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Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  7,201 ratings  ·  759 reviews

A brilliant, authoritative, and fascinating history of America’s most puzzling era, the years 1920 to 1933, when the U.S. Constitution was amended to restrict one of America’s favorite pastimes: drinking alcoholic beverages.

From its start, America has been awash in drink. The sailing vessel that brought John Winthrop to the shores of the New World in 1630 carried more bee

Hardcover, 480 pages
Published May 11th 2010 by Scribner (first published April 30th 2010)
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J.L.   Sutton
Dec 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
The best part of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is Daniel Okrent’s account of the forces which allied with the temperance movement (notably the Ku Klux Klan, proponents of women’s suffrage and evangelical Christians) to ratify the 18th Amendment (Prohibition). These groups don’t necessarily seem like natural allies, but in the context of this patriotic campaign to outlaw the sale of alcohol, they somehow found common interest. They also found a common enemy in the ‘lawless hordes’ o ...more
4.5 Stars

The 18th Amendment also known as The Volstead Act tried to do something that politicians have been trying to do since the founding of the nation. It tried to legislate morality. Its a fact that before Prohibition Americans drank a lot and new Americans drank even more than most, but the 18th Amendment sought to punish everyone for the personal failings of some and in the process made things worse.

Here's a small list of things(both good and bad)that Prohibition gave us: Orga
Jun 09, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
Erfurt, Germany. Summer 1998. I am on a month-long tour with my high school class. I am in a bar, about to have the first drink of my life. I am 18 years old, a stickler for the rules. But I have found a loophole. The Underage American Tourist in Europe Clause. I lift the drink to my lips. It burns something bad. I do not know what it is, because I am not an all-star in my German class, and am unable to translate the word. It does not matter. I take another sip. And then another. I turn to the g ...more
Five stars all the way. An entertaining, provocative, highly readable account of one of America's stranger political and social experiments--and one that has important modern day resonance and lessons.

Daniel Okrent weaves a brilliant tapestry of the many threads that brought the 18th Amendment into being. But this is not [AHEM!] a dry read. It's full of lively, often astonishing characters like the indomitable Carrie Nation who carried a hammer around, smashed up saloon after saloon and launche
Dec 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
See my (drunk) review on booktube:
Jul 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A really interesting history of the part of prohibition we usually don't hear about it. Most prohibition documentaries/histories focus on the "What happened" rather than the "How it got this way" - which is the particular province that Okrent narrates. It's full of windbags, stump speakers, racists, politicos, and marginal figures who used temperance and the adjective "dry" to secure a national stage and temporary power. Most tellingly, as Okrent ironically notes, popular history whitewashed ove ...more
The good news? Prohibition helps women get the right to vote. The bad news? The rise of “saloon economics,” racism and anti-immigration thrive, and people were poisoned by The Jake. Also, we've got some serious inaccuracies in our “Prohibition mythology,” including Malory's take on the lawfulness of Joe Kennedy's lucrative spirits-importation business, which was actually the beneficiary of a nuance in the Volstead Act (I'm sure it will come to a shock to everyone that the rich fared better than ...more
Aug 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
Born in the 1840’s the prohibitionist movement was a response to the endemic drunkenness in America. An American then consumed on average three times as much alcohol as an American today! The movement gained significant strength in the late 19th century with the formation of the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and the ASL (Anti-Saloon League). The ASL was politically very effective. Singularly focused it sought out any and all allies even progressives. Thus it helped pass workman’s com ...more
Otis Chandler
This is a fascinating glimpse into American history, of which I was largely ignorant - well worth a read. I had no idea prohibition lasted 14 years! My only criticism is the author spent way too much time on the politics of prohibition - that could have been cut by half.

The bottom line of prohibition is that is was a massive failure. It singlehandedly created organized crime, cost the government lots of money in lost taxes and enforcement, and failed to stop pretty much anyone from drinking.

Apr 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
In the late 1920s, the leadership of the city of Philadelphia announced efforts to combat police corruption by moving police officers suspected of accepting bribes to new precincts away from their bootlegging cronies. Out of 4200 officers on the force, 3800 were transferred--only 1 cop in 10 was considered honest by the city of Philadelphia. The Coast Guard invested millions in designing faster ships; some factories doubled their profits by selling equivalent ships to bootleggers. In Williamson ...more
Clif Hostetler
Aug 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
To many alive today, prohibition is best remembered as depicted in movies of Al Capone and Eliot Ness. Well, there's a lot more to it than that. There was a long history leading up to the era, and then bringing it to an end is an interesting story too.

I found the history of alcohol consumption in the U.S. to be of particular interest. See the following link to a graph showing the history of U.S. Alcohol Consumption:
To many alive today, prohibition is best remembered as depicted in movies of Al Capone and Eliot Ness. Well, there's a lot more to it than that. There was a long history leading up to the era, and then bringing it to an end is an interesting story too.

I found the history of alcohol consumption in the U.S. to be of particular interest. See the following link to a graph showing the history of U.S. Alcohol Consumption:
LINK: U.S. Alcohol Consumption
After looking at the above graph one might wonder if our founding fathers were drunk. Up until 1839 Americans were drinking about three times the alcohol that is currently consumed per capita. This book suggests that the primary reason for the drop off after 1839 was the shift to drinking beer rather than distilled liquor due largely to German immigrants, and to the beginning of the Washingtonian Movement (proponents of temperance but not necessarily prohibition).

Another reason for high alcohol consumption then was cheap prices and abundant supply for distilled liquors. The abundant supply was caused by the farmers out west (beyond the Appalachian Mountain Range) having plenty of grain but nobody to sell it to. There was no economical way to transport the grain to eastern markets at a time before canals, developed roads and river boats. Converting a wagon load of grain into a couple jugs of liquor made shipment of a marketable product back east much more feasible. Thus there was a surplus of liquor which resulted in low prices.

Those of you who remember your American history lessons will recall President Washington's problems with the Whiskey Rebellion. That was caused by the Federal Government taxing the whiskey being brought over the mountains from the west. Alexander Hamilton justified the whiskey tax as being fair because it was a commodity that was purchased by almost everybody.

It took an incredible confluence of interests to permit the passage of the 18th Amendment. Many today may forget that it was not just a law, it was actually a part of the Constitution. Getting an amendment added to the Constitution is not an easy thing to do. Then once it's passed, getting the amendment removed is just as difficult as passage was in the first place. This books tells the history of how this all happened.

Some things I learned from this book:
1. Reapportionment as called for in the Constitution following each census did not take place following the 1920 Census until 1929. Why the delay? Everyone knew that reapportionment was going to reduce the influence of western rural states that just happened to be the strongest supporters of Prohibition.
2. Prohibition supporters included some strange bed-fellows ranging from northern progressives to the Klu Klux Klan. (The Klu Klux Klan had significant growth of members in the northern states during this era because of its anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant positions.)
3. If you were a supporter of Prohibition in 1920 you most likely were White Anglo-Saxon Protestant living in a rural part of the country.
4. If you were opposed to Prohibition in 1920 you were likely to be Catholic, of Irish or Italian ancestry, a first or second generation immigrant, and living in an urban area.
5. The Prohibition movement was a significant cause for the initiation of the income tax in the United States. It was needed to make up the difference from the lost revenue from taxing booze.

The failure of prohibition is perhaps an indication of the folly of trying to legislate morality against the will of a large portion of the population. There are still plenty of people around who still want to do it today in other ways.

The following link is to an excerpt that discusses American intoxication in the early 1800s. It's taken from another book.
Jul 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
"In 1920 could anyone have believed that the Eighteenth Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices, soft-drink marketing, and the English language itself? Or that it would provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal sydicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage, and ...more
Jul 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Required reading for anyone interested in abolishing the disastrous War on Drugs that's corrupted the American justice system (and, on a lesser note, made hypocrites of us all) for over a quarter of a century. Last Call is informative and entertaining. Even an old American history geek like me learned something new: almost entirely due to the phenomenal political skills of one man, Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, such wildly different groups as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Ku ...more
Bruce MacBain
Jul 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When Wayne B. Wheeler died in 1927, an obituary in the Washington Post stated, “No other private citizen of the United States has left such an impress upon national history.” Wayne who? Well, Mr. Willard was for a decade the chief lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League and, indeed, politicians quaked whenever this small, unprepossessing man entered the room.

But Wheeler is not the only prohibition-era titan to have utterly vanished from our national memory. There was Frances Willard, “immortal foun
Jan 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Last Call is a great introduction to America’s experiment with alcohol prohibition and a highly superior substitute for the Hollywood education that was my prior reference point. Mr. Okrent does a great job of introducing us to the cast of characters that influenced legislation, policy and enforcement, as well as the special interest groups that played such a large role in both the rise and fall of prohibition.

Though the anecdotes regarding bootleggers and rum runners are entertainin
Jill Hutchinson
Aug 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
The 18th Amendment to the American Constitution was, as the author says, one of the great "ooops" in our history. The"noble experiment" of prohibition was anything but noble and the author reveals the rise and fall of dry America in all its ugly hypocrisy. This is an all-encompassing work that was several years in the making and his attention to detail and immaculate research are impressive.
The political maneuvering and the influence of pressure groups such as the Anti-Saloon League,the Wo
Gene Helsel
Jul 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
What do the rise of feminism, pietism, socialism, The Klan, xenophobia (the irrational fear of people from other places), Henry Ford, nativism, income tax, organized crime, "big-brother" and big government have in common? As Daniel Okrent cogently and very entertainingly explains: The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of "intoxicating beverages" in the USA, or "Prohibition" for short.

Okrent's insights regarding the rise and fall of prohibition
Lauren Albert
Jul 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-american
Wonderful, funny, informative and surprising. Okrent shows you the connections between prohibition and the institution of the income tax, between prohibition and women's suffrage and between the end of prohibition and the income tax. He explains with abundant and interesting examples why and how prohibition failed and why drinking sometimes increased during prohibition and decreased after it was repealed. And through all this historical education, Okrent manages to be funny as when, in discussin ...more
Beth Cato
Sep 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Okrent presents a fascinating and thorough breakdown of the causes, practice (and lack thereof), and conclusion of fourteen years of Prohibition in America. The dreamy goal of the Anti Saloon League and other sponsors of the "dry" way of life thought that banning booze would elevate the American worker, end poverty, and perhaps even civilize uncouth immigrants who so favored the drink. The xenophobic reasons for the Volstead Act were quite clear--this was intended as a blow to the Irish, the Ita ...more
Sep 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
As someone who likes to view himself as an intellectually honest historian and political geek, I felt obligated to read this book since I knew it would give me the insights I needed to gain a real understanding of how prohibition actually happened...I actually, had preferred blaming it on the uptight evangelical midwestern and southern protestants who were fearful of catholics and immigrants. And while those folks certainly led the way, and often, for those reason, Okrent makes clear that consti ...more
Aug 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This history of Prohibition is especially enjoyable because of the author's sense of humor, which I would call dry, except that this book is all about the battles between rascally, pro-liquor "wets" and frequently schoolmarmish "drys." In this context, I'd have to call Okrent's humor wet, which is understandable given that most modern people consider Prohibition to have been one of America's all-time worst ideas.

The movement for Prohibition made for some odd bedfellows. It came hand-in-ha
Jun 03, 2010 marked it as to-read
Off this awesome review:

"The story of the War on Alcohol has never needed to be told more urgently—because its grandchild, the War on Drugs, shares the same DNA. Okrent alludes to the parallel only briefly, on his final page, but it hangs over the book like old booze-fumes — and proves yet again Mark Twain's dictum: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."


With the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1921, the dysfunctions of Prohibition began. When yo
Jul 02, 2011 rated it it was ok
I'm conflicted about this history of Prohibition, which starts with the 19th-century temperance movement that led to it and concludes with some interesting postscripts about several of the major characters. On the one hand, I was very intrigued by the topic going in, and the book has lots of great information, random trivia, and fascinating "untold" stories, all crammed into a non-threatening number of pages. On the other hand, I think the author tried a bit too hard to pack as much of his resea ...more
Fabulously entertaining history. I'll just reproduce my favorite nicknames here:

Carrie Nation: The Famous and Original Bar Room Smasher

Agent M.T. Gonzaulles: The Lone Wolf of Texas

Agent William R. Hervey: The Kokomo Schoolmaster

Agent Samuel Kurtzman: The Plague of the North

Agent Al Wolff: Wallpaper (because when he raided a joint, he packed up everything but the wallpaper)

Agent Daisy Simpson: The Woman with a Hundred Disguis
Michael C.
Sep 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal book. Well researched with a twist of humor detailing the rise and fall of prohibition.
Frank Theising
Feb 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
At a social function for work last month, I bumped into a retired Anheuser-Busch distributer. We struck up a conversation and when he found out my family hailed from Clinton County, IL he regaled me with stories about how he used to fulfill his monthly sales quota in a single week from that county alone. All the German-Americans that settled the area apparently really loved their beer. Whenever we visited my grandparents there in the summer, it was not uncommon for my grandfather to be nursing a ...more
Rebecca Radnor
Sep 29, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, depression
This book will tell you more about prohibition than you ever wanted to know.

It's organized into 3 parts:

First: It starts with the very beginning of the dry movement, explains how in order for the 'dries' to get prohibition passed they needed to first ensure that women had the vote (since women and children were often the ones hurt by their husbands' alcoholism); it explains how World War I with its anti-German and antisemitic prejudices helped to move the movement forward (since mos
Benjamin  Berman
Nov 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
I think for most people, myself excluded prior to reading this book, the Prohibition era was an interesting footnote in American history, an odd outlier and interesting tidbit to talk about when not discussing the standard American triumphalist approach to history. In my humble opinion, the long period of American History from the Civil War to the Second World War in general tends to get short shrift in both popular culture and standard educational courses, but that is a subject for a different ...more
Jul 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
Last Call is exactly what it says on the tin: a history of Prohibition, starting with the burgeoning movement in the 19th century and following it through its peak and then inevitable decline. There's a lot of material here, well-researched and skillfully presented so its concise and easily followed by the reader. Okrent does a great job handling all of the personalities, laws, parties, movements, social aspects, cultural views, and commercial (both legal and otherwise) inspired by the 18th Amendmen ...more
Erika Nelson
Jun 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
One of the marks of a great book for me is if I find myself wanting to share information in it with somebody else. So riveting was this book that I wanted to share tidbits every few pages, if not more often. This book discusses the passage of prohibition, the effects of the ill-fated amendment, and the events that finally led to repeal. Through it a remarkable tale of audacity unfolds as the cause of temperance managed to win the day in a country that drank heavily. Out-sized personalities emerg ...more
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Daniel Okrent's 40-year career has encompassed nearly every form of mass media. In book publishing, he was an editor at Knopf, Viking, and Harcourt. In magazines, he founded the award-winning New England Monthly and was chief editor of the monthly Life. In newspapers, he was the first public editor of the New York Times. On television, he has appeared as an expert commentator on many network shows ...more
“alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level,” and by the time of Repeal had risen “to about 60–70 percent of its pre-Prohibition level.” 4 likes
“When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging,” either Capone or one of his amanuenses said. “When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality.” It was a recurrent theme, this shrugging disavowal of evil intent: “Ninety percent of the people of Cook County drink and gamble,” he said at another time, “and my offense has been to furnish them with those amusements.” 1 likes
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