Prohibition, Beer and Baltimore


Figure 1. Beer bottle dated c. 1910 from the
Monumental Brewing Company of Baltimore, Maryland.

As I perused social media and news feeds early in January, I kept coming across stories about the benefits of a dry January. An alcohol-free month was not in my cards, however, because an early January archaeological conference meant lots of social beers with colleagues. 

One hundred years ago this month, in January of 1920, citizens of the United States began to experience a long, dry period as Prohibition got underway. Congress passed the 18th Amendment in October of 1919, following it on January 16, 1920 with the passage of the Volstead Act, designed to enforce Prohibition.  The amendment made it illegal to produce, transport and sell alcohol in the United States. With the exception of Maryland, every U.S. state passed state-level versions of the Volstead Act (Walsh 2017).

Resistance to Prohibition was strong in Maryland, which had elected “wet” governor Albert Ritchie in 1920 (Ciammachilli 2019). This resistance even earned Maryland its nickname of the “Free State” in 1922 (Walsh 2017). Lawmakers in Baltimore especially opposed Prohibition.  Despite opposition within the city, however, the effects of the ban on alcohol were almost immediate, with the closing of bars, saloons and breweries (Levy 2016).  Of Baltimore, the American newspaper wrote that “gloom fell over the wet trade” (cited in Walsh 2017).

Baltimore has always been a city of breweries. The city’s first breweries were established in the first half of the 18th century and produced British-style ales. The bird’s eye view of the city shown on the 1869 Sasche Map illustrates at least 15 breweries, some of them with beer gardens. This preponderance of breweries can be traced back to the increasing German immigration, beginning in the 1840s. Germans brought with them a love of lighter lager beers, whose production began to predominate in the city’s beer manufacturing.  

Figure 2. Illustration of George Bauernschmidt’s brewery as shown on the 1869 Sasche Map of Baltimore. Baurenschmidt opened his brewery in 1864 and remained in operation until 1898, when he and a number of other breweries consolidated into the American Brewery Company. Digital version of the map available at https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3844b.pm002540/?r=0.093,0.004,0.101,0.062,0.

Beer bottles are a common find at archaeological sites, beginning in the second half of the 19th century.  The Monumental Brewing Company bottle shown in Figure 1 was found in a privy sealed around 1910 at the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27) in the Otterbein neighborhood of Baltimore.  The Monumental Brewing Company opened in 1900, but went out of business in 1920, at the start of Prohibition.  

Baltimore’s breweries reacted in one of two ways during Prohibition.  Some manufacturers, including the National Brewing Company and the American Brewery, went out of business (Levy 2016).  Others, like Gunther and Globe, managed to keep their doors open by manufacturing “near” beers—beverages that contained less than one half of one percent of alcohol by volume (Levy 2016).

General opinion holds that Prohibition was a failure (Buck 2013). Alcohol consumption was only moderately reduced by the legal restrictions, while organized crime centered on the illegal production and sale of alcohol soared.  Opposed to the 18th Amendment, Baltimore writer H. L. Mencken famously wrote, “there is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more”. The U.S. ban against the production, transportation and sale of alcohol was ultimately to last for 13 years. In 1933, the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, making the 18th Amendment the only constitutional amendment ever repealed in our country.  Baltimore’s breweries rebounded and are still successful today.

References

Buck, Betty. 2013. The Failed Experiment of Prohibition.  Baltimore Sun.  Website accessed January 27, 2020 at https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-beer-20131204-story.html.

Ciammachilli, Esther.  2019.  Booze!  Causing Political Fights in Maryland for 100 Years.  WAMU 88.5 American University Radio, March 4, 2019.  Website accessed January 27, 2020 at https://wamu.org/story/19/03/04/booze-causing-political-fights-in-maryland-for-100-years/.

Levy, Sidney.  2016. Lost City:  Local Taverns and Big Breweries. Underbelly. Maryland Historical Society.  February 18, 2016.  Website accessed January 27, 2020 at http://www.mdhs.org/underbelly/2016/02/18/lost-city-local-taverns-and-big-breweries/.

Walsh, Michael T. 2017. Baltimore Prohibition:  Wet and Dry in the Free State. American Palate; A Division of the History Press, Charleston, S.C.