The Struggle with Beer: Morals, Markets and Marketing, 1880-1940

GHI’s Immigrant Entrepreneurship Project sponsors Panel at the 2012 OAH Conference in Milwaukee

Panel at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Milwaukee, WI
Participants:  Marni Davis, Amy Mittelman, Daniel Okrent, Uwe Spiekermann, and Thomas Welskopp

The changing market for beer and the rise of brewery-owned saloons were perceived by many “old stock” white Protestants as a threat. Hard liquor and beer became symbols of the polarizing forces challenging the state of the Union during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Temperance, alcohol’s critics believed, would reestablish the morals of the founding fathers and establish a modern, efficient, and sober nation able to out-compete any of the European powers. From the turn of the century on, the Prohibition movement, led by the Anti-Saloon League, won support county by county, state by state, despite the determined opposition of the United States Brewers’ Association. The passionate anti-alcohol minority finally succeeded in imposing its moral code on American society and business in 1919. The Eighteenth Amendment halted an entire industry from seeking new products and markets.

The panel “The Struggle with Beer: Morals, Markets, and Marketing, 1880-1940,” held on April 21 at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Milwaukee and sponsored by the GHI’s Immigrant Entrepreneurship project used “beer” as a tool to analyze changes in American society and business between 1880 and 1940. The panel, chaired by Amy Mittelman, author of Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer, shed new light not only on beer and the brewing industry but also on the ethnic struggles in U.S. society before and after Prohibition.

In the first paper, “Marketing Milwaukee: Schlitz and the Making of a National Beer Brand, 1880-1940,” the GHI’s deputy director Uwe Spiekermann offered a case study on marketing for one of the market leading breweries in the United States. Their beverages were part of a quite unique beer-drinking culture of immigrants—most notably Germans—which made Milwaukee famous for entertainment and moderate alcohol consumption far from the male saloon culture of the big eastern and midwestern cities. According to Spiekermann, Schlitz concentrated most of its marketing efforts on the rise and the promotion of bottled beer from the early 1890s. Branding and selling bottled beer offered a moderate alternative for middle-class consumers who wanted to avoid the ill-reputed saloon. From the late 1890s, the Schlitz company—managed by the German-American Uihlein family—had a three-pronged marketing strategy. First, it focused on informing consumers in detail about the product and the production process to establish the firm as a technological leader; second, it positioned beer not as an alcoholic but as a healthy and nourishing functional food; and third, it presented the Schlitz brand as an ideal beer, famous in Milwaukee, the United States, and the world. These tag lines remained until the 1950s. For Schlitz, Prohibition forced them to shift production from beer to near beer, ginger ale, and malt syrup, while marketing still propagated the Schlitz’s ideal of technological leadership, healthiness, and world-famous quality. After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Schlitz focused more strongly on beer as a domestic drink of the middle-class. With slogans like “Beer is a man’s drink, that woman enjoy,” Schlitz extended their marketing to include female consumers, though always embedded in concepts of domesticity and respectability. The company put beer into a suburban dream world of respectability, moderation, and social-enjoyment. This merger of American hospitality and German Gemütlichkeit set the path for Schlitz’s rise to global market leader in the early 1950s. Product-orientated marketing, however, did not include the real consumers, their taste, and their social reality. From the turn of the century, Schlitz beer lost taste, became watery and weak—long before the notorious rise of light beers in the late 1950s.

Thomas Welskopp, professor of contemporary history at the University of Bielefeld and author of a recently published history of the Prohibition era, followed with his talk on “Bottom of the Barrel: The U.S. Brewing Industry and Saloon Culture before and during National Prohibition, 1900-1933.” Welskopp analyzed the misery and crisis of the “old-time Saloon,” dominated by male workers in urban areas. Immigrant drinking cultures, such as the custom of buying rounds, the tied-house system between breweries and pubs, and the effects of the “gastronomic-politico complex,” transferred the meeting place of workers and citizens to an establishment more and more reduced to quick drinking, gambling, and prostitution. For the Prohibition movement, the unholy trinity of alcohol, local politics, and crime was a decisive argument. For the breweries, the Volstead Act thoroughly changed their business. Near beer, soft drinks, malt syrups, and the legal supply of an illegal branch of brewing allowed many brewers to survive until the time of the repeal in 1933. However, the partial cooperation between breweries and the black market for alcohol could not prevent the severe changes in American alcohol consumption: not only during but also after Prohibition, beer was replaced by hard liquor and cocktails.

While Spiekermann and Welskopp focused predominantly on beer marketing and markets, Marni Davis professor at Georgia State University and author of the recently published Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, looked at “Jews and Jewish Identity during the Temperance Movement and Prohibition Era.” While German-American identity was closely related to beer drinking and Gemütlichkeit, Jews from the German-speaking countries were mostly engaged in the liquor trade. Both groups, however, were strictly against the protestant Anglo-Saxon morality personified by the Prohibition movement. Jewish religious practice was linked to alcohol, and Jews preferred a “true temperance” of individual choice and rational self-control. Davis analyzed the similarities and differences between Jews and Germans in the U.S., and showed that Jews used their political, economic, and cultural attachments to alcohol in order to strengthen their commitments to American citizenship and their interpretation of “America.” However, both groups were not able to join forces to combat the temperance movement.

In his comment, Daniel Okrent, the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, combined the questions of marketing, markets, and morals—sharpening the arguments of the three presentations. In his mind, beer was a useful tool for analyzing U.S. culture, society, and economy, and he congratulated the presenters for their contributions.

The presentations and comment were followed by lively and intense discussion with the more than 40 participants.