Prohibition, 100 Years Later

On January 17, it will be 100 years since Prohibition went into effect. Because of the current political climate  around immigration, I  am posting an excerpt  from Brewing Battles that describes the treatment some German-American brewers received  during the enactment of Prohibition.

The brewing industry was overwhelmingly German; most German-Americans drank beer as did many other Americans. Although German-Americans maintained many ties to Germany, the vast majority were second or third generation Americans. The founders of most breweries had immigrated to America in the 1840s and 1850s. World War I generated a tremendous amount of public hostility against Germans and German-Americans. For brewers and their fellow ethnic citizens, the war period was a test of their dual identities.

Some of the nation’s most prominent brewers faced these issues of loyalty and cultural identification as soon as America entered the war. One of New York’s most prominent brewers was George Ehret, Sr., the nation’s largest brewer in 1877. In 1914, Ehret, an American citizen, returned to Germany to live. In 1918 his son, George Ehret, Jr., turned over the family property with a value of $40 million to the federal government. A. Mitchell Palmer, who was then the Alien Property Custodian, found Ehret, Sr. to be “of enemy character.” Ehret had not broken any laws but appeared to be friendly with and under the protection of “powerful men.” He had also given large amounts of money to the German Red Cross since 1914. Palmer stated that Ehret, who was 83, could get his property back if he returned to America. He would then lose “his enemy character.” The Ehret family’s status as influential New Yorkers and wealthy Americans apparently did not mean as much as his German affiliations.[1]

Lily Busch, widow of Adolphus Busch, suffered similar problems. The Buschs, if not the country’s wealthiest brewing family then certainly its most ostentatious, owned several estates including a castle on the Rhine in Germany. Adolphus died in 1913; estimates of the value of his wealth ranged from $30 to $60 million.[2] Both Adolphus and Lily were born in Germany; Lily had become a naturalized citizen of the United States. When World War I broke out she made her German home a war hospital and served as a nurse. The German government took her property because she was an American citizen; the United States viewed her as enemy alien since she was in Germany. When she returned to the United States in 1918 the government seized her property and placed her under a form of house arrest. She died in 1928.[3]

The prosecution, if not persecution, of these prominent brewers and their families indicated the deep unease Americans felt about the presence of Germans in their country. The rhetoric of the Prohibition movement for most of its existence had been positive, extolling the virtues that removing alcohol from society would bring. . . . The final push that brought Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment, and the Volstead Act into being became negative and played on people’s fears as American faced a world that was unfamiliar and rapidly changing.

Jacob Rupert, owner of the New York Yankees and Jacob Rupert Brewery with Miss Harwood, 1921. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

 

[1] “Nation Gets Ehret Property,” New York Times, May 14, 1918, 1.

[2] “Adolphus Busch Dies In Prussia” New York Times, October 11, 1913, 15.

[3]; “Mrs. Lily Busch of St. Louis Dies,” New York Times, February 26, 1928, 27.

© All Rights Reserved Amy Mittelman 2020.

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