Struggles Of German Americans In The Prohibition Era

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As an immigrant migrating to a foreign land, you are destined to be faced with many obstacles that might hinder your prosperity. For German Americans in the mid-1800’s the hurdles of language, politics, trust, customs, and alcohol set up these peoples for almost a century of heartache. The efforts to bring about the prohibition of alcohol within the United States greatly impacted German Americans economically and socially. German culture was attacked directly, and business owners were left with little to no economic alternative.

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From the beginning to the end of the 19th century, immigrants flooded to the United States from across the globe. No country of origin was more represented at the time than Germany. Estimates of over 5.5 million non-English speaking German immigrants came to the United States, many of whom were middle-class tradesmen with very little to their family’s name. The German American population became so high, that the first non-English newspaper publications ever publish in the United States were in the German language. German Americans established an identity for themselves. An identity that consisted of language, culture, and brew. The latter being a staple in a German diet. With these three staples, one could measure their level of “German-ness”.

As German Americans continued to arrive in the United States, they brought with them their unique brewing practices from across Germany. German breweries became more and more frequent within the eastern states of the US. New York City at one point had as many as 75 unique breweries by the 1870’s, an astonishing number for the time. What made German beer so popular was the way it was being made. German Lager was bubblier, and lighter than any other beer at the time. With this men and women could drink higher amounts at a faster pace. Beer is a part of life for German Americans. Men drank it to show they were men, and women drank it as well as it was often much more sanitary than local water sources. Eight out of ten German American households brewed their own beer in some shape or fashion, and through the sale of this alcohol they were able to feed their families making up for the lack of education, possessions, and the in-ability to speak the national language.

Meanwhile towards the end of the 19th century, a growing movement took hold within the American population. Men and Women alike were closing their local bar tabs and banding together for a new resolution. These individuals expelled alcohol from their lives, and their influence was spreading quickly through the United States. In the mid-19th century, the first rumblings for prohibition began.

These movements were brought to life by many married women who believed that their male counterparts spent too much money and time on the consumption of alcohol. This brought about America’s first ever concerns on alcohol in the nation’s history. These women found their first success in the early 1870s, founding an organization later known as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. With the use of Ohio’s Adair Law that held any venue making profit through sale of alcohol responsible for the actions of their consumers. This union became effective in raising the awareness on the dangerous effects’ alcohol can cause to its users as well as share their own personal stories. German Americans were soon faced with protestors outside of their breweries, shops, and homes. Though victories came at a very slow pace, by 1903 one third of the American population stood in support for prohibition. By 1913, half the American populous demanded for the prohibition on the sale of alcohol. While many woman and children were in support of prohibition due to how alcohol affected the men of their families, the German American women and children had a very different view. Germans all together opposed the thought of prohibition, as it not only attacked their household income but also their very identity and German-ness. For German Americans a life without brew is a life of leaving their culture behind and forgetting who they are as a people.

When German Americans came to the United States, they had nothing, but their traditions. They worked low-income professions making little money to support their larger than average families. With alcohol being such a large part of American life at the time, the German brewing practices were welcomed in both urban and rural regions alike. Immense opportunity became available to German brewers who have found an alternative way of providing for their families. When these outlets of income became cut off from their patrons, and production of alcohol became increasingly difficult, Germans lost their primary source of income. They no longer had an alternative to the low-income jobs they first had, and thus many had to sell off much of their possessions.

In the beginning of the nation’s founding, Germans had no stigma associated to their population as America was founded upon multitudes of immigrant groups. However, as time progressed this did not continue. German people, in an effort to maintain their culture and identity, were either slow to learn the English language or chose not to adopt it at all. German Americans became an out-group in the United States, with many viewing them as secretive or distrustful. Due to the low amount of education many German Americans had available to them, they were also seen as dull or unintelligent. These stigmas were reinforced once a cornerstone of their identity was taken away as the prohibition movement took hold within American politics.

Prohibition continued to grow slowly within the early 20th century, and by 1919 36 states voted to ratify the constitution. These “dry” citizens obtained their reward a year later, where in January 1920 the United States became constitutionally dry. Though prohibition does not hold for long, after the effects of both World Wars, German American’s hardship worsened causing their population as a whole to diminish slowly. The world war’s stigma was forgotten, and the prohibition was eventually lifted, but German American’s potential to impact the United States as a whole was severely wounded. Today, great German American breweries such as Anheuser-Busch or Heineken International see amazing success through the sale of alcohol leading us to only imagine how many more famous breweries would be in business in our modern times. German success does not just stop with the creation of alcoholic beverages either. Those who identified as German brought many more advancements to the United States in subjects such as agriculture, journalism, scientific thought, entertainment, and some even in the leading of our country. Through the integration of immigrants and the new cultures that are brought with them, the United States makes its own identity. When these immigrant’s cultures are suppressed, so are the ideals of our entire country.

01 February 2021

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