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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


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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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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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