More Dispatches from Buffalo: Regulating Alcohol

H2: Regulating Alcohol in the 20th Century and I1: American Alcohol Policy

These two sessions at the Buffalo conference demonstrate how various regulatory systems—including law and policy but also market forces and spatial relationships—interact to shape the availability of alcohol, and also its normalization, in a specific time and place.  I found much to think about across the two sessions, and based on many thoughtful questions raised at each session, the rest of the audience did as well.

Session H2: Regulating Alcohol in the 20th Century

In his engaging presentation on the dramatic drop in the number of cafes in France during World War II, Scott Haine connected the Vichy regime’s enforcement of zoning regulations regarding the location of cafes with new visions for urban planning and concerns about population decline.  He also noted that the context of the war mattered, as competition among cafes increased sharply in the midst of shortages.  The Vichy campaign was not aimed at wine as such, but at cafes as institutions that were considered disreputable.

Dan Malleck analyzed the role of Ontario’s Liquor Control Boards in reconstructing the “citizen drinker” during the 1930s and 1940s, after prohibition ended in Ontario in 1927.  With snazzy graphics, Malleck focused on particular hotels in Toronto that applied for the authority to serve alcohol but were rejected.  Introducing us to both the interior hotel spaces and the streetscape, Malleck used these examples effectively to probe the nature of bureaucracy and its powers of surveillance, as well as to illuminate the “moral geography” of these drinking spaces and the “calculus of need” that underlay the applications.

William Rorabaugh provided a clear and incisive overview of U.S. alcohol policy as it emerged in the aftermath of national Prohibition, concentrating on Washington State.  He emphasized that repeal advocates did not want a free market in alcohol but instead sought strict state control; a preference in the law for lighter drinks; and a three-tier regulatory structure that would prevent vertical integration and forbid producers from becoming too powerful.

Session I1 on American alcohol policy continued many of the same themes.   Joy Getrick gave a presentation on drinking age debates since 1987.  Getrick noted that laws governing youth drinking go back to the colonial era, but a particular set of political and cultural forces converged in the 1980s to create “drinking age 21,” including President Reagan’s focus on drunk driving and a rhetoric that promised that raising the drinking age would save children.  While it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of this law in terms of driving safety and actual consumption rates, she emphasized the ways in which “drinking age 21” has shaped drinking cultures, especially on college campuses.

Lisa Jacobson analyzed the role of Seagram’s advertising campaigns in articulating a vision of moderate consumption following the repeal of national Prohibition in the U.S.  Seagram reminded drinkers that they had to cooperate to make Repeal work, and ads borrowed from temperance rhetoric about fiscal responsibility (“Pay Your Bills First”) that took on additional meaning during the Great Depression.  Jacobson argued that the advertising campaign was designed to transfer responsibility for maintaining moderation—invoked but not defined in these ads—to the individual, away from the product itself.

In her paper on the emergence of privacy law and its connection with vice cases, Anna Krouse explained how Prohibition, particularly ambiguity in how the Volstead Act should be enforced, led to an explosion of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.  Krouse provided an overview and analysis of U.S. v Olmstead (1928), in which the Supreme Court split 5-4 against Olmstead, accused of bootlegging, concluding that the use of evidence obtained through phone wiretaps did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.  In his dissent, Louis Brandeis began to articulate a right to privacy in conceptual, rather than tangible, terms, and he discussed the ways in which new technologies could potentially expand governmental powers of surveillance.

I cannot do justice to these fascinating papers in such a short space, but I will offer some brief thoughts on issues they raised for me.  First, I was struck by the vast range of topics we can explore through the history of alcohol—legal and political matters (the drinking age debates and the end of Prohibition in Washington State would make great vignettes for teaching about federalism); the history of the family (Getnick argued that parents looked to the state to regulate teen drinking behavior); and evolving concepts of privacy in the midst of new technologies, just to name a few.

The number of papers that concentrated on prohibition and its immediate aftermath also underscored for me the importance of thinking critically about periodization, rather than taking turning points for granted.  In particular, Rorabaugh’s account of “funny little gaps of time” in the regulatory chaos of 1933 when, for example, Washington State had no tax or rules regarding beer for a short period, showed the contingent quality of historical change and the value of close examination of what happened on the ground in particular contexts.  Similarly, Jacobson’s analysis of how the Seagram’s advertising campaign after Repeal invoked temperance rhetoric shows how the “before” and “after” are not always as clear cut as we imagine.  Here too, I found Malleck’s concept of the “citizen drinker” who had to be reconstructed after prohibition ended enormously helpful.  This term reminds us that the consumption of alcohol can signal both a political prerogative and a consumer choice, and it is an act often intertwined with other forms of privilege including age, gender, social class, and ethnicity.

Reflecting across both sessions, I found myself thinking a lot about drinking places—what is important is not just the substance of alcohol or type of drink, but the location in which it is consumed, and the sorts of systems that govern the setting and the context.  Clearly, governments have taken active steps to regulate alcohol consumption, as in Vichy France, Ontario, and the United States.  But market forces, corporate advertising, and individuals and families also shape drinking practices, often in interaction with state authority.  Indeed, these systems gain a kind of cumulative power when they align—although Malleck’s conclusion that he could find no formula that explained which hotel applications for alcohol licenses were accepted while others were denied provides a good reminder that serendipity, like contingency, often plays a key role in history.