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  • "Brewers and Distillers Paradise":American Views of Canadian Alcohol Policies, 1919 to 1935 1
  • Greg Marquis (bio)

In 1924, at Rest Cottage, Evanstown, Illinois, Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) President Anna A. Gordon marked an historic occasion. She gathered together WCTU workers and rang the "Jubilee Bell," announcing that "Ontario has gone dry." Accompanied on the pianoforte, the women sang the doxology. Four years into American national prohibition, Gordon

was celebrating the fact that dry sisters and brothers north of the border had beaten back an attempt to overturn provincial prohibition. Speaking at the Ontario WCTU convention weeks earlier, Gordon had reminded her audience that in the forthcoming plebiscite they would be voting "not only for Ontario, but for Canada, the Empire and the World as well."

(CWRT Nov. 1924)

Between 1920 and 1933, the United States experienced one of its most controversial attempts at social reform through the law, national prohibition. Ernest Cherrington of the World League against Alcoholism described it as "the greatest experiment of its kind ever attempted by any great world power" (Cherrington 1923, 208). The dry movement, which had been building at the local, state, and regional levels since the 1870s, culminated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1919) and the Volstead Act, effective in 1920. Just over a dozen years later, the necessary majority of states ratified the Twenty-First Amendment, ending national prohibition. Control of the retailing of alcohol fell back to the states, with a resulting blend of dry states, such as Kansas and Mississippi, those that permitted the return of the saloon, and states where retail sale [End Page 135] of wine and beer and/or spirits was handled by the government, usually through a commission. In addition, local-option laws permitted voters to ban liquor stores, bars, and licensed restaurants from specific municipalities. National prohibition was the first and last attempt to impose national standards on the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol. Since 1933, there has been no single, "American" model of liquor control or pattern of use. Despite the Canadian perception that the United States—with cold beer in supermarkets, private liquor stores, and low prices—is awash in booze, the nation's drinking habits have varied. Three generations after the demise of prohibition, a large minority of Americans, perhaps because of the power of evangelical churches, claim to be abstainers (Nephew).

Historians continue to debate the causes, workings, and repeal of American prohibition. Although partly revised, the earlier view of prohibitionists as conservative, intolerant moral reformers and nativist "Americanizers" has not completely faded. The unintended consequences and failures of national prohibition, such as its impact on organized crime, continue to be mentioned in survey texts of American history. The labour-history interpretation that state and national dry laws constituted a self-interested, elite or middle-class intrusion into working-class culture also lingers. Women's historiography, sensitive to the gender dimensions of alcohol use and social reform, has showed considerable sympathy with prohibitionists, such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, but has also recognized the class, racial, ethnic, and religious biases of the movement.2

Approaching the topic through the prism of Canada-US relations introduces other perspectives. For the most part, the general literature for the early twentieth century, most of it from the Canadian point of view, has focused on formal diplomacy, trade issues, and the problems of Canadian liquor exports and smuggling during American prohibition, and on domestic issues, such as the impact of American mass culture on Canadian nationalism in the 1920s. There is also the larger interdisciplinary literature on Canada-US relations, which includes political science, sociology, and law and which stresses national differences, particularly in political culture and the role of the state. Overall, the literature reflects the asymmetry of bilateral relations, with Canadian scholars exploring how their society differs from the American "norm," or how Canada has been influenced by the United States.3 [End Page 136]

Although the field of alcohol studies, a multidisciplinary effort that evolved starting in the 1940s, thrives on international comparisons (Jellinek; Makela et al.), the historiography of American alcohol control is largely self-contained; historians wear national blinkers. One important exception...


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