko at 8:04 AM on May 6, 2010


Women and men drinking together in a bar? That's a paddlin'. Men and women who might dance together? That's a paddlin'. Talking out of turn? That's a paddlin'. Lookin' out the window? That's a paddlin'. Staring at my sandals? That's a padddlin'. Paddlin' the school canoe? Oh, you better believe that's a paddlin'.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:07 AM on May 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


It's really not all that out there, folks.

He implies that income tax was an attempt by Progressive politicians to get support from prohibitionists. What he fails to gather is that the progressive politicians were often part of the prohibitionist movement. Progressives preached sweeping social reforms in a broad range from temperance to tenament reform to reformation of regressive tax structure. These were not seperately operating movements.

Honestly, the whole interview reads to me like neo-conservative revisionist history.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:19 AM on May 6, 2010


I'm pretty sure the powder room in my house (1908, tiny bathroom tucked under a stairwell) was not installed in the 1920s as an homage to the ingenuity of the tavern down the street.

Which incidentally has trough-style urinals in a dark basement that every time I go down there, I expect to find a hooker handcuffed to a pipe in a corner.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:29 AM on May 6, 2010


I really, really want a biopic to be made of Carrie Nation.

She saw the problems Miko mentioned and took some fucking action. Imagine, if you will, sitting at the bar with your fellow compatriots, having a pint, discussing the issues of the day (the spoils of the Spanish American War, the merits of facial hair, uppity women and their yearning to vote), when holyfuckingshit! Who is this crazy bitch in our bar, and what the fuck is she doing to do with that fucking hatchet? Oh damn! She's not alone! They're chopping up the fucking bar! They're busting kegs!

She was thrown in jail for doing this, bailed out, and went right back to it.

I don't agree with prohibition, but damn, that woman was on a mission, and I'd like to know more about her story, preferably through film.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:38 AM on May 6, 2010


Progressives preached sweeping social reforms in a broad range from temperance to tenament reform to reformation of regressive tax structure. These were not seperately operating movements.

I don't disagree and I'm not sure he does either - he's looking at the history with Prohibition as an entry point, though, so of course it's in the foreground. And in women's history at least, the temperance movement is one of the most powerful vehicles for moving Progressivism forward, driven by personal imperative. Yes reform agendas were much broader, but they can be seen throughout the nineteenth century as branches extending from twin trunks of social causes organized and supported by women - temperance and abolition.

Anyway, hard to say without reading the book whether it's wrongly weighted or misleading. Interviews can be flukey.
posted by Miko at 8:40 AM on May 6, 2010


He might have spent a lot of time researching Prohibition, but I don't think this guy has done enough research into the social history of drinking. Women in bars wasn't new as a result of Prohibition, and neither were tables. Table service I'm not so sure about; I suspect it depends on the kind of bar you're talking about (and treating all pre-Prohibition bars as the same is another oversimplification).

It's certainly true that Prohibition grew out of the over-zealous teetotal wing of a larger Temperance movement (which in many places encouraged beer-drinking - as opposed to gin), but he over-does that. He talks about the problems drinking created for women and their lack of power (real enough), but does so as if there were no women drinking. But then he's got women in the bars demanding powder rooms. Huh?
posted by nickmark at 8:43 AM on May 6, 2010


By "powder room" I don't think he means a regular bathroom or water closet. I think he means the kind of bathroom that's specifically a true "powder room" - a closet-size room with only a toilet and sink, that is often found as a bathroom for guests near the public part of a house. Even lots of modern McMansions have these - they're not full bathrooms, those were located in the family part of the house, and they're squeezed in just to provide a small accommodation, not a complete "restroom" or "bathroom" with vanity, seating, bathtub, etc.
posted by Miko at 8:44 AM on May 6, 2010


Women in bars wasn't new as a result of Prohibition, and neither were tables.

That's totally true - women went to bars/taverns all along. I'm willing to accept that things changed to appeal more to genteel-ish women when the clientele was weighted more toward couples and groups of women, though. Of course, a lot of other social mores were changing, as well.
posted by Miko at 8:47 AM on May 6, 2010


but damn, that woman was on a mission, and I'd like to know more about her story, preferably through film.

I beats learning her story though her coming at you (or your keg) with an axe....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:57 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anyway, hard to say without reading the book whether it's wrongly weighted or misleading. Interviews can be flukey.

Very true, I may have to get it to find out if you are right!

he's looking at the history with Prohibition as an entry point

That may be the problem. He associates the "invention" of the dance band with mixing of the sexes because of alcohol, but (at least in the interview) misses the fact that dance halls were common prior to prohibition in the African-American community (and clearly men and women were meeting at some place or else population growth would have slowed to a trickle). Prohibition and Progressivism drove white people of both sexes to further intermingle with blacks at the places where blacks had alcohol - in their (pre-existing) dance halls.

Also another factor in Progressivism was the drive for public sanitation. Bathrooms were going in everywhere in the early 20th century. It seems only fitting that there would be an expectation of sanitary facilities in a bar, even an underground bar, during that era.

So, did women drinking in speak-easies lead to the creation of dance bands and toilets or did drinking in dance halls lead to the Charleston craze coincidentally during an era of sanitation reform?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:57 AM on May 6, 2010


the whole interview reads to me like neo-conservative revisionist history.

If this reviewer reflects Okrent's conclusions accurately, it's kind of the opposite:
... There is an unstated but sobering moral implicit in this story, and that is the ongoing power of determined minorities to push and realize agendas that their opponents sometimes complacently assume simply contradict the March of Progress. The most surprising part of Last Call is Okrent's compelling description of the power of the liquor lobby in American politics in the early 20th century, a well lubricated machine that maintained legislators as efficiently as it provided everything from food to furnishing for its franchisees. And yet, when the time came, all its money and popular support was mowed down with surprising ease. To consider that many of the people who seek to ban abortion and immigration come from the same demographic heritage as Prohibitionists is to realize the force of William Faulkner's famous maxim that the past is never dead. It's not even past. Something to keep in mind the next time you raise a glass.
posted by Miko at 8:59 AM on May 6, 2010


dance halls were common prior to prohibition in the African-American community

Oh, in the white community too. It seems like what he's saying is that turning a standing "bar" style tavern into a dance hall involved bringing bands in to a bar, rather than serving liquor at a music hall. I suppose that's splitting some fine hairs, but again, I think I'd have to read the book to evaluate how he's structuring this claim.
posted by Miko at 9:01 AM on May 6, 2010


The phrase "powder room" was certainly used before prohibition to mean "a room where women put on powder and fix themselves up." Here it is in a 1912 issue of Cosmpolitan. And a novel from 1918

It is possible that during prohibition people started to use it as a euphemism for the women's bathroom. Notice that the 1918 novel implies that the powder room is not a bathroom but could be made into one.

Anyway it sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to read it.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:29 AM on May 6, 2010


This is a really fascinating interview, and I may need to get this book.

Daniel Okrent is awesome, generally. Here's his contribution to Old Jews Telling Jokes. And for added nerd appeal, he apparently invented the modern form of Fantasy Baseball.
posted by dammitjim at 9:32 AM on May 6, 2010


I still think it's hilarious how many members of these "Womens' Temperance Movements" were ardent enthusiasts of patent medicines, many of which contained, yup, you guessed it, metric shit-tons of alcohol.
posted by Sloop John B at 10:13 AM on May 6, 2010


I really, really want a biopic to be made of Carrie Nation.

And Lucy Lawless should play Carrie Nation.
posted by msjen at 10:19 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry for this derail but that issue of Cosmopolitan I linked to is great. The ads alone are just fantastic.

But it also has: an article on the miracle discovery of radium, my grandfather was Charles Dickens, a Jack London story, and illustrations by Christy and Gibson
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:33 AM on May 6, 2010


Disclaimer first: Okrent's a friend of mine. Even if he wasn't, however, I'd be here praising the book. (Here's the handy Amazon link.) It's a wonderful read; fascinating and funny and rich with detail.

You can learn a bit more about the book (and Okrent) from these interviews. Here's the book's page at Simon & Schuster. Also worth visiting is Dan's personal website, which includes a list of locations where he'll be reading. If there's one near you, do yourself a favor and attend.

Many years ago, when Dan was a full-time editor and I was just a kid, I turned in some copy to him. After a few minutes he called me into his office. "As Bishop said to Jones, 'Much of the egg is good.'" I had no idea what he was talking about. Bishop? What Bishop? This was pre-Google, so it took me a week of sleuthing before discovering the story of the Curate's egg. This, it seems, was Dan's gentle way of letting me know that my article was pretty bad, without having to tell me that my article was pretty bad.

He's a good egg.
posted by william_boot at 10:35 AM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


For a little more on what the book is actually like, or if you're looking for hard historical facts, this excerpt on Wayne B. Wheeler, architect of the Prohibition movement, is fascinating.
And the 18th Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices and the English language. It would provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal syndicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage and the creation of Las Vegas.

Prohibition fundamentally changed the way we live. How the hell did that happen?

It happened, to a large degree, because Wayne Wheeler made it happen.
posted by kyleg at 10:45 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The phrase "powder room" was certainly used before prohibition to mean "a room where women put on powder and fix themselves up." Here it is in a 1912 issue of Cosmpolitan. And a novel from 1918

Yes, that was my point - he doesn't seem to be claiming that powder rooms (small bathrooms) were invented because of Prohibition. They already existed. He's claiming that bars, of the type that usually were open only to men (and there were plenty of those) needed to squeeze in small bathrooms to accommodate a new female clientele.

Also, the idea that the powder room was for "powdering yourself" and fixing your appearance is only partially true. Powder rooms in the colonial era actuall were for powdering wigs, and only the elite had them anyway - they were meant to keep the powder from settling all over the furniture. The word was repurposed to mean "small bathroom" and a place where you could fix yourself up later on. But it also served the handy purpose of being a euphemism for "bathroom," so no lady would have to indelicately acknowledge that she needed to pee. The men were left to imagine dainty activities like "powdering" rather than what the rooms were really for. Of course, fixing-up happened there too.
posted by Miko at 11:04 AM on May 6, 2010


today's version of "moonshiners,"

naw, today's version of moonshiners is moonshiners
posted by little e at 12:06 PM on May 6, 2010


From the interview:
The one that is most striking to me is how it became harder to get a drink after repeal than it was during Prohibition. During Prohibition, you had no code other than it's against the law. So this enormous illegal world of manufacture, shipping, wholesale, retail, and consumption is created -- but there's no regulating it. After repeal, all the states put in liquor laws, which said you can't have a bar within 300 feet of a church, or a liquor store within 500 feet of a school; you have to have closing hours; you can't be open on Sundays; you can't open early in the morning; you have to be 21 to drink. Suddenly, there is this superstructure of law that has to be obeyed, and it became much harder, because of the legalizing and regulating, to get a drink. I think there's a lesson there about our current drug laws: bringing government into the drug control business would not only produce an enormous amount of revenue at a time that the country can use revenue, but it might also cut down on drug use.
posted by bowline at 12:13 PM on May 6, 2010


Pollomacho:Never judge a book by an interrview. Okrent writes at length about the Progressive (and populist) support for Prohibition. 400 pages will provide opportunity for complexity and subtlety that a Q and A won't.
posted by WBW at 3:24 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


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