The spread of Prohibition from Henry Ford's Detroit factories nationwide

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The spread of Prohibition from Henry Ford's Detroit factories nationwide

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10 October 1989 (USA)  »

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Outlaw border town
13 February 2015 | by See all my reviews

Amid the optimism of 1920, Detroit seemed to reflect a puritan dream of a teetotal workforce, enjoying health and prosperity in the new-style factories where the automobile was being mass-produced at a price millions could afford. Teetotal, not only because Prohibition had just been made law, but because Motown's merchant prince Henry Ford was offering to double the wages of any worker who would agree to a spot-check of his home, to confirm that it was an alcohol-free household.

But Detroit suffered from a fatal drawback. It was so near Canada that illegal hooch could be smuggled over the river by speedboat in minutes. Indeed in winter, the locally plentiful Model-T's could actually drive across that frozen frontier with enough beer, wine and spirits to keep the bootleggers in luxury, year after year. When we remember that an easy-going president (Harding) and his popular first lady were serving alcohol in the White House at this time, there can't be much doubt about the social acceptability of it all.

And so, Prohibition turned out to be one of those laws that have the opposite effect from the one intended. Not because it failed to discourage the drinking habit (consumption actually went down quite a lot), but because it stimulated the growth of the speakeasy as an alluring new secret network, where short-skirted flappers could mix comfortably with the male sex, as they couldn't in respectable saloons. And the bootlegging industry caught the eye of that slumbering beast, the mafia.

With a huge irony, Ford's hopeful if patronising claims about 'uplifting the working class' were turned on their head. Corruption seeped everywhere. Even those much-filmed customs men with their heavy mallets, smashing the barrels, were also pocketing more than a few bottles while they were at it. The occasional token arrest would result only in a paltry fine. But it got worse. Ford's family were threatened with kidnap. Eventually schoolchildren were being used as innocent-looking mules, to supply the stuff to hotels and restaurants, causing a generation of youngsters to take a cynical view of the world.

It had to stop. The law that had been brought in to protect the family now had to be repealed - to protect the family! Michigan, the first state to declare Prohibition, became the first state to abolish it.

This was one of the first programmes in the much-praised American Experience series. But even in 1988, those people who could remember Prohibition were getting elderly, and there is a lot of rather confused reminiscence. One old lady said she'd known all about the corruption, but added "There was a great innocence". In declaring that Prohibition was aimed at curing addiction, the film omits to mention a vast pressure-group who had been around for decades. These were the factory wives, who despaired at seeing their menfolk stampeding out of the gate on paynight, and promptly blowing half their wages in the bar. I doubt if they would have joined in the chorus of 'Happy days are here again' with which this film ends.


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