What the rise of the milkshake had to do with Prohibition, Chicago's South Side, and a local pharmacy chain called Walgreens.
Happy National Chocolate Milkshake Day!
OK, it's a "holiday" whipped up by the dairy lobby. But it’s also an excuse to remember Prohibition-era Chicago's role in creating this frothy favorite.
Though the word “milkshake” first appeared in print in the 1880s, the milkshake as we know it emerged from the soda counter of a then-local Chicago pharmacy chain called Walgreens. Charles Walgreen opened his first store at the corner of Bowen Ave and Cottage Grove in 1901. Twelve years later, there were four Walgreens scattered throughout the South Side; by 1926, Walgreen had opened 100 of his pharmacies in the city.
According to Walgreens lore, the pharmacy‘s fast-growing popularity was due in part to the malted milkshake, which it invented in 1922. “Customers stood three and four deep around the soda fountain to buy the ‘double-rich chocolate malted milk,’” the company writes on its site.
But something else was happening in the 1920s: Prohibition. The 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States, went into effect at the beginning of the decade. According to writer Daniel Okrent, author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”, this was a convenient time to be a drugstore: The law still permitted “patients” to get “prescriptions” for liquor—typically one pint every 10 days. And the patina of legality gave pharmacies the means to sell booze for less "medicinal" use. "[I]t’s doubtful that milk shakes alone were responsible for Walgreens rocketing expansion from 20 stores to an astonishing 525 during the 1920s," Okrent writes.
Milkshake mogul Walgreen was not the only Chicagoan to benefit from the medicinal-liquor loophole. Crafty city pharmacist-turned-lawyer Charles Remus bought up fourteen Midwestern distilleries during Prohibition. Though his liquor-producing business was, in fact, legal, what happened during the shipment phase was not. As Okrent explains, Remus’s employees would hijack their own trucks, diverting the legal liquor into the untaxed bootleg market.
And that bootleg market was unquestionably centered in Chicago. The era's most notorious gangsters—Al Capone, Bugs Moran—operated their multimillion-dollar alcohol empires out of the Windy City. Which was, not coincidentally, the country's main shipping and transportation hub.
So let’s lift our milkshakes this Friday in honor of Chicago entrepreneurs like Charles Walgreen, Charles Remus, and maybe even Al Capone. If you really want to do them proud, slip some whiskey in there.