The Politics of Prohibition in Oregon

As most of us likely already know, the U.S. once grappled with the question of whether or not to ban the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol. In fact, a federal ban was instituted for about thirteen years, from 1920 to 1933, known as the “prohibition of alcohol,” or commonly known just as “prohibition.” We’ve likely seen period films that make some reference to the prohibition, or have a general idea of what the whole issue was about, but we probably don’t think much about it since the issue has long since been resolved (although, there are still some “dry” counties in Texas and other states). However, when we do think about prohibition, we might not realize that it was stooped in political debates and propaganda like any other political issue, and just like today’s political debates, everyone and their grandmother had an opinion.

The archives here at the Oregon Digital Newspaper Program are filled with editorials, advertisements, and the opinions of various individuals of alleged authority weighing in on the matter. Historic newspapers give us an idea of the political debate surrounding the issue within the state of Oregon at the time, as well as what types of arguments were made for or against it. It’s striking to see how little political debates have changed over time in terms of the ways in which they are framed and spoken about.

The following piece in The Bend Bulletin from 1910 is a nice example. It’s a call to the men of Oregon to vote against prohibition and, by doing so, retain their “local option” to have alcohol in their own homes and communities (women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1912, hence why the advertisement is directed only at men):

Newspaper ad encouraging male voters to vote against prohibition laws.

The Bend bulletin. (Bend, Or.) 1903-1931, November 02, 1910, Image 2. http://tinyurl.com/9z2vf6o

The rhetoric used in this piece is similar to what we see today in that it uses scare tactics, appeal to emotion, the language of government intrusion into the home, alleged threats to the family and personal privacy, and claims that one will be robbed of his or her freedoms and rights if the measure in question were to pass. The idea is to get the reader emotionally worked up and in doing so, side-step or ignore the validity of the argument, or lack thereof. The truthfulness of the claim is not what matters here, or even whether or not the reader agrees with the proposed measure. Rather, the point is to incite outrage and anger over potential consequences, and to encourage the reader to vote a certain way out of fear of those consequences. As we approach the upcoming election this year, regardless of which way you intend to vote, be aware of this tactic, as it’s still heavily used today.

Another ad in the Medford Mail Tribune from 1910 warns businessmen that they can’t afford to allow prohibition to pass, because it would adversely affect them financially through a decrease in property values, stagnation of business, and a “halt in progress.”

This newspaper ad explains what prohition means for businessmen of Oregon.

Medford mail tribune. (Medford, Or.) 1909-1989, November 06, 1910, SECOND SECTION, Page 15, Image 15. http://tinyurl.com/8tbf9dk

Again, similar arguments can be seen today in a wide variety of issues, ranging from same-sex marriage and gun control laws, to measures involving road construction and changes to public transportation. Political issues in the early 1900s, as today, were often framed as being of primary concern to business owners. This is unsurprising considering that business owners tend to have greater financial and social capital, and unfortunately, as a result, tend to also have greater political influence than the average citizen.

However, business owners weren’t the only ones concerned with prohibition. In this clip from The Coos Bay Times, from 1908, clergy from all over the east coast weighed in, strongly opposing prohibition. Regardless of the political or social issue in question, we often turn to religious leaders, and perhaps more commonly today, celebrities, as sources of authority.

Members of the clergy offer their opinions on prohibition laws.

The Coos Bay times. (Marshfield, Or.) 1906-1957, May 26, 1908, Page 2, Image 2. http://tinyurl.com/8hd9kt9

Another tactic that can be found in almost any political debate is the use of statistics to argue for or against an issue, illustrated in this next clip from the same edition and page of The Coos Bay Times. The argument made here is that statistics show greater lawlessness and more arrests when Lane County was “dry” (alcohol was prohibited), than when it was “wet” (alcohol was not prohibited).

This article draws on statistical evidence to argue that prohibition laws don't work.

The Coos Bay times. (Marshfield, Or.) 1906-1957, May 26, 1908, Page 2, Image 2. http://tinyurl.com/8hd9kt9

Lastly, what political debate would be complete without a mix-up in terminology and a looming threat of increased taxes? *gasp* These two clips from the October 29th and October 15th, 1914 editions of the Eagle Valley News illustrate these examples, respectively:

This newspaper clip points out a mistake that was made in the prohibition campain.

Eagle Valley news (Richland, Or.) 191?-1919, October 29, 1914, Image 3. http://tinyurl.com/9ywd882

This newspaper ad warns voters that passing prohibition laws will increase taxes.

Eagle Valley news (Richland, Or.) 191?-1919, October 15, 1914, Image 5. http://tinyurl.com/cjsnd37

There seems to be little argument for prohibition in much of Oregon’s news print of the time. The majority of what was written appears to be in opposition to prohibition. However, this piece in The Coos Bay Times, written by Rev. F. W. Jones on May 11th, 1908, urged voters to vote for prohibition:

This op-ed piece pleads with voters to vote for prohibition.

The Coos Bay times. (Marshfield, Or.) 1906-1957, May 11, 1908, Page 4, Image 4. http://tinyurl.com/8o6ywmc

However, when your article is printed next to an advertisement for a sausage company and is framed as a desperate “plea,” it’s likely that you’re not being taken all that seriously. Anyone who has read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair knows that the meat packing industry of the era wasn’t exactly something to be lauded and was probably not the type of advertisement you’d want your op-ed piece to be associated with.

In the end, prohibition came and went, and little thought is given to it today. We have since turned our attention to other issues, many of which are arguably as much of a non-issue as the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol, at least in this blogger’s opinion. However, much of the ways in which political debates are conducted, and many of the tactics that are used, have remained the same. We’re still bombarded with statistics ad nauseum from even more media sources than during the prohibition era. We’re still given arguments based on logical fallacies, and we still turn to religious leaders and celebrities as sources of authority, even when their claims to such authority are questionable. It is important to remember, especially as we approach the upcoming presidential election, to be critical of the information we’re given, the source of that information, and what biases may be present.

Our historic newspapers would suggest that Oregon was never really all that interested in supporting prohibition. Perhaps it should be no surprise to us, then, that Oregon has come to produce some of the best organic beers and wine in the country, and Portland, specifically, is now known for having a unique brand of beer snobbery, possibly as a result. However, whether you drink alcohol or not, Oregon is likely to remain a “wet” state for the foreseeable future, or at least until we decide to engage in collective amnesia, and as a state or nation, feel compelled to revisit a social and political issue that has long since been settled. If we do, though, the Oregon Digital Newspaper Program will be around to provide us with valuable insight into the past.

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