The United States Prohibition of Alcohol - 1920-1933

Leading up to Prohibition

Prohibition Parade
Prohibition Parade. Thinkstock Images / Stockbyte / Getty Images

U.S. Prohibition Era: January 16, 1920 through December 5, 1933

The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920's and 30's in the United States is one of most famous, or infamous, times in recent American history. The intention was to reduce the consumption of alcohol by eliminating businesses that manufactured, distributed and sold it. Considered by many as a failed social and political experiment, the era changed the way many Americans view alcoholic beverages, enhancing the realization that federal government control cannot always take the place of personal responsibility.

We associate the era with gangsters, bootleggers, speakeasies, rum-runners and an overall chaotic situation in respect to the social network of Americans. The period began in 1920 with general acceptance by the public and ended in 1933 as the result of the public's annoyance of the law and the ever-increasing enforcement nightmare.

The Temperance Movement

Temperance movements had long been active in the American political scene but the movement first became organized in the 1840's by religious denominations, primarily Methodists. This initial campaign started out strong and made a small amount of progress throughout the 1850's but shortly thereafter lost strength.

The dry movement saw a revival in the 1880's due to the increased campaigning of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (est. 1874) and the Prohibition Party (est. 1869). In 1893 the Anti-Saloon League was established and these three influential groups were the primary advocates for the eventual passage of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Prohibition Party

Also known as the Dry Party, the Prohibition Party was formed in 1869 for American political candidates who were in favor of the prohibition of alcohol in the country. The party believed that prohibition could not be achieved or maintained under the leadership of either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Dry candidates ran for local, state and national offices and the party's influence peaked in 1884. In the 1888 and 1892 presidential elections, the Prohibition Party held 2% of the popular vote.

The Anti-Saloon League

The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio. It began as a state organization that was in favor of prohibition and in 1895 became a strong influence in the United States.

As a non-partisan organization with ties to prohibitionists throughout the country, the Anti-Saloon League announced a campaign for the nationwide prohibition of alcohol. The league used the dislike for saloons by respectable people and conservative groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union to fuel the fire for prohibition.

In 1916 the organization was instrumental in electing supporters to both houses of Congress so that what would have become the 18th Amendment to the Constitution would have the 2/3 majority it needed to pass.

After the turn of the century, states and counties throughout the United States began passing local alcohol prohibition laws. Most of these early laws were passed in the rural South and stemmed from the concern of the behavior of those who drank as well as the culture of certain growing populations within the country, particularly the European immigrants.

The First World War added fuel to the dry movement's fire as the belief spread that the brewing and distilling industries were diverting precious grain, molasses and labor from wartime production. Beer took the biggest hit due to anti-German sentiment and names like Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz reminded people of the enemy American soldiers were fighting overseas.

Too Many Saloons

On the other side of the coin, the industry itself was bringing about its own demise and fueling the fire of the prohibitionists. Shortly before the turn of the century, the brewing industry saw a boom due to new technology that increased distribution and provided cold beer through mechanized refrigeration. Pabst, Anheuser-Busch and other brewers sought to increase their market by inundating the American cityscape with saloons.

To sell beer and whiskey by the glass, as opposed to by the bottle, increased profits and the companies took hold of this logic by starting their own saloons, paying saloonkeepers to stock only their beer, and punishing uncooperative keepers by offering their best bartenders an establishment of their own next door that would sell the brewer's brand exclusively.

This line of thinking was so out of control that at one time there was one saloon for every 150-200 people (including non-drinkers). These "unrespectable" establishments were often dirty and the competition for customers was growing. Saloonkeepers would try to lure patrons, particularly young men, by offering free lunches, gambling, cockfighting, prostitution and other "immoral" activities and services in their establishments.

The 18th Amendment

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by 36 states on January 16, 1919, and took effect one year later, beginning the era of Prohibition.

The first section of the amendment reads: "After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited".

Essentially, the 18th Amendment took the business licenses away from every brewer, distiller, vintner, wholesaler and retailer of alcoholic beverages in the United States in an attempt to reform an “unrespectable” segment of the population. Three months before it was to take effect, the Volstead Act, otherwise known as the National Prohibition Act of 1919, was passed and gave power to the “Commissioner of Internal Revenue, his assistants, agents, and inspectors” to enforce the 18th Amendment. The 18th Amendment is the only constitutional amendment that was repealed by another amendment (the 21st Amendment).

While it was illegal to manufacture or distribute “beer, wine, or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquors”, it was not illegal to possess it for personal use.

The provision allowed Americans to possess alcohol in their homes and partake with family and guests as long as it stayed inside and was not distributed, traded or even given away to anyone outside the home.

Medicinal and Sacramental Liquor

Another interesting provision to Prohibition was that alcohol was available via a physician’s prescription. For centuries liquor had been used for medicinal purposes; in fact, many of the liqueurs we know today were first developed as miracle cures for various ailments.

Despite the facts that in 1916 whiskey and brandy were removed from "The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America" and that in 1917 the American Medical Association stated that alcohol “use in therapeutics as a tonic or stimulant or for food has no scientific value” and voted in support of Prohibition, there was still a belief among many in liquor's medicinal benefits.

Because of this established belief that liquor could cure and prevent a variety of ailments, doctors were still able to prescribe liquor to patients on a specially designed government prescription form that could be filled at any pharmacy. When medicinal whiskey stocks were low the government would increase its production. As one may expect, a significant amount of the prescription alcohol supplies were diverted from their intended destinations by bootleggers and corrupt individuals during Prohibition.

Churches and clergy had a provision as well, which allowed them to receive wine for the sacrament. This also led to corruption, as there are many accounts of people certifying themselves as ministers and rabbis in order to obtain and distribute large quantities of sacramental wine.

The Goal of Prohibition

Immediately after the 18th Amendment went into effect there was a dramatic decrease in alcohol consumption that made many advocates hopeful that this "Noble Experiment" would be a success. In the early 1920’s the consumption rate was 30% lower than it was before Prohibition but later in the decade, as illegal supplies increased and a new generation began to ignore the law and reject the attitude of self-sacrifice, more Americans once again decided to indulge. In a sense, Prohibition was a success if only for the fact that it took years after repeal before consumption rates reached those of pre-Prohibition.

Advocates for Prohibition thought that once liquor licenses were revoked reform organizations and churches could persuade the American public not to drink, “liquor traffickers” would not oppose the new law and saloons would disappear.

There were two schools of thought amongst prohibitionists:

  • One group hoped to create educational campaigns and believed that within 30 years American would be a drink-free nation; however, they never received the support they were looking for.
  • The other group wanted to see vigorous enforcement that would essentially wipe out all alcohol supplies. This group was also disappointed as law enforcement could not get the support of the government they needed for an all-out enforcement campaign. It was the Depression, after all, and the funding was not there. With only 1,500 agents nationwide, they could not compete with the tens of thousands of individuals who either wanted to drink or wanted to profit from others drinking.

The Rebellion Against Prohibition

The innovation of Americans to get what they want is evident in the resourcefulness used to obtain alcohol during Prohibition. This era saw the rise of the speakeasy, home distiller, bootlegger, rum-runner and many of the gangster myths associated with it.

Many rural Americans began to make their own hooch, ‘near’ beer, and corn whiskey. Stills sprung up across the country and many people made a living during the Depression by supplying neighbors with moonshine. The mountains of the Appalachian states are famous for moonshiners and although it was decent enough to drink, the spirits that came out of these stills were often stronger than anything that could have been purchased before Prohibition. The moonshine would often be used to fuel the cars and trucks that carried the illegal liquor to their distribution points and the police chases of these transports have become equally famous (the origins of NASCAR). With all of the amateur distillers and brewers trying their hand at the craft, there are many accounts of things going wrong: stills blowing up, newly bottled beer exploding, and alcohol poisoning.

Rum-running also saw a revival as a trade in the United States. Liquor was smuggled in station wagons, trucks and boats from Mexico, Europe, Canada and the Caribbean. The term “The Real McCoy” came out of this era. It’s attributed to Captain William S. McCoy who facilitated most of the rum-running via ships during Prohibition and would never water down his imports, making his the “real” thing. McCoy, a non-drinker himself, began running rum from the Caribbean into Florida shortly after the beginning of Prohibition. One encounter with the Coast Guard shortly thereafter stopped McCoy from completing runs of his own. The innovative McCoy set up a network of smaller ships that would meet his boat just outside U.S. waters and carry his supplies into the country.

Speakeasies were underground bars that discreetly served patrons liquor, often including food service, live bands and shows. The term speakeasy is said to have come from bartenders telling patrons to “speak easy” when ordering so as not to be overheard some 30 years before Prohibition. Speakeasies were often unmarked establishments or were behind or underneath legal businesses. Corruption was rampant during the time and although raids were common, owners would bribe police officers to ignore their business or to give them notice of when a raid was planned. While the "speakeasy" was often funded by organized crime and could be very elaborate and upscale, the "blind pig" was a dive for the less desirable drinker.

Probably one of the most popular ideas of the time was that the mob held control of the majority of the illegal liquor trafficking. For the most part, this is untrue, although in concentrated areas gangsters did run the liquor racket. Chicago was one of those cities where they did control distribution. At the beginning of Prohibition the “Outfit” organized all of the local Chicago gangs and split the city and suburbs into areas, each of which would be controlled by a different gang who would handle the liquor sales within their district.

Underground breweries and distilleries were hidden throughout the city. Beer could easily be produced and distributed to meet the demand of the city but because many liquors require aging the stills in Chicago Heights and on Taylor and Division Streets could not produce fast enough and the majority of spirits were smuggled in from Canada. This distribution operation out of Chicago soon reached Milwaukee, Kentucky and Iowa.

The Outfit would sell liquor to the lower gangs at wholesale prices and even though the agreements were meant to be set in stone, corruption was rampant and without the ability to resolve conflicts in the courts, they often resorted to violence in retaliation. After Al Capone assumed control of the Outfit in 1925 one of the bloodiest gang wars in history ensued.

While Prohibition was originally intended to reduce beer consumption in particular, it ended up increasing the consumption of hard liquor. Brewing requires more space both in production and distribution than liquor, making it harder to conceal. This rise in the distilled spirit consumption of the time played a big part in the martini and mixed drink culture that we’re familiar with and “fashion” we associate with the era.

Why Was Prohibition Repealed?

The reality, despite the prohibitionist's propaganda, is that Prohibition was never really popular with the American public. Americans like to drink and there was even a rise in the number of women who drank during the era, which helped change the general perception of what it meant to be "respectable" (a term prohibitionists often used to refer to non-drinkers). It was also a logistical nightmare in terms of enforcement. There were never enough law enforcement officers to control all of the illegal operations associated with Prohibition and many of the officials were themselves corrupt.

It was one of the first acts taken by the Roosevelt administration to encourage changes to (and subsequently repeal) the 18th Amendment. It was a two-step process; the first was the Beer Revenue Act. This legalized beer and wine with alcohol content up to 3.2% alc/vol in April of 1933. The second step was to pass the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. With the words "The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed", Americans could once again drink legally and on December 5, 1933 the nationwide Prohibition was over.

The new laws left the matter of Prohibition up to state governments. Mississippi was the last state to repeal Prohibition in 1966 and all of the states have delegated the decision to prohibit or not to local municipalities. Today, many counties and towns in the country are still dry. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia have a high concentration of dry counties and in some places, it is even illegal to transport alcohol through the jurisdiction.

As a part of the repeal of Prohibition, the federal government enacted many of the regulatory statutes on the alcohol industry that are still in effect.

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