Take Two Shots of Whiskey Every 6 Hours: Medicinal Alcohol During Prohibition Era MSU

The AMS Co bottle recovered from the Brody/Emmons Complex - site of the East Lansing dump
The AMS Co bottle recovered from the Brody/Emmons Complex – site of the East Lansing dump

As archaeologists, some of our most common findings are in fact trash, the things people not longer want or need which are then thrown away.  As a result, dump sites, or middens, are some of the best contexts from which to reconstruct the lives of past people. The Brody/Emmons Site (location of the old East Lansing Dump) has given us here at CAP a large swath of different kinds artifacts which has allowed us to catch a glimpse of the lives of those on campus or from East Lansing during the first half of the 20th century.  Unsurprisingly, a large number of alcohol bottles were found.  Throughout this academic year, I have written two previous blogs over some of these bottles (liquor on campus and one over a gin bottle) as has Jeff Painter.  Each of these bottles present a unique history or has an interesting story that may otherwise not be told.

The liquor bottle for this post is a clear, one pint whiskey bottle with “THE A-M-S CO” embossed on one side near the base.  The “AMS” stands for American Medicinal Spirits, a distilling company that was started by the Wathen brothers, Otho and Richard Eugene.  The brothers came from a long line of distillers in Kentucky, dating back to some of the early settlers in the area (Odell 2004).  AMS was not their first distilling company, but it might be one of their most interesting.  The company was started around 1920, during Prohibition.  As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, Prohibition (known as the18th Amendment or the Volstead Act) did not ban the consumption of alcohol, but the production, transport, and sale of it. If it was technically illegal to distill whiskey during the Prohibition years of 1920-1933, how were the Wathen brothers even able to start a distillery during the first few years after the 18th Amendment was passed? They found a loophole.

Close up of company makers mark "The AMS Co"
Close up of company makers mark “The AMS Co”
Alcohol prescription slip distributed to doctors by the U.S. Department of the Treasury during Prohibition. Image source
Alcohol prescription slip distributed to doctors by the U.S. Department of the Treasury during Prohibition. Image source

As the name “American Medicinal Spirits Company” implies, alcohol produced by AMS Co. was intended for medical purposes.  At the time of Prohibition, many doctors believed that alcohol could be beneficial to one’s health if taken in appropriate doses.  Maladies that alcohol was supposed to have help with included tuberculosis, high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease, pneumonia, cancer, anemia, and many others (Nespor 2010; Appel 2008).  While Prohibition had mostly religious underpinnings, many doctors saw the enactment of the Volstead Act (and subsequent additions further restricting medicinal alcohol) as government overreach and its interference in their medical practices (Appel 2008).  As a result, prescription pads for medicinal alcohol were issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and liquor could only be prescribed under certain circumstances and in federally regulated amounts (Nespor 2010).  In addition to paying for the alcohol itself (which cost around $3 or $4), patients would have to pay an additional prescription fee of $3, making it costly to legally obtain liquor which was in regulated quantities (Gambino 2013).  Individuals who did legally obtain liquor could receive one pint every ten days and were required to glue their prescription slip on to the back of the bottle.  However, most bottles from this period with still intact labels do not have the prescription on the back either from people not caring or that many pints were sold illegally (Appel 2008).

"Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of This Bottle"
“Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of This Bottle”

As most of the distilleries in the country shut down from Prohibition, AMS opened up and filled a need in the small and legal liquor market.  However the presence of the embossment that reads “Federal Law Forbids Sale or Re-Use Of This Bottle” means this specific bottles was produced between 1935-1964 (glassbottlemarks.com), post dating the repeal of prohibition.  In 1929, before the repeal of the Volstead Act, the Wathen brothers sold AMS Co. to National Distillers.  Some records indicate that Otho became Vice President of National Distillers but then mostly left the business around the repeal while Richard appears to have continued in the liquor industry.  Nevertheless, AMS Co. was one of the few companies at the ready for when Prohibition ended in 1933 and was incredibly successful in the following years.  Numerous brands of liquor operated under the name of American Medicinal Spirits Co., with Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon being one of the longest lasting (although Old Crow is now produced by Beam Suntory which also produced Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark).  Patent records indicate that the name “American Medicinal Spirits” has not been renewed since the mid-1970s.  National Distillers was sold to Beam Suntory in 1987, meaning that AMS has mostly dissolved, although products of its legacy are still consumed today.

The discovery of this bottle in the Brody Dump tells an interesting story of a company that legally skirted prohibition regulations of alcohol sales.  Since the East Lansing dump under the Brody complex closed in the late 1930s, this bottle could only have been produced and consumed within a tight window of time.  Was this particular brand purchased because it was familiar from the prohibition years? Was the owner previously prescribed whiskey? Unfortunately these are questions we will never know the answer to.  However, it is through discoveries like these that we can add more pieces to the puzzle of what life was like in this area during the first half of the 20th century and how students may have coped with maladies (or thirst…) during Prohibition.

References:

Appel, Jacob M, 2008. “Physicians are Not Bootleggers”: The Short, Peculiar Life of the Medicinal Alcohol Movement. Bulletin of the history of medicine 82.2: 355-86.

Gambino, Megan, 2013. During Prohibition, Your Doctor Could Write You a Prescription for Booze: Take two shots of whiskey and call me in the morning. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/during-prohibition-your-doctor-could-write-you-prescription-booze-180947940/#

Nespor, Cassie, 2007. Medicinal Alcohol and Prohibition. Blog of the Melnick Medical History Museum, posted April 7, 2010. (https://melnickmedicalmuseum.com/2010/04/07/medicinal-alcohol-and-prohibition/)

Odell, Digger, 2004. American Medicinal Spirits Company

“Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of this Bottle”



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