Prohibition Era

Prohibition in the United States was a national ban on the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol, in place from 1920 to 1933.[1] The dry movement was led by rural Protestants in both political parties and was coordinated by the Anti-Saloon League. The ban was mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and the Volstead Act set down the rules for enforcing the ban and defined the types of alcoholic beverages that were prohibited. Private ownership and consumption of alcohol was not made illegal under federal law, but in many areas local laws were stricter and some states banned possession outright. Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, on December 5, 1933.

The introduction of alcohol prohibition and its subsequent enforcement in law was a hotly debated issue. Prohibitionists at the time presented it as a victory for public morals and health, but once the laws were passed they did little to help enforce them. The consumption of alcohol overall went down by half in the 1920s and it remained below pre-Prohibition levels until the 1940s.[2]

Anti-prohibitionists ("wets") criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural Protestant ideals on a central aspect of urban, immigrant and Catholic everyday life. Effective enforcement of the alcohol ban during the Prohibition Era proved to be very difficult and led to widespread flouting of the law. The lack of a solid popular consensus for the ban resulted in the growth of vast criminal organizations, including the modern American Mafia and various other criminal cliques. Widespread disregard of the law also generated rampant corruption among politicians and within police forces.


The Senate proposed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 18, 1917. Having been approved by 36 states, the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and went into effect on January 16, 1920.[3]

On November 18, 1918, before the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, the United States Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 2.75%.[4] (This act, which was intended to save grain for the war effort, was passed after the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.) The Wartime Prohibition Act took effect June 30, 1919, and July 1, 1919 became widely known as the "Thirsty-First".[5][6]

Congress passed the Volstead Act, the popular name for the National Prohibition Act, over President Woodrow Wilson's veto on October 28, 1919, and established the legal definition of intoxicating liquor, as well as penalties for producing it.[7] Though the Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol, the federal government did little to enforce it. By 1925, in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.[8]

While Prohibition was successful in reducing the amount of liquor consumed, it stimulated the proliferation of rampant underground, organized and widespread criminal activity.[9] Many were astonished and disenchanted with the rise of spectacular gangland crimes (such as Chicago's St. Valentine's Day massacre), when prohibition was supposed to reduce crime. Prohibition lost its advocates one by one, while the wet opposition talked of personal liberty, new tax revenues from legal beer and liquor, and the scourge of organized crime.[10]

On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, legalizing alcohol content of 3.2% (by weight) and wine of similarly low alcohol content. On December 5, 1933, the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. However, United States federal law still prohibits the manufacture of distilled spirits without meeting numerous licensing requirements that make it impractical to produce spirits for personal beverage use.[11]


The consumption of alcoholic beverages has been a contentious topic in America since the colonial period.

In May 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts made the sale of strong liquor "whether known by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy, etc." illegal.[12]

In general, informal social controls in the home and community helped maintain the expectation that the abuse of alcohol was unacceptable. "Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was a personal indiscretion."[13] When informal controls failed, there were always legal ones.

Shortly after the U.S. obtained independence, the Whiskey Rebellion took place in Western Pennsylvania in protest of government-imposed taxes on whiskey. Although the taxes were primarily levied to help pay down the newly formed national debt, it also received support from some social reformers, who hoped a "sin tax" would raise public awareness about the harmful effects of alcohol.[14] The whiskey tax was repealed after Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party, which opposed the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, came to power in 1800.[15]

One of the foremost physicians of the late 18th century, Benjamin Rush, believed in moderation rather than prohibition; in his 1784 treatise "The Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind", Rush argued that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to physical and psychological health and went so far as to label drunkenness as a disease.[16] Apparently influenced by Rush's widely discussed belief, about 200 farmers in a Connecticut community formed a temperance association in 1789. Similar associations were formed in Virginia in 1800 and New York in 1808.[17]

Within the next decade, other temperance organizations were formed in eight states, some being statewide organizations. The words of Rush and other early temperance reformers served to dichotomize the use of alcohol for men and women. While men enjoyed drinking and often considered it vital to their health, women who began to embrace the ideology of 'true motherhood' refrained from consumption of alcohol. Middle-class women were considered the moral authorities of their households and consequently rejected the drinking of alcohol, which was considered a threat to the home.[17]

In 1830, on average, Americans consumed 1.7 bottles of hard liquor per week, three times the amount consumed in 2010.[9]

Development of the Prohibition movement

The American Temperance Society (ATS), 1826, helped to initiate the first temperance movement and consequently served as a foundation for many later groups. By 1835, the ATS had reached 1.5 million members, with women constituting 35-60% of individual chapters.[18]

The prohibition, or "dry", movement continued in the 1840s, spearheaded by pietistic religious denominations, especially the Methodists. The late 19th century saw the temperance movement broaden its focus from abstinence to all behavior and institutions related to alcohol consumption. Preachers such as Reverend Mark A. Matthews linked liquor-dispensing saloons with prostitution.

Some successes were registered in the 1850s, including Maine's total ban on the manufacture and sale of liquor, adopted in 1851. However, the ban in Maine was repealed in 1856. The movement soon lost strength, and was marginalized during the American Civil War (1861–1865).

"Save A Little Dram For Me"
File:Save a Little Dram for Me.ogg
Prohibition era song recorded by Thomas Edison studio, 1922. Duration 3:29.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The issue was revived by the Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873. The WCTU advocated the prohibition of alcohol as a method for preventing abuse from alcoholic husbands.[19] One of its methods to achieve that goal was education. It was believed that if it could "get to the children" it could create a "dry" sentiment leading to prohibition. Frances Willard, the second president of the WCTU, held the aims of the organization were to create a "union of women from all denominations, for the purpose of educating the young, forming a better public sentiment, reforming the drinking classes, transforming by the power of Divine grace those who are enslaved by alcohol, and removing the dram-shop from our streets by law."[20] While still denied universal voting privileges, women in the WCTU followed Frances Willard's "Do Everything" doctrine and used temperance as a method of entering into politics and furthering other progressive issues such as prison reform and labor laws.[21]

In 1881, Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcoholic beverages in its Constitution, with Carrie Nation gaining notoriety for enforcing the provision herself by walking into saloons, scolding customers, and using her hatchet to destroy bottles of liquor. Nation recruited ladies into the Carrie Nation Prohibition Group, which Nation also led. While Carrie Nation's vigilante techniques were rare, other activists enforced the cause by entering saloons, singing, praying, and urging saloon keepers to stop selling alcohol.[22] Many other states, especially in the South, also enacted prohibition, along with many individual counties.

Many court cases also debated the subject under different lights and for different situations. There was an overall lean towards prohibition; however, many cases still ruled opposed to the believed effects. In Mugler v. Kansas, 1887, Justice Harlan, wrote, "We cannot shut out of view the fact, within the knowledge of all, that the public health, the public morals, and the public safety, may be endangered by the general use of intoxicating drinks; nor the fact established by statistics accessible to every one, that the idleness, disorder, pauperism and crime existing in the country, are, in some degree... traceable to this evil."[23] In support of prohibition, Crowley v. Christensen, 1890, said, "The statistics of every state show a greater amount of crime and misery attributable to the use of ardent spirits obtained at these retail liquor saloons than to any other source."[23]

The proliferation of neighborhood saloons in the post-Civil War era was a phenomenon of an increasingly industrialized, urban workforce. “Workingmen” bars were popular social gathering places of respite from both the workplace and the domesticity of home and family life. The brewing industry itself was actively involved in establishing a lucrative consumer base in the business chain. The saloons were more often than not “tie-ins” where the saloon keeper‘s operation was financed by a brewer and was contractually obligated to sell the brewer’s product to the exclusion of any and all other competing brands. The business model often included the concept of the “free lunch” —a bill of fare commonly consisting of heavily salted food meant to induce thirst and the purchase of drink.[24] In the Progressive Era (1890–1920), hostility to saloons and their political influence became widespread, with the Anti-Saloon League superseding the Prohibition Party and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as the most influential advocate of prohibition, when the latter two groups chose to piggyback other social reform issues, such as women's suffrage, onto their prohibition platform.

Prohibition was an important force in state and local politics from the 1840s through the 1930s. The political forces involved were ethnoreligious in character, as demonstrated by numerous historical studies.[25] Prohibition was demanded by the "dries" – primarily pietistic Protestant denominations, especially the Methodists, Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, New School Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, Quakers and Scandinavian Lutherans. They identified saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin. Other active organizations included the Women's Church Federation, the Women's Temperance Crusade, and the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. They were opposed by the "wets" – primarily liturgical Protestants (Episcopalians, German Lutherans) and Roman Catholics, who denounced the idea that the government should define morality.[26] Even in the wet stronghold of New York City there was an active prohibition movement, led by Norwegian church groups and African-American labor activists who believed that Prohibition would benefit workers, especially African-Americans. Tea merchants and soda fountain manufacturers generally supported Prohibition, thinking a ban on alcohol would increase sales of their products.[27]

Prohibition represented a conflict between urban and rural values emerging in the United States. Given the mass influx of immigrants to the urban dwellings of the United States, many individuals within the prohibition movement associated the crime and morally corrupt behavior of the cities of America with their large immigrant populations. In a backlash to the new emerging realities of the American demographic, many prohibitionists subscribed to the doctrine of “nativism” in which they endorsed the notion that America was made great as a result of its white Anglo-Saxon ancestry. This fostered xenophobic sentiments towards urban immigrant communities who typically argued in favor of abolishing prohibition.[28] Additionally, these nativist sentiments were a part of a larger process of Americanization taking place during the same time period.[29]

Two other amendments to the constitution were championed by "dries" to help their cause. The Federal income tax replaced the alcohol taxes that funded the federal government.[30]p.57 Also, since women tended to support prohibition, temperance organizations supported women's suffrage.[30]

In the 1916 presidential election, both Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson and Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes ignored the Prohibition issue, as was the case with both parties' political platforms. Democrats and Republicans had strong wet and dry factions, and the election was expected to be close, with neither candidate wanting to alienate any part of his political base.

In January 1917, the 65th Congress convened, in which the dries outnumbered the wets by 140 to 64 in the Democratic Party and 138 to 62 among Republicans. With America's declaration of war against Germany in April, German-Americans—a major force against prohibition—were sidelined and their protests subsequently ignored. In addition, a new justification for prohibition arose: prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages would allow more resources—especially the grain that would otherwise be used to make alcohol—to be devoted to the war effort. While "war prohibition" was a spark for the movement,[31] by the time Prohibition was enacted, the war was over.

A resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment to accomplish nationwide Prohibition was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses in December 1917. By January 16, 1919, the Amendment had been ratified by thirty-six of the forty-eight states. Eventually, only two of those states—Connecticut and Rhode Island—failed to ratify it.[32][33] On October 28, 1919, the Amendment was implemented by the Volstead Act.

Start of national prohibition (January 1920)

Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. A total of 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents (police) were given the task of enforcing the law.

Although it was highly controversial, Prohibition was widely supported by diverse groups. Progressives believed that it would improve society as generally did women, southerners, those living in rural areas and African-Americans. There were a few exceptions such as the Woman’s Organization for Prohibition Reform who fought against it. Will Rogers often joked about the southern pro-prohibitionists: "The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls." Supporters of the Amendment soon became quite confident that it would not be repealed, to the point that one of its creators, Senator Morris Sheppard, joked that "there is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."[34]

At the same time, songs emerged decrying the act; after Edward, Prince of Wales, returned to Britain following his 1919 tour of Canada, he recounted to his father, King George V, a ditty he'd heard at a border town:

Four and twenty Yankees, feeling very dry,
Went across the border to get a drink of rye.
When the rye was opened, the Yanks began to sing,
"God bless America, but God save the King!"[35]

The issue of Prohibition became a highly controversial one among medical professionals, because alcohol was widely prescribed by physicians of the era for therapeutic purposes. Congress held hearings on the medicinal value of beer in 1921. Subsequently, physicians across the country lobbied for the repeal of Prohibition as it applied to medicinal liquors.[36]

While the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol was illegal in the U.S., Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed the making at home of wine and cider from fruit (but not beer). Up to 200 gallons per year could be made, and some vineyards grew grapes for home use. Also, one anomaly of the Act as worded was that it did not actually prohibit the consumption of alcohol; many people actually stockpiled wines and liquors for their own use in the latter part of 1919 before sales of alcohol became illegal the following January.

Alcoholic drinks were not always illegal in all neighboring countries. Distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed by visiting Americans or smuggled to the U.S. The Detroit River, which forms part of the border with Canada, was notoriously difficult to control. And when the United States Government complained to the British government that its law was being undermined by officials in Nassau, The Bahamas, the British Colonial Office head refused to intervene.[37] Winston Churchill believed that Prohibition was "an affront to the whole history of mankind".[38]

Chicago became a haven for Prohibition dodgers during the time known as the "Roaring Twenties". Many of Chicago's most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and his enemy Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the decade Capone controlled all 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Numerous other crimes, including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activities in Chicago and elsewhere in violation of prohibition.

Three separate Federal Agencies were to enforce the Volstead Act:

  • United States Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement[39][40]
  • US Treasury Department IRS Bureau of Prohibition[41][42]
  • US Department of Justice Bureau of Prohibition[43][44]

Unpopularity of prohibition and repeal movement

Main article: Repeal of Prohibition

File:Repeal of Prohibition newsreel ca1933.ogv

As early as 1925, journalist H. L. Mencken believed that Prohibition was not working.[45] As the prohibition years continued, more of the country’s populace came to see prohibition as illustrative of class distinctions, a law unfairly biased in its administration favoring social elites. "Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor." [46] Historian Lizabeth Cohen writes: “ A rich family could have a cellar-full of liquor, but if a poor family had a bottle of home-brew, there would be trouble.” Working-class people were inflamed by the fact that their employers could dip into a cache of private stock while they, the employees, were denied a similar indulgence.[47]

Indeed, before the date that the Eighteenth Amendment became national law, many of the upper classes stockpiled alcohol for home consumption. They bought out the inventories of warehouses, saloons, club store rooms, they emptied out liquor retailers and wholesalers. American lawmakers themselves followed these practices at the highest levels of government. President Woodrow Wilson moved his own supply of alcoholic beverages to his Washington residence after his term of office ended. His successor, Warren G. Harding relocated his own large supply into the White House after inauguration.[48][49]

In October 1930, just two weeks before the Congressional midterm elections, bootlegger George Cassiday, "the man in the green hat," came forward and told how he had bootlegged for ten years for Congress. One of the few bootleggers ever to tell his story, he wrote five front page articles in The Washington Post. He estimated that eighty percent of congressmen and senators drank, even though these same people were the ones passing dry laws. This had a significant impact on the midterm election, which saw Congress shift from a dry Republican majority to a wet Democratic majority. The Democrats understood that Prohibition was unpopular and called for its repeal.[50]

As Prohibition became increasingly unpopular, especially in the big cities, "Repeal" was eagerly anticipated. Economic urgency played no small part in accelerating the advocacy for repeal. Prior to 1920, and the institution of the Volstead Act, approximately fourteen percent of federal, state and local tax revenue was derived from alcohol commerce. The government badly needed income and further felt that reinstating the manufacture and sale of alcohol would create desperately needed jobs for the unemployed.[51]

On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of "3.2 beer" (3.2% alcohol by weight, approximately 4% alcohol by volume) and light wines. The original Volstead Act had defined "intoxicating beverage" as one with greater than 0.5% alcohol.[7] Upon signing the amendment, Roosevelt made his famous remark; "I think this would be a good time for a beer."[52]

Repeal of prohibition (April 1933)

The Cullen-Harrison Act became law on April 7, 1933, and on April 8, 1933, Anheuser-Busch, Inc. sent a team of Clydesdale horses to deliver a case of Budweiser to the White House. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933 with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. Despite the efforts of Heber J. Grant, the president of the LDS Church, a Utah convention helped ratify the 21st Amendment.[53] While Utah can be considered the deciding 36th state to ratify the Amendment and make it law, the day Utah approved the Amendment, both Pennsylvania and Ohio approved it as well.

One of the main reasons why enforcement of prohibition did not proceed smoothly was the inefficient means of enforcing the laws set forth by the 18th amendment. From its very inception, the law lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the public who had previously been drinkers and yet completely law-abiding citizens. The public in some instances viewed the laws as being “arbitrary and unnecessary” and therefore were willing to breach them. Consequently, law enforcement agents who had not been bribed to turn a blind eye found themselves overwhelmed by the dramatic rise in the illegal distribution of alcohol on such a wide scale due to the Volstead Act. The scale of the task was not anticipated and consequently the necessary resources to pursue it were not allocated. Additionally, enforcement of the 18th amendment lacked centralized authority and many attempts to impose prohibitionist laws were deterred due to the lack of transparency between federal and state authorities. Furthermore, the reality of American geography contributed significantly to the difficulties in enforcing prohibition. The terrain of valleys, mountains, lakes and swamps as well as the extensive seaways, ports and massive borders running along Canada and Mexico made it exceedingly difficult for prohibition agents to stop bootleggers given their lack of resources. Ultimately it was recognized with its repeal that the means by which the law was to be enforced was not pragmatic, and that in many cases the legislature did not match the general public opinion.[54]

Prohibition was a major blow for the alcohol industry and repeal was therefore a step toward the amelioration of one sector of the economy. A perfect example for this is the case of St. Louis. The city had been one of the most important alcohol producers before prohibition started and was ready to take back its position as soon as possible. Its major brewery had "50,000 barrels" of beer ready to be sent since March 22. It was the first alcohol producer to refill the market, but others followed. This slowly allowed stores to obtain alcohol after, of course, having obtained a license. The restart of beer production allowed thousands of workers to find jobs again.[55]

Prohibition created a black market that competed with the formal economy, which already was under pressure. Roosevelt was elected based on the New Deal, which promised improvement to the economy that was only possible if the formal economy competed successfully against various economic forces, including the effects of prohibition's black market. This influenced his support for ratifying the 21st amendment, which repealed the 18th amendment that had established prohibition.[56]


The Twenty-first Amendment does not prevent states from restricting or banning alcohol. This led to a patchwork of laws in which alcohol may be legally sold in some but not all towns or counties within a particular state. After repeal of the 18th amendment, some states continued to enforce prohibition laws. Mississippi, which had made alcohol illegal in 1907, was the last state to repeal Prohibition in 1966. Kansas did not allow sale of liquor "by the drink" (on-premises) until 1987. To the present day, there are still numerous "dry" counties and towns in the United States that restrict or prohibit liquor sales.[57]

Additionally, many tribal governments prohibit alcohol on Indian reservations. Federal law also prohibits alcohol on Indian reservations,[58] although this law is currently only enforced if there is a concomitant violation of local tribal liquor laws.[59] The federal law prohibiting alcohol in Indian country pre-dates the Eighteenth Amendment. No constitutional changes were necessary prior to the passage of this law, as Indian Reservations and federal territories have always been considered areas of direct federal jurisdiction.

At the end of Prohibition, some supporters openly admitted its failure. A letter written in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states:[60]

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

It is not clear if Prohibition did reduce per-capita consumption of alcohol. While some historians claim that not until the 1960s did consumption in the United States exceed pre-Prohibition levels.[61] others claim that the consumption levels of alcohol reached the pre-prohibition levels several years after its enactment, and have risen afterwards.[62] Cirrhosis of the liver, normally a result of alcoholism, dropped nearly 2/3 during Prohibition.[63][64]

Regardless, in the decades after Prohibition Americans gradually shed any stigma they might have had against alcohol. According to a Gallup Poll survey conducted almost every year since 1939, some two-thirds of American adults 18 and older drink alcohol.[65]

Prohibition and pietistic Protestantism

Prohibition in the early to mid-twentieth century was fueled by the Protestant denominations in the U.S.[66] Pietistic churches in the U.S. sought to end drinking and the saloon culture during the Third Party System. Liturgical ("high") churches (Catholic, Episcopal, German Lutheran) opposed prohibition laws because they did not want the government redefining morality to a narrow standard and criminalizing the common liturgical practice of using wine.[67]

Revivalism in Second Great Awakening and the Third Great Awakening in the mid and late 19th century set the stage for the bond between pietistic Protestantism and prohibition in the United States: “The greater prevalence of revival religion within a population, the greater support for the Prohibition parties within that population.”[68] Historian Nancy Koester expressed the belief that Prohibition was a “victory for progressives and social gospel activists battling poverty”.[69] Prohibition also united progressives and revivalists.[70]

Effects of the Prohibition

Organized crime

Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. Mafia groups limited their activities to prostitution, gambling, and theft until 1920, when organized bootlegging emerged in response to the effect of Prohibition.[71] A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Powerful criminal gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies, leading to racketeering. In essence, prohibition provided a financial basis for organized crime to flourish.[72]

Rather than reducing crime, Prohibition had transformed the cities into battlegrounds between opposing bootlegging gangs. In a study of over 30 major U.S cities during the prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicide by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6% and police department costs rose by 11.4%. This was largely the result of “black-market violence” as well as the diverting of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the hope of the prohibitionist movement that the outlawing of alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations.[73]

Furthermore, stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. As a response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add more deadly poisons, including the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. New York City medical examiners prominently opposed these policies because of the danger to human life. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.[74]

New York City medical examiner Charles Norris believed the government took responsibility for murder when they knew the poison was not deterring people and they continued to poison industrial alcohol (which would be used in drinking alcohol) anyway. Charles Norris said, "The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol..."[Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible." [75]

Another lethal substance that was often substituted for alcohol was "canned heat," also commonly known as Sterno. Forcing the substance through a makeshift filter, such as a handkerchief, created a rough liquor substitute. However, the result was poisonous, though not often lethal. Many of those who were poisoned as a result united to sue the government for reparations after the end of Prohibition.[76]

Making alcohol at home was very common during Prohibition. Stores sold grape concentrate with warning labels that listed the steps that should be avoided to prevent the juice from fermenting into wine. As well, some drug stores would sell a "medical wine" with around a 22% alcohol content; in order to justify the sale, the wine was given a medicinal taste.[76] Home-distilled hard liquor was referred to as “bathtub gin” in northern cities, and moonshine in the rural areas of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Homebrewing good hard liquor was easier than brewing good beer.[76] Since selling privately distilled alcohol was illegal and bypassed taxation by the government, the law relentlessly pursued manufacturers.[77]

In response, the bootleggers in southern states started creating their own souped-up, stock-looking cars by enhancing their cars’ engines and suspensions to create a faster vehicle. Having a faster vehicle during Prohibition, they presumed, would improve their chances of outrunning and escaping agents of the Bureau of Prohibition, commonly called "revenue agents" or "revenuers." These cars became known as “moonshine runners” or "'shine runners".[78] Shops were also known to participate in the underground liquor market, by loading their stocks with ingredients for liquors, which anyone could legally purchase (these include: benedictine, vermouth, scotch mash, and even ethyl alcohol).[79]

Prohibition also had a large effect on the music industry in the United States, specifically with jazz. Speakeasies became far more popular during that time, and the effects of the Great Depression caused a migration that led to a greater dispersal of jazz music. Movement began from New Orleans and went north through Chicago and to New York. This led to the development of different styles in different cities. Because of its popularity in speakeasies and the development of more advanced recording devices, jazz became very popular very quickly. It was also at the forefront of the minimal integration efforts going on at the time, as it united mostly black musicians with mostly white audiences.[80]

Along with other economic effects, the enactment of prohibition and the resulting enforcement and the resources dedicated to it increased. During the 1920s, the annual budget of the Bureau of Prohibition went from $4.4 million to $13.4 million. Additionally, the Coast Guard spent an average of $13 million annually on prohibition.[81] These numbers do not take into account the costs to local and state governments.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, organized crime lost nearly all of its black market alcohol profits in most states (states still had the right to enforce their own laws concerning alcohol consumption) because of competition with legal liquor stores selling alcohol at lower prices.

Other impacts

As a result of prohibition, the advancements of industrialization within the alcohol industry were essentially reversed. This was achieved by large scale alcohol producers being shut down for the most part and individual citizens taking it upon themselves to produce alcohol illegally. This process reversed the efficiency of mass-producing and retailing alcoholic beverages. Closing manufacturing plants and taverns resulted in economic reversal. The Eighteenth Amendment originally did not have this effect on the industry due to its failure to define what an “intoxicating” beverage was. The Volstead Act’s definition of 0.5% or more alcohol by volume constituting “intoxicating” shut down the brewers who had expected to still be able to produce beer of moderate strength.[82]

As the saloon began to die out, public drinking lost much of its macho connotation, resulting in increased social acceptance of women drinking in the semi-public environment of the speakeasies. This new norm established women as a notable new target demographic for alcohol marketeers, who sought to expand their clientele.[82]

In the year before the Volstead Act became law, it was estimated by the 1930 Prohibition Commissioner that the average drinking American spent $17 per year on alcoholic beverages. By 1930, because enforcement diminished the supply, this had increased to $35 per year (there was no inflation in this period), resulting in an illegal alcohol beverage industry that made an average of $3 billion per year in illegal untaxed income.[83]

Heavy drinkers and alcoholics were among the most affected parties during prohibition. Those who were determined to find liquor could still do so, but those who saw their drinking habits as destructive typically had difficulty in finding the help they sought. The self-help societies had withered away along with the alcohol industry and in 1935 a new self-help group was founded: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).[82]

Prohibition had a notable effect on the alcohol brewing industry in the United States. When Prohibition ended, only half the breweries that previously existed reopened. Wine historians also note Prohibition destroyed what was a fledgling wine industry in the United States. Productive wine quality grape vines were replaced by lower quality vines growing thicker skinned grapes that could be more easily transported. Much of the institutional knowledge was also lost as winemakers either emigrated to other wine producing countries or left the business altogether.[84] Distilled spirits became more popular during Prohibition,[76] and because of its higher alcohol content in comparison to fermented wine and beer, mixing and watering down the hard alcohol also became common.[76]

Winemaking during Prohibition

The Volstead Act specifically allowed individual farmers to make certain wines "on the legal fiction that it was a non-intoxicating fruit-juice for home consumption",[85] and many people did so. Enterprising grape farmers produced liquid and semi-solid grape concentrates, often called "wine bricks" or "wine blocks".[86] This demand led California grape growers to increase their land under cultivation by about 700% in the first five years of prohibition. The grape concentrate was sold with a warning: "After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine."[13] One grape block producer sold nine varieties: Port, Virginia Dare, Muscatel, Angelica, Tokay, Sauterne, Riesling, Claret and Burgundy.

The Volstead Act allowed the sale of sacramental wine to priests and ministers, and allowed rabbis to approve sales of wine to individual Jews for Sabbath and holiday home sacramental use. The Bureau of Internal Revenue had a list of ecumenical organizations that could be used for verifying licensure. Among the Jews, four rabbinical groups were approved. This led to some conflicts for membership, as the supervision of sacramental licenses could be provide donations to support a religious institution. There was known abuse in this system, as the loophole was also used to purchase wine by imposters or unauthorized agents.[30][87]

See also



  • full text online
  • Kingsdale, Jon M. "The 'Poor Man's Club': Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon," in JSTOR
  • Kyvig; David E. Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition Greenwood Press, 1985.
  • Lender, Mark, ed. Dictionary of American Temperance Biography Greenwood Press, 1984
  • Miron, Jeffrey A. and Jeffrey Zwiebel. “Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition.” American Economic Review 81, no. 2 (1991): 242-247.
  • Miron, Jeffrey A. "Alcohol Prohibition" Eh.Net Encyclopedia (2005)
  • Moore, L.J. "Historical interpretation of the 1920s Klan: the traditional view and the popular revision" in JSTOR
  • Sellman; James Clyde. "Social Movements and the Symbolism of Public Demonstrations: The 1874 Women's Crusade and German Resistance in Richmond, Indiana" Journal of Social History. Volume: 32. Issue: 3. 1999. pp 557+.
  • Rumbarger; John J. Profits, Power, and Prohibition: Alcohol Reform and the Industrializing of America, 1800–1930, State University of New York Press, 1989.
  • Sinclair; Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess 1962.
  • Timberlake, James. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900–1920 Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Tracy, Sarah W. and Caroline Jean Acker; Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800–2000. University of Massachusetts Press, 2004
  • Walsh, Victor A. "'Drowning the Shamrock': Drink, Teetotalism and the Irish Catholics of Gilded-Age Pittsburgh," Journal of American Ethnic History vol. 10, no. 1-2 (Fall 1990-Winter 1991): 60-79.
  • Lusk, Rufus S. "The Drinking Habit". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Volume: 163. Prohibition: A National Experiment. September, 1932. 46-52.
  • Willing, Joseph K. "The Profession of Bootlegging". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Volume: 125. Modern Crime: Its Prevention and Punishment. May, 1926. 40-48.
  • Hopkins, Richard J. "The Prohibition and Crime". The North American Review. Volume: 222. Number: 828. September, 1925. 40-44.

Further reading

  • Behr, Edward. (1996). Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-356-3.
  • Blumenthal, Karen. (2011). Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. New York: Roaring Brook Press. ISBN 1-59643-449-X.
  • Burns, Eric. (2003). The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 1-59213-214-6.
  • Clark, Norman H. (1976). Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-05584-1.
  • Kahn, Gordon, and Al Hirschfeld. (1932, rev. 2003). The Speakeasies of 1932. New York: Glenn Young Books. ISBN 1-55783-518-7.
  • Kobler, John. (1973). Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-399-11209-X.
  • Lerner, Michael A. (2007). Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-02432-X.
  • Murdoch, Catherine Gilbert. (1998). Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5940-9.
  • Okrent, Daniel. (2010). Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-7432-7702-3. OCLC 419812305
  • Peck, Garrett (2011). Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't. Charleston, SC: The History Press. ISBN 1-60949-236-6.
  • Peck, Garrett. (2009). The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-4592-7.
  • Pegram, Thomas R. (1998). Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 1-56663-208-0.
  • Waters, Harold. (1971). Smugglers of Spirits: Prohibition and the Coast Guard Patrol. New York: Hastings House. ISBN 0-8038-6705-0.

External links

  • economic history encyclopedia)
  • The Effect of Alcohol Prohibition on Alcohol Consumption (PDF)
  • Hypertext History — U.S. Prohibition
  • Alcohol and Drugs History Society
  • Prohibition (in the U.S.)
  • Did Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime?
  • Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings on Alcohol Prohibition — 1926
  • Policy Analysis — Alcohol Prohibition Was A Failure
  • Prohibition in Appalachia: "Little Chicago" The Story of Johnson City,Tennessee
  • Harry Browne)
  • Historic Images of US Prohibition
  • Life magazine
  • "Interview With Dr. James M. Doran." Popular Science Monthly, November 1930, pp. 19–21/146-147, interview with the Prohibition Commissioner 1930.
  • "How Are You Going to Wet Your Whistle?" as recorded by Billy Murray
  • Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition)
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