I remember watching Ken Burns’s Prohibition when it came out years ago. Like all of Burns’s work, Prohibition paints a portrait in a very detail rich way and through human stories rather than through dry raw information.

The first episode really soars in explaining the rise of temperance as a response to the permeation of hard liquor and drunkenness that hit after the 1830s, and the factors that caused temperance to morph into abstinence societies, the rise of female activism, and ultimately the conflicting, raw, machine-style politics that led to Prohibition as federal amendment and the varying calculus of those responsible. From the series intro:

“Virtually every part of the Constitution is about expanding human freedom. Except prohibition, in which human freedom was being limited. When people cross the line between our essential character as Americans and some other superseding vision of what we should be, then we get in trouble.” —Pete Hamill

A great companion to Ken Burns is W.J. Rorabaugh’s 1979 book The Alcoholic Republic. It focuses not on Prohibition but on the Revolutionary period to 1840, conveying what historians still really haven’t in terms of popular consciousness—which is how, why, and to what ends drinking in America has permeated our sense of ourselves:

The truth was startling: Americans between 1790 and 1830 drank more alcoholic beverages per capita than ever before or since. (pg. IX) … between 1800 and 1830, annual per capita consumption [of distilled spirits] increased until it exceeded 5 gallons — a rate nearly triple that of today’s [1979] consumption. (pg. 8)

Also worth reading is Joseph Mitchell‘s New Yorker essay on McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon, New York City’s oldest bar. McSorely’s was so full of character that when Prohibition hit, it continued to operate and city police continued to drink there.

Some customs are more powerful than law.