Great History by Ken Burns

Great History by Ken Burns

Documentary 'Prohibition' Brings History to Life

If you've followed my posts on this blog, you know that one of my favorite periods in history is the 1920s.  On a recommendation from my mom, I started watching Prohibition, a 3-part documentary by Ken Burns.  So far I've only watched the first part, which does an excellent job of setting the stage for Prohibition.  This part is about the 70 years or so leading up to the passing of the 18th Amendment, explaining what the drinking culture in the United States was like -- why it was so bad that so many people thought trying to ban alcohol was a good idea.

The documentary doesn't paint a completely negative picture of drinking in America, however.  It talks also about how the saloons were like clubs for the working men -- community centers where they would go, not just to drink and socialize, but also to cash their paychecks, pick up their mail, look for work, and so on.

But of course, there was a negative side, too.  The documentary talks about the men who drank their paychecks away Saturday nights, leaving their wives to figure out how to get through another week without pay (or simply without enough).  It also talks about the women and children who suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands and fathers, during a time when there were no regulations against it and divorce was virtually unheard of.

Finally, the first episode of the documentary traces the 18th Amendment from conception to fruition -- how wartime restrictions and anti-German sentiments actually helped the Prohibitionist movement to gain ground, and how the "wet" congressmen (those who were against Prohibition) allowed the vote on the amendment because they never thought it would actually be ratified by enough states to become law.  Boy, were they wrong -- they gave the "dry" side a number of years to get the amendment ratified, but it was done in just 13 months.

What a fascinating period of history!  On PBS's website, the documentary is sold in combination with a  book on Prohibition, Last Call, which I have and haven't read yet.  I'm looking forward to watching the remaining two episodes of the documentary, as well as reading the book!