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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

How Breweries Kept Busy During Prohibition

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Before Prohibition, there were over 1300 breweries in the United States, and the popularity of ales and lagers was at an all-time high. The party ended in 1920, however, when beer was deemed an "intoxicating liquor" by the Volstead Act—the legislation passed to enforce national prohibition and the 18th Amendment—and it became illegal to make, transport, or sell suds.

Unlike underground distilleries that could whip up batches of illegal liquor with little threat of detection, breweries were often big, tax-paying businesses that couldn't just slip into the woods with their massive boil kettles and lauter tuns. How did the few breweries that survived the 13 years of Prohibition do it?

The 18th Amendment didn't pop up overnight, and some brewers had time to prepare. Prohibition was a topic of national debate since before there was even a nation, and its enforcement was centuries in the making.

In 1885, a group of German-American brewers called the Wisconsin State Anti-Prohibition Association published a pamphlet arguing against new taxes and a proposed ban on one of the state's most lucrative products:

Many thousands of people are doing business with the brewers, many thousands of laboring men, mechanics, and artisans...And the prohibition fanatic who wants to destroy the business at once by legislation will please step forward and tell us what he would give to [Milwaukee] in return for the destruction of its most extensive and important business interest.

Beer in America was popularized by German immigrants, and German-Americans owned and operated most of the breweries. During WWI, anti-German sentiment ran rife so arguments like the one above went ignored (or were used as an example of beer's inherent evil). The country was sliding towards a full alcohol ban and was already primed by temporary wartime prohibition, which was enacted in order to preserve the nation's grain supply. Breweries could only make "near beer," or beer that didn't exceed an alcohol content of 2.75%. Once the Volstead Act was put in place, that number had to drop to 0.5%.

Many breweries stuck to near beer, but others that had the means were able to get creative:

Ice Cream

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Both Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling refocused their manufacturing attentions on a more legal vice: ice cream. Anheuser-Busch owned a fleet of refrigerated trucks and used them to transport their new brand of dessert.

Yuengling became the Yuengling Dairy Products Corporation and kept making ice cream until 1985. They reopened their dairy division this year and you can buy the stuff from their website.

Pottery

Coorstek ceramics via Wikimedia Commons

Adolph Coors' glass works (which had originally produced bottles for Coors beer) was converted to a porcelain and pottery company long before Prohibition was an immediate threat. During the alcohol ban, Coors expanded its pottery division and mass-produced ceramic tubes and rods for the military and dinnerware lines.

Malt Extract

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Many breweries, including the manufacturers of Schlitz, Miller, and Pabst, turned their attentions to malt extract. They advertised it as a cooking product and put the following instructions on the packaging: "For bread making use one half as many tablespoonsful of malt extract as formerly used of sugar. This will make the bread light and perfectly browned.”

The real reason people bought it, however, was to use it in making their own beer, or "home brew." Brewing beer at home was illegal under the Volstead Act (unlike wine, which one was allowed to make), and many malt extract producers ended up being raided by Prohibition agents. A court eventually ruled that the extract was legal, and people were able to make as much, um, bread as they wanted.

Dyes


Wikimedia Commons

WWI stalled the importing of dyes to the U.S., and this "dye famine" lasted long after the war's conclusion. This coincided with Prohibition and, rather serendipitously, many brewers noticed their existing equipment could easily be converted into making dyes. F. M. Schaefer Brewing Company, Nuyens Liquers, and the Lion Brewery (renamed The Noil Company) all restructured their operations to make dyes.

Brewery owners weren't the only people who noticed the similarity between alcohol and dye production; in a tasty reversal, many dye chemical plants converted to make illegal hooch.

Read more about the process of turning a brewery into a dye plant here.

Beer

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Beer makers knew Prohibition wasn't going to last forever—I mean, come on, have you tasted beer? That's why Anheuser-Busch got permission from the government to produce 55,000 barrels of real beer to have ready when the ban on alcohol ended. America was going to have to toast with something, after all.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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