Abstract: Redefining Intoxication and Alcohol's Place in American Leisure

Lisa Jacobson


This paper examines why anti-Prohibitionists and New Dealers regarded wine and beer not just as good for drinking but as "good for thinking" about the changing place of leisure and pleasure in American life. During the 1930s mass unemployment reinvigorated public conversations about how the state might encourage worthy uses of leisure. Congressional hearings on proposals to modify Prohibition to permit light wines and beer addressed similar concerns. Since the prospects of repealing Prohibition remained uncertain, anti-Prohibitionists sought to relegalize beer and wine on the grounds that neither was intoxicating. Modificationists championed European drinking cultures centered on wine and beer over the excesses of Prohibition-era "cocktail culture." This vision of the good life continued to resonate beyond the campaign to end Prohibition. When Rexford Tugwell, Franklin Roosevelt's Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, pondered how to achieve "a more abundant life for the American people," he imagined a state that privileged wine and beer above spirits in the interest of promoting economic security and national well-being. Like the modificationists, Tugwell represented a new kind of drinking reformer, one who resented excessive government intrusion in matters of consumer choice but embraced subtler forms of social control to advance their vision of the good life.