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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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  • The awesomeness of this image cannot be overstated.

  • Malaclypse

    Real Americans ™ know that ale > lager. This should be even more obvious than the also-obvious pie > cake.

    • R Johnston

      Cake >> pie. You have obviously never had really good cake.

      It’s harder to totally screw up pie, so pie is safer, but the best cake leaves pie in the dust.

      • Malaclypse

        the best cake

        This is like saying “the best vodka.”

      • JoyfulA

        It’s harder to totally screw up pie? R Johnston has obviously never rolled out a piecrust.

        • Njorl

          The hardest part of the pie to get right is the least important part.

          Regardless, I think the cake vs. pie dilemma is in need of significant research. It will have to wait, though, for today is donut day.

    • strategichamlet

      Ale > lager? Maybe most of the time, but not all the time. There’s plenty of time in life for good lagers.

      In general statements like this I find kind of worthless, but here, I’ll play too and hopefully piss off the internet in the process:

      Red wine > white wine ~ pink wine

      French wine > everywhere else’s wine

      Duck > lamb > beef > pork (other than bacon) > chicken

      Kiwis > oranges > apples

      • DocAmazing

        French wine > everywhere else’s wine

        The Napa, Sonoma, and Anderson Valleys (and the town of Paso Robles) would like to have a word with you.

        • strategichamlet

          Sure, and they can get in line behind Piedmont, Tuscany, Rioja, and other places. But I stand behind my > sign.

      • rea

        Talk about comparing apples to oranges . . .

  • Jay C

    I seriously doubt the image had any other effect than to infuriate the Anti-Saloon League

    Which, one might argue, is/was a worthwhile goal in and of itself…

    Too bad it was in a losing cause: though given the realities of life and society in 19th-Century American, wasn’t the description “drinking” as “a homosocial male cultural enterprise that encouraged the sort of immoderation that endangered the health and security of both wives and children” NOT completely an unrealistic characterization?

    • davenoon

      Right. I’d love to see an article or book on how American women drank during the 19th and early 20th centuries…

      • LeeEsq

        Its hard to gather evidence but I think that many women in 19th and early 20th century America did not drink, especially if they were of Anglo-Protestant background. From what I’ve read, American drinking culture was very male centric, more so than the even British drinking culture. The British pub like the American saloon, and unlike the German beer-garden, was a male centric place. However, British women seemed to have drank at home or at social events not held in pubs. It was more socially acceptable for British women to drink. In America, it seems that drinking was more or less unacceptable for any Anglo-Protestant woman of at least lower-middle class status.

        If more Anglo-Protestant women drank in the United States than prohibition probably would not have happened.

        • DrDick

          I think it is a mistake to conflate taverns with drinking in this context. Taverns and saloons were unquestionably male spaces in early American culture, but I am not sure about drinking. There was a long history of drinking beer at home, rather as we drink soft drinks.

          • LeeEsq

            Thats why I think its really hard to determine the drinking habits of women in 19th and early 20th century America. We know that taverns and saloons were pretty much male only. Determining how many Anglo-Protestant women drank at home is a bit more difficult.

          • wengler

            Hard cider. America was drunk as hell in colonial times.

  • Jager

    As a young lawyer during prohibition, my grandfather was a successful bootlegger. His operation was bankrolled by the wealthy owner of the law firm he worked for. The lawyers all had a taste for good whisky and scotch. Gramps was the junior member of the firm and it was his job to make sure no one was thirsty. Paid for his first house.

    • sparks

      Let’s see…during Prohibition my dad was a recent immigrant, worked in a restaurant in a city near an international border and open coastline. By 1929 he had enough money to have a nice car, his own business, and money to blow on the stock market.

      Hmmmmmm.

      • Jager

        Funny how that worked isn’t it? Gramps had a fellow WW1 vet who just happened to own a farm right on the Canadian border. The owner of the law firm just happened to know a couple of Canadian lawyers. We had a complete set of Mission Furniture at our lake place, Gramps had bought it with his “side” income. The money he saved came in handy during the Depression when he was getting paid in hams, chickens and crates of vegetables!

        • sparks

          My father was never without money during the Depression, and he moved a year after repeal. he bought a house and another business in the late ’30s after he got married.

          Too bad I never thought to ask him about Prohibition before he died, but I doubt I would have pried anything out of him. He never told anyone he fought in WWI as a foreign soldier for the US or that he lost money in bad stocks and failed banks. I had to piece all of that together from documents I found.

    • Antonio Conselheiro

      My great great grandfather established one of the first breweries in the West in Sioux City Iowa, a wide open town, but went out of business with Iowa Prohibition in the 1890s. Only wealth my family has ever seen.

      German areas of Iowa, including Lutheran areas, tended to ignore Prohibition. That’s where Bix Beiderbecke came from.

    • Spud

      In addition to picking up and dropping off betting slips all around the garment district for the local numbers racket, my grandmother and great grandmother supplemented their meager income by producing “bathtub gin” in their apartment.

      Great Grandma was a widow at a young age. A man whose name would be associated with “crime family” lived across the street from them. Safest block in Brooklyn. These types of errands got them through Prohibition and the Depression.

      These little jobs got them through prohibition and the Depression.

      • Jager

        After Gramps retired from the bench in the mid 60’s, I asked him if he ever worried about his bootlegging days coming up during an election. His answer, “Hell no, the only people who cared about prohibition were too busy meeting in church basements to realize what was going on”.

  • KadeKo

    Any good guess to the circa of this illustration?

    • davenoon

      It was sometime before 1916, when the state had a referendum and went dry. Michigan got I&R in 1907 but it was initially a pretty onerous process and wasn’t really used until after 1910. So sometime in there is my best guess…

  • Bart

    Isn’t Okrent the guy who gave Judith Miller cover at the Times?

  • Antonio Conselheiro

    Volstead, author of the act, was almost immediately defeated (1922) by the Lutheran minister Kvale, representing the leftist Farmer-Labor Party. He actually was defeated in 1920, but the election was thrown out because Kvale had accused Volstead of atheism.

    The book “Minnesota 13” tells of the very effective Minnesota Catholics’ very effective resistance to Prohibition. With the tacit approval of the Church, the heavily-Catholic counties around St. Cloud became a national center for high quality moonshine.

    • LeeEsq

      Jews and Catholics were pretty much against prohibition to a person. There was only one Rabbi in the United States, Stephen Wise, who actively supported prohibition. Among Protestants, there was a lot variance. German-American Protestants loathed prohibition. The Anglo-Evangelicals loved it.

      All other Rabbis, Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, were against it to a person. Jews actively posed a challenge to prohibition. Lots of Jewish rituals are home-based and require wine drinking. Prohibition would mean that Jews couldn’t practice their religion. The Volstead Act had to include a section allowing each Jewish adult a certain amount of kosher wine per year so that we Jews could practice our religion.

  • DocAmazing

    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.

    Can’t speak to alcohol per se, but I know at least one lactation specialist who recommends a Guinness every other day for the folic acid and the other B vitamins.

    • ajay

      Guinness was recommended for pregnant women until pretty recently as a remedy for gestational anaemia. Never did me any harm.

    • Halloween Jack

      Both Bob Geldolf and John Lydon talk about being given Guinness as babies to fortify them. (IIRC, Lydon said something about a red-hot poker being put in the Guinness beforehand to “drive the alcohol off”, although I doubt that it would have actually reduced the alcohol content much.)

  • muddy

    Maybe the diuretic effect and the relaxation can help with the milk production?

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