Driven to Drink: How 1930s Booze Labels Helped Americans Forget Their Troubles

December 8th, 2016


Whiskey label, Ringside Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, Quali
Whiskey label, Ringside Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, Quali
Whiskey label, Old Hermit Brand straight whiskey, Reo Distillers

Old Hermit Brand Straight Whiskey, Reo Distillers.

Whiskey label, Hi-Plane straight bourbon whiskey, Glaser Bros.,

Hi‐Plane Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Glaser Bros., San Francisco.

Beer label, Scotch Hop Ale, Scotch Hop Ale Co., San Francisco, C

Scotch Hop Ale, Scotch Hop Ale Co., San Francisco.

Beer label, Apache beer, Arizona Brewing Company, Phoenix, Arizo

Apache Beer, Arizona Brewing Company, Phoenix, Arizona.

Beer label, Maya beer, pilsner style, Cerveceria de Anza S.A.

Maya Beer, Pilsner Style, Cerveceria De Anza, Mexicali, Mexico.

Beer label, Rainier beverage, Rainier Brewing Co., San Francisco

Rainier Brewing Company's Rainier Beverage, Rainier Brewing Co., San Francisco.

Beer label, Milwaukee Steam, Milwaukee Brewery of San Francisco

Steam, Milwaukee Brewery of San Francisco.

Wine label, Eagle Vineyard Products Co., Baronet Apple Wine

Baronet Apple Wine, Eagle Vineyard Products Co., San Francisco.

Tonic label, Pep-Tol port wine tonic, La Ray Pharmacal Laborator

Pep‐Tol Port Wine Tonic, La Ray Pharmacal Laboratory, Los Angeles.

Wine label, Mission Bell California port wine, K. Arakelian, Inc

Mission Bell California Port Wine, K. Arakelian, Inc., Madera Wineries & Distilleries, Madera, California.

Wine label, K. Arakelian Inc., California Belle, California Port

California Belle California Port, K. Arakelian, Inc., Madera Winery, Madera, California.

Wine label, Elk Grove Winery, California Mellow Sherry Wine

Exota Mellow Sherry Wine, Elk Grove Winery, Elk Grove, California.

Wine label, Magic Brand California muscatel wine, Distillers Out

Magic Brand California Muscatel Wine, Distillers Outlet Co., Los Angeles.

Wine label, Italian Swiss Colony California sweet vermouth, Ital

Italian Swiss Colony California Sweet Vermouth, Italian Swiss Colony, Asti, California.

Wine label, San Juan Brand California Burgundy, Golden Gate Wine

San Juan Brand California Burgundy, Golden Gate Winery, Oakland, California.

The historic alcohol labels that were on exhibit a few years ago at the California Historical Society in San Francisco were all printed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when millions of Americans drowned their economic sorrows in newly legal beer, wine, and assorted spirits. These bottles of previously demon alcohol were adorned with illustrations of pretty girls, dramatic sunsets over the Golden Gate Bridge, boxers in the ring, mission bells unrung, and endless clusters of fat, ripe grapes hanging on the vine.

“Most of the wine made in California in the 1930s was downright awful.”

The graphics, though, were not intended to ease the sting of circumstances. Their job was to disguise the poor quality of the liquid within the bottle, especially when it came to wine, as author Frances Dinkelspiel explains in her foreword to one of two books published in conjunction with the exhibition. “Most of the wine made in California in the 1930s,” Dinkelspiel writes, “was downright awful.” This “lackluster plonk,” she continues, “was a legacy of Prohibition, which had decimated the once robust industry.”

During Prohibition, the only way for vineyards to survive was to make sacramental wine for the tightly regulated, and very small, market of priests and rabbis, or to grow grapes that could be sold whole and crushed into wine by the heads of households—by law, 200 gallons per year of homemade hooch were permitted. Grape growers responded by ripping out the thin-skinned grape varieties that had been so popular for dry table wine and replacing them with sweeter, thick-skinned grapes that could withstand the rigors of train travel. Thus, by the time Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, the wine industry was crushing grapes that had hardly been planted for their eventual complexity as wine. The result was untold gallons of sweet “port” and “sherry” fortified with brandy until it reached an alcohol content of 20 percent. Fancy labels gave this swill a veneer of respectability, while the high alcohol content no doubt gave drinkers something other than the taste in their mouths to think about.

3 comments so far

  1. Bruce99 Says:

    Nice article and an interesting bit of American history Ben. I’m looking to get me some of that “Pep-Tol Port Wine Tonic” Dosage guidelines and everything…Ha!

  2. freetomato Says:

    Up too late randomly surfing and stumbled upon this nice gem of an article. Well written. I enjoyed it. Regards,

    Vintage beer tray collector

  3. aka_darrell Says:

    Perhaps not unrelated: in grade school we had the jokes. “I put a bar in the back of my car and drove myself to drink” and “Nobody was driving officer. We were all in the back seat drinking.” There must be a collection of them out there somewhere.

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