WhiteCoat

Whiskey Prescriptions and the Prohibition Act

Scalpel made a suggestion to post pictures of some of my medical memorabilia, so I figured “what the heck.” I have a couple of other rants ready to post, but figured I’d give everyone a break from my craziness for a day or so.
One of the historical displays I have in my office is about the Prohibition Act. I purchased some old alcohol prescriptions off of eBay a while ago. I also purchased some a lot of old medication labels. Then I did some research on the internet about Prohibition. I printed out the information below and put it all in a frame that is now hanging on my wall. Some facts, including those about the pharmacist and drug store, came from the person who sold the prescriptions to me, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of those facts.
I made this display long enough ago that I don’t have the sources for what I wrote, so don’t blast me if what I have down there isn’t precisely accurate. If you have some other interesting facts about prescribing alcohol during the Prohibition, feel free to add them in the comments.
I left the prescription and medication label at high resolution, so they may take a minute to display. If you click the images, you can download copies that should print out pretty well. I removed the last name of the patient on Photoshop.
Enjoy.

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1929-whiskey-rx.jpg

By the 1830s, the Temperance Movement had turned increasing public attention toward abstinence from alcohol. Temperance societies nominated their own candidates – “DRIES” — to serve in public office. There were over 1.5 million DRIES in 1830 and they were known to write the letter T next to their names on membership rolls, hence the term “Teetotalers.”
According to “Alcohol, Hygiene and Legislation,” written in 1915 by Dr. Edward Huntington Williams, “we should expect to find that all human beings have an instinctive craving for such substances as alcohol, tea, coffee, tobacco, or narcotic drugs.” Dr. Williams considered drinking to be inevitable for certain mentally impaired persons:

The vast majority of persons do not crave excessive quantities . . . in case of the dipsomaniac, we have, theoretically, a person whose brain structures are weakened in a certain part, just as in any other form of mental unsoundness. Indeed, this is the generally accepted view of modern clinicians — that the inebriate is a person whose brain is structurally different from that of the normal man.

What originally began as a Temperance Movement became a Prohibition Movement when the Anti-Saloon League declared war on any alcohol consumption. On January 16, 1919, less than a year after the end of World War I, the Prohibition Act became the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution.
The National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act after the Minnesota congressman who sponsored it, passed on October 28, 1928 despite Woodrow Wilson’s veto. After 36 states ratified this Amendment, the new law officially took effect. Penalties were strict for breaking this new law. Selling alcohol without a permit could bring up to five years imprisonment and fines as high as $10,000!
Fortunately, for many there was a loophole. The law prohibited sale of alcohol, but did not criminalize the possession of alcohol. Further, sacramental wines and alcohol prescribed by a physician for medicinal purposes was also excluded.
In order to avert the law, proprietors manufactured medicinal agents containing high amounts of alcohol in order to comply with the law. These included:spirt-of-nitre.jpg
Bitters
which contained up to 100% alcohol with a sprinkle of herbs, and
Nostrums in which other medical agents – sometimes narcotics – were added to highly concentrated alcohol in order to intensify intoxication from the liquor.
The creation of new “medicinal” agents was so common that from 1914 to 1930, there were 287 preparations registered with the United States Internal Revenue Department that contained from 30 to 90 per cent alcohol. These “medications” were created to cure ills such as rheumatism, nervousness, kidney ailments, dyspepsia and “biliousness.”
For those wine or whiskey connoisseurs, there was always the option of seeking out a physician for a legal prescription.
The prohibition prescription was found hidden in the basement of Krause’s Drug Store, in Covington, Kentucky. Krause’s Drug Store opened for business in 1899. When alcohol became illegal in 1919, prescriptions for “medicinal liquor” became more popular. Krause’s Drug Store was known locally as “The Bootleg Drug Store” because the owner had a “No Questions Asked” policy when it came to filling these prescriptions. He also kept a still in the basement of his pharmacy. Many pharmacists refused to fill liquor prescriptions, instead referring the patients to Mr. Krause. Krause’s store was open on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day — he was never too busy to fill a prescription for “medicinal liquor”!
The Prohibition cat-and-mouse game came to an end in 1933. By that time Franklin Roosevelt had launched the “New Deal” to invigorate the US economy. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution repealed the Prohibition Act.

9 Responses to “Whiskey Prescriptions and the Prohibition Act”

  1. Matt H says:

    There’s a traditional Irish song about this….Seems that Turlough Carolan, the famed 17th-century Irish bard and rogue, had been forbidden to drink by either his doctor or (more likely) his patron. Carolan found the prohibition hard, and got his friend Dr. John Stafford to write him a ‘receipt’ (prescription) for whiskey to legitimize his libations. In return, Carolan wrote a song for him, variously called “Dr. John Stafford,” or more commonly, “Carolan’s Receipt.” Here’s a link to a snippet of the tune on Amazon.

  2. scalpel says:

    Very interesting stuff. Many of the prescriptions I write seem just as dubious.

  3. rlbates says:

    Thanks for sharing. It is very interesting!

  4. Tk says:

    Great post – very interesting. Where do you find a lot of that stuff? Sounds like you could start your own Mutter Museum (medical curiosities in Phila)!

    eBay, friends, family. Something easy to get for the “guy that has everything.” One friend just gave me several books from her grandfather’s attic. One was titled “The Child’s Book of Health” and was copyrighted in 1891. I’m going to scan it and put it up in another post in the future.

  5. SeaSpray says:

    Narcotics mixed with highly concentrated alcohol? Alcohol for kidney ailments?

    Most interesting. Thank you for sharing this. :)

    Oh and I never knew where the teetotaler expression came from. Also…i just assumed it was tea totaler because they drank tea instead of liquor.

  6. [...] The first in the series was about medicinal whiskey prescriptions here. [...]

  7. Meredith says:

    I have a orange bottle…embossed with a spider and web, but the labels are gone. Apparently it was once labeled Antique Spiritus Frumenti. There is a space on the back for a prescription label. Is there anything else you can tell me about it? Thanks!

    Mere

  8. Cindy says:

    I actually have several whiskey prescriptions from the Prohibition years – my grandfather acquired them many many years ago.

    Can you tell me what you paid for yours? I’m curious as to the marketability of them.

    Thanks for your response.

  9. Hunter says:

    I have a full bottle in original package un- opened with original seal of ” Antique”
    spiritus frumenti 100 proof
    ” An alcoholic stimulant”
    Made from the fermented
    mash of grain

    Packaging is in excellent shape
    and label also says one pint

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