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“Lager’s amber fluid mild/gives health and strength to wife and child”

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I happened across this image while reading Daniel Okrent’s fantastic Last Call, a history of the Prohibition movement that I assigned to an upper-division course largely out of an interest in remedying my own failure to devote much time at all to the political and cultural economies of booze during the early 20th century. (I have a variety of hypotheses — none of them very satisfying — about why many historians give short shrift to Prohibition. It certainly deserves more attention than I routinely offer it, especially to the degree that it shared ground with an almost endless variety of social movements, including woman suffrage agitation, nativist jeremiads, Jim Crow apologetics, anti-boss campaigns, child protection crusades as well as the drive for a federal income tax to release the state from its dependence on the impost duty on alcohol. For decades, there was almost literally no aspect of American life that couldn’t be explained, promoted or condemned by reference to whiskey and beer, which the Sage tells us are “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”)

At any rate, the Gies “Against Prohibition” series is outstanding. Okrent doesn’t offer much detail about Gies himself, but the internet (and specifically Google Books) remembers. George H. Gies was evidently dead by the time his sons began issuing these cards around 1914, right about the time Michigan was succumbing, along with dozens of its peers, to state-level dry laws. While alive, Gies had operated a highly-regarded, five-story, 50-plus-room “European Hotel” located on the second Williams Block of historic Monroe Avenue. During the 1880s and early 1890s, he had refused to abide by Michigan’s new statutes regulating saloon and restaurant hours; he also refused to serve black patrons. Both controversies drew him into court, where Gies argued that the 14th Amendment prevented the state from limiting his business hours and permitted him to deny blacks the opportunity to eat and drink and sleep in his place of business. (The latter case, decided in his favor by the Michigan Supreme Court, helped inspire the formation of numerous Afro-American Leagues in the state — a response to the <i>Plessy<i>-era logic by which Federal courts imagined no roadblocks that might inhibit anti-black policies and practices.) George Gies, then, would seem to have been in many ways the embodiment of alcoholic respectability. He ran a classy establishment, defended the property interests of business in court, and refused to supply dangerous negroes with rape juice.

So this madonna-like image here would have fused with Gies’ claims on behalf of his own (now posthumous) reputation and on behalf of his clients’ decency. Among other things, it was clearly drawn to counteract the arguments made by progressive women (suffragists, temperance advocates, etc.) that drinking was a homosocial male cultural enterprise that encouraged the sort of immoderation that endangered the health and security of both wives and children. Progressive feminists were apt to evoke concepts like “home protection” and “municipal housekeeping” to explain why second-class citizens like themselves should have a voice in monitoring the safety of the food supply, improving the labor conditions in textile factories and sweatshops, or reforming the local school and state court systems to better serve the needs of the nation’s youth. Corporate power was invading the home, and its pernicious influence needed to be checked. This image accepts the link between the corporate and domestic spheres but merely reverses the polarity, insisting that responsible brewers are no menace to mother and child. It would have summoned to mind the folk tradition — one that’s medically baseless yet still widely believed — that alcohol somehow enhances lactation by increasing the mother’s milk supply.

Given that the Gies company was essentially working on someone else’s (secure) rhetorical terrain, I seriously doubt the image had any other effect than to infuriate the Anti-Saloon League. But it’s a remarkable little document nevertheless.

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