Did Prohibition Kill Cider? A Malus Myth Investigated

This article accompanies a panel at 2021 Cider Con called “Malus Busters” chaired by Greg Peck, with Chris Gerling and Doug Miller, devoted to busting some common myths of cider making, cider consumption, and cider history.

Prohibition is so often cited as the reason for the death of cider, the beverage of our founding fathers, that it has become something of a truism: founding myth of the contemporary cider industry in America. From the ashes of Prohibition and a long sleep in the aftermath of Temperance madness, the modern cider industry has risen again. But truisms deserve interrogation, and I’ve long wanted to investigate this one. This post is not necessarily an answer to the question about whether Prohibition killed cider, but a start to framing the question.

Malus – Myth

My professional scholarly discipline specializes in the study of myth. Myth is defined very narrowly in folklore studies. In The Study of American Folklore by Jan Brunvand, myth is defined as:

“…traditional prose narratives which in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past. Typically they deal with the activities of gods and demi-gods, the creation of the world and its inhabitants, and the origins of religious rituals” (Brunvand 170)

In everday usage, the term myth is often simply used to refer to something that is fictional, untrue, or contradictory to facts. Using the spirit of the definition of myth that Brunvand offers, however, help us understand why people tell stories in everyday life that are often at variance with demonstrable facts or science. If we think of myths as stories that define our worldview, it becomes clearer that any story, large or small, which is repeated often enough must have some cultural significance or social power. Such stories answer anxieties, beliefs, or questions that are important to the people who tell them. Often it is not enough to offer facts to dispute a myth, because a myth is not just a collection of facts. A myth is a framework for understanding facts. So to dispute a myth, you really have to break down the framework of the story.

I’m interested in the myth of Prohibition, not necessarily to prove it is completely untrue, but because it is a defining part of our story of cider in America. This story is such a prevalent narrative that it overpowers many other nuances in the history of apple growing and cider making in America. Studying it can also tell us as much about how people want to understand the world of cider today than about what actually happened in the past.

The Tall Tales of Temperance

Just today, the New York Times has published an article on the the comeback of applejack in the article, “America’s First Moonshine, Applejack, Returns in Sleeker Style.” The following clip from the article outlines the usual narratives about the relationship between Prohibition and cider:

None of the things mentioned here are untrue per se, but they gloss over a lot of nuance and in the end, overstate the influence of Prohibition as the event that that ended an era of cider making for America. First of all, the article they link to from 1884 “A Wicked Beverage” is clearly a example of satire. It is making fun of the overzealous attitudes of certain elements of the Temperance Movement, using hyperbolic and melodramatic characterizations in order marginalize their viewpoint for the reader:

One serious question worth asking: Why was cider and applejack considered so much more destructive and madness-inducing than whisky? And perhaps less seriously: What poetry might a New Jersey man crazy on applejack recite as he blows up his town?

In seriousness though, this piece of satire shows both how widespread and also how controversial such zealotry was considered at the time.

Orchards Razed? Or Repurposed?

The second point, that millions of acres of orchards were “razed and never replanted, because cheap and plentiful grain made whiskey easier to produce” is partially true as well. This is a second and very important part of the Prohibition myth: the chopping down or burning of apple trees and the razing of orchards, either directly by the hatchets of Temperance zealots or indirectly due to the decline of market for cider because of cheap grain available for whiskey. The story of the razing of orchards by Temperance zealots has been circulated in many contemporary popular publications, like this 2015 National Geographic article:

This claim has been addressed by historian William Kerrigan in his book Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History. Kerrigan shows that even in the 19th century, the influence of the Temperance movement on the decline of orchards was probably less than commentators published or circulated at the time, and certainly less than our own contemporary commentators claim. Kerrigan’s historical research and analysis are worth quoting at length:

“By 1829, at least a few farmers had taken the advice of ‘BURN THEM’ to heart. One report circulated in several journals told of a New Haven, Connecticut, gentleman who ‘ordered a fine apple orchard to be cut down, because the fruit may be converted into an article to promote intemperance.’ The editor of the New York Enquirer mocked this wasteful action, opining that, ‘in this age of Anti-societies, we may soon see the worthless of the land in league to establish an Anti-Apple and Anti-Rye Society.’ […] The story of the monomaniacal temperance man destroying apple orchards became part of the folklore of New England and the Midwest, and not only about missing orchards but also abandoned ones were attributed to the zeal of the reformers […] The number of orchards actually chopped down by temperance ultraists was likely not as great in reality as in local folklore. But endless moral castigations orchard-owning farmers faced from the temperance crusaders seemed to have an effect. Many a pious farmer was surely troubled by the accusation that by selling apples to cider mills he was serving Mammon instead of God. Many writers attributed the abandonment and neglect of old seedling orchards across New England to the temperance crusade, their owners apparently deciding to forgo the attacks on the moral character by simply neglecting orchards and letting nature swallow them up.” (Kerrigan 146-147)

Kerrigan goes on to show that Temperance was only one of several changes being wrought in American society that let to the decline of orchards used for cider:

“The self-provisioning farmer’s orchard that provided an abundance of household uses from cider and vinegar to dried apples and hog feed eventually yielded to the market-centered farmer’s orchard of fruit destined for the cider mill, the brandy distillery, or the big city market as fresh fruit. The temperance movement’s campaign against cider apples accelerated the shift to an age when Americans no longer drank their apples but ate them fresh instead.” (Kerrigan 191).

Kerrigan’s analysis highlights several nuances that can expand our understanding of the decline of cider by seeing the changes in agricultural economics that contributed to the changing place of the orchard in the family farm. Our contemporary popular image historical cider making generally appeals to the first example Kerrigan mentions: the self-provisioning farmer. This is the idea most people today have in their mind when they think about cider as part colonial and early westward settlement, assisted by the ministrations of Johnny Appleseed and his seedling orchards. Cider was part of a self-sustaining farm economy where the farmer produced much of what he needed on his own land.

But the move to a market economy allowed the farmer to sell his excess apples for profit, leading to some of the mass production of spirits that Temperance advocates were so opposed to. This market economy set the stage – not for a wholesale extinction of orchards – but for a switch to growing apples that were oriented for a different market: the wholesale fresh fruit market. This was aided by increasingly efficient transportation systems via canal, railroad, and expanded highway networks. As fresh fruit could be moved more quickly through these means, new markets for fresh fruit and juice, were created. Hard cider and spirits – stable products that could be easily transported across distances and without danger of spoilage – were simply no longer the only way urban and distant customers could enjoy the fruits of the land.

The parallel growth of the Temperance movement probably contributed to the growth growth of the fresh fruit market, but the availability of alternative forms of apples for consumption probably likewise fueled Temperance arguments against drinking apples as cider in a mutually self-reinforcing cycle of social movement and market economy influencing each other.

The gradual change from self-provisioning farms to more mobile market economy driven farms marked a gradual but significant shift in American society from a mostly agrarian to a mostly urban industrial society. It was in this context that the rise of cider’s replacement beverage, beer, became ascendant. Beer, brewed from grain which could be stored year-round an used when needed, became an industrially-produced product, available to sate the tastes of urban factory workers, and perfected by the knowledge and traditions of German immigrants who came to American shores in the late nineteenth century. When agriculture markets had shifted apple production to fresh fruit, aided by Temperance attitudes and transportation infrastructure, Prohibition put a nail in the coffin of an already dying cider and applejack trade. While the industrial production of beer could resume after Prohibition regardless of lingering Temperance attitudes against drink, the agricultural infrastructure for cider had already pivoted away and was not as easy to get back.

Prohibition, instituted from 1920-1933, certainly was the closing page of a chapter for cider, coming after almost a century of of activity in the Temperance movement and ongoing industrialization of agriculture and industry, but it can’t be blamed entirely for killing off cider-making.

The Endurance of the Myth

So why does it still loom so large in our popular imagination, conjured up as it is in these reputable media articles and on the lips of countless contemporary cider makers? The answer to this question lies in an analysis of modern ideas and interests rather than a sifting of the evidence of the past. Myths are made by people to explain their current understanding of the world. Myths are totalizing, world-defining, and less concerned with facts than with human drama.

So what is it about the “Prohibition Killed Cider” story that is so compelling. In the first place, it is a convenient, short, simplistic sound bite that appeals to a basic understanding of a significant milestone American history. It is not false, but it also glazes over a complex truth.

Clearly defined in time by the dates legislating its beginning and end, and in substance by its effect on the legal status of alcohol production and consumption, Prohibition is a clear mark on the long calendar of the nation’s history. Prohibition is much easier to conceptualize as a distinct moment than the much longer and more complicated strands of the Temperance movement, extending over two centuries and riddled with both positive and negative impacts on American life, intertwined with changing agricultural and industrial economies as well as the rise of urban life and the decline of rural communities.

However, I also think the myth of Prohibition killing cider persists because this narrative does substantial cultural work in creating a public perception of the industry and cider makers today. It positions contemporary cider makers as culinary heroes, showing how they have brought cider back from its dreadful grave of Prohibition and celebrates the the standards of taste that have allowed craft beverages like cider and applejack to flourish today.

In many of the media articles in popular circulation, cider is primarily discussed in term of its place within the context of food and drink appreciation, not agricultural economics. The bulk of this New York Times article on the resurgence of Applejack is about cultures of drinking centered around craft beverage, urban cocktail culture, and culinary appreciation. To blame Prohibition for the death of cider is to contrast our current cultures of culinary taste with the bores and the fuddy-duddies who enforced Prohibition on the country rather than preserve the food and beverage traditions we are now so keen to celebrate. To target Prohibition is to elevate the current state of our more cosmopolitan appreciation of craft cider and applejack.

What the myth of Prohibition ignores are all of the things that aren’t really of interest to the majority of urban consumers of craft beverages: the impact of market economies on commodity crops, the development industrial food systems, and all the messy cultural implications of the temperance movement. Prohibition is easy to blame and in reciprocal evaluation, makes contemporary cider makers easier to love.

Why Nit-Pick? Just Pick Cider!

Why take a long blog post to nitpick on the fine points of a popular myth? Positioning and promoting cider in terms of its culinary relevance is certainly a savvy thing to do if you are a business. But the ubiquitous use of the Prohibition narrative to explain cider narrows the kinds of stories that can be told about it and the significance it can have in the communities it wants to cultivate.

There are a plethora of other stories to tell: of family farms who have weathered the changing economic winds, of communities who have continued to use windfalls of old orchards of local food resilience, of indigenous communities reclaiming their land. Cider is a small part of the story of apples in America, and Prohibition an even smaller story still. If cider can tell a wider variety of stories about its relationship to apples, landscapes, people, and places, it can forge a more varied, resilient, and real relationship with its consumers and communities. Let’s pick more stories of cider to tell than Prohibition.

Post Script: Great Minds Think Alike

After presenting this talk and post, Dan Pucci pointed me in the way of this recent post from Mark Turdo of https://pommelcyder.wordpress.com and Andrew Tobia discussing this same topic! Great to find minds that thinking alike! Check out this post to find out what Mark and Andrew have to say https://www.alcoholprofessor.com/blog-posts/rise-and-fall-of-american-cider-culture

About teapottipper

Folklore PhD Student. Gardener. Cook. Walker. Tea drinker.
This entry was posted in Cider Con, History, North America. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Did Prohibition Kill Cider? A Malus Myth Investigated

  1. oliverscider says:

    Great stuff Maria. Really good read and setting of the scene and context.

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