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Prohibition Soda Pop

Case of soda pop bottles shipped by the Kurth Company of Columbus, Wisconsin during prohibition, 1920-1933.
(Museum object #1994.77.1)

The day-to-day lives of many Wisconsin residents changed drastically with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which went into effect on a national scale on January 16, 1920. Following on the heels of the Selective Service Act of 1918, which prohibited the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages among the armed forces, the Eighteenth Amendment broadened these restrictions to all citizens, devastating taverns and breweries. Unable to bear the transition costs of moving into a new industry, many small breweries folded. Some larger breweries with established customer bases and brand loyalty managed to switch their production from beer to soft drinks or other products to avoid disaster. The case of soda bottles pictured here was produced by the Kurth Company of Columbus, Wisconsin, a brewery that managed to survive prohibition and successfully return to beer production after the law's repeal in 1933.

German immigrant Henry Kurth opened the Kurth Brewery in Columbus, Wisconsin in 1859. At the time, barley and hops were staples of Wisconsin's agricultural economy and provided ample raw materials for Kurth's products. The large German immigrant population of Columbus, which was particularly fond of alcoholic beverages, further augmented the success of the brewery and Kurth gradually began to expand his business, adding a second brewery just south of the original in the mid-1860s. From there, the Kurth Company grew from producing 100 barrels per year in 1870 to a peak of 100 barrels per day in 1914, dominating the local competition.

Although its enactment seemed sudden, prohibition was actually a hotly debated issue in Wisconsin for more than a century. The movement to prohibit alcohol consumption in the state was a rocky battle fought between fiercely opposing camps. Within the ebb and swell of public opinion on the matter in the 1800s, the predominantly Yankee driven temperance movement appeared to target certain immigrant groups with a reputation for drinking, particularly the Germans. Many Yankees claimed that it was in the best interest of the public to prohibit the consumption of liquor altogether, while the German community argued that a person had the right to choose his own pleasures, regardless of the moral implications. The debate was frequently based on underlying ethnic and cultural biases, stereotypes, and tensions.

After Congress officially declared war on the Central Powers on April 6, 1917, anti-German sentiments reached levels bordering on hysteria. With supercharged wartime political rhetoric, issues of prohibition, which until then had implicitly been tied to ethnicity, became an explicit issue of German-American conflict. One prohibitionist of the time went so far as to say, "And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller," highlighting a widely held wartime prejudice. Thus, wartime paranoia acted as a catalyst in the passage of prohibition into federal law.

In time, however, unrelenting consumption and production of alcohol despite the ban led to the repeal of prohibition, as widespread lawlessness made its maintenance increasingly difficult to uphold. Wisconsin was among several states whose residents were particularly hard to tame. One report addressed the effectiveness of the law and concluded that a mere 20 of 71 Wisconsin counties could have been considered "dry" during the latter years of prohibition.

Many companies which had turned to producing soda were suspected of including intoxicants not made public on the label. Worse still, an increase in the consumption of moonshine and other bootlegged intoxicants actually proved to be more damaging to communities than regulated liquor sales. Indeed, following several acts of minor repeals by the state legislature which had already narrowed prohibition's scope, anti-prohibitionists finally celebrated a Christmas to remember in 1933. The enactment of the Twenty-First Amendment on December 5, 1933 marked the official repeal of prohibition at the national level.

[Sources: Glad, W. Paul. The History of Wisconsin: War, a New Era, and Depression 1914-1940, Volume V (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1990); Schafer, Joseph. "Prohibition in Early Wisconsin," The Wisconsin Magazine of History, March, 1925; Woods, Jim. "Kurth Brewery named to national register," Columbus Journal, March 14, 1994.]


Posted on April 05, 2007

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