Alcohol Prohibition in the USA

National Prohibition in America outlawed the sale of alcohol under the 18th amendment to the Constitution in 1919. The Congressional law to implement the prohibition permitted under the 18th amendment was the Volstead Act, coming into operation January, 1920.

It is important to realise that the alcohol prohibition movement had a long nineteenth-century background. Prohibition had been introduced on the state level in the northern states in the 1850s—though the state legislatures repealed these laws during the period 1855-1865. Beginning in the 1870s to 1890s the modern organizations that lobbied for national prohibition emerged. These included the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (1874); the Prohibition Party, which was prominent in the 1880s and 1890s, and the Anti-Saloon League (1893). It was the latter that took the lead after 1900 in pressing for stricter anti-alcohol laws. The League focused not on the elimination of drinking (which was not made illegal under National Prohibition), but on the abolition of the sale of alcohol through outlets such as saloons. Hence the name Anti-Saloon League. The saloon was seen by its opponents as a source of moral corruption and inappropriate political influence on, or in league with, local “boss” or “machine” politicians. The 1900-1917 period was one of social reform known as Progressivism, and Progressives believed that, through alcohol, other social habits or evils such as prostitution and gambling flourished in association with saloons.

The League’s tactics focussed on non-partisan lobbying to influence legislatures at both the state and federal levels. Unlike some earlier prohibitionist groups, the League was not closely aligned with any one political party, preferring to support individual candidates from any party. It was this non-partisan tactic, and its effective lobbying of legislators, backed by the Protestant churches, that helped the League build prohibitionist strength. By 1917, on the eve of American entry to World War I, 18 states had achieved complete prohibition. Prohibitionists had also achieved a number of key legislative goals, particularly the Webb-Kenyon Act of 1913 to reinforce the ability of the individual prohibitionist states to defend their territory against alcohol imports. But the prohibitionists in Congress launched after 1913 a campaign to make the whole country dry. They used the media including prohibitionist publications and cartoons to get the result.

National prohibition was advocated as a wartime measure after the US declared war on Germany in April 1917 and the prohibition amendment passed Congress and was sent to the states for ratification late in 1917. The wartime prohibition act was passed in 1918 at the very end of the war; but the Lever Act August 1917 had already banned distilled spirits production for the remainder of the war and reserved supplies of grain for food production, and by 1919, just before the Volstead Act went into effect nationally, 27 states had enacted full prohibition laws. Anti-German sentiment worked in the interests of extending prohibition in wartime because most of the breweries had been founded in the 19th century by German immigrants to the US, and retained German names. Thus wartime hostility toward Germans helped the rise of prohibition. But more fundamentally, the movement drew upon an anti-alcohol culture long instilled among middle-class people in city suburbs and small towns, the Protestant churches and their allies in the rural population in the south and west, and some urban progressives who saw alcohol as a source of inefficiency, poverty and social disputation in American life. The war simply gave these disparate groups an opportunity to align their movement with wartime nationalism and its crusading spirit of self-sacrifice. Businessmen such as Henry Ford also favoured prohibition because it would, he believed, benefit workers and make for a more efficient economy. Thus prohibitionists hoped to make the US a better place. They merged progressivism and anti-alcohol sentiment and showed that prohibition was a social reform movement of great significance.

The reform was introduced at the same time that President Woodrow Wilson was advocating a moralistic foreign policy. The American architects of prohibition attempted to export prohibition abroad, forming in 1919 a World League against Alcoholism. By attempting to make other countries abandon alcohol, the prohibitionists wished to safeguard the US against illegal imports of liquor, and also displayed the moral idealism of the prohibitionists, showing how their plans enmeshed with Wilsonian ideals for a new world order. The study of prohibition as a movement can be used to illuminate the missionizing theme in American foreign policy at the time of World War I.

Prohibition lasted from 1919 to 1933. During this period, the US was in theory a “dry” country, meaning that alcohol could not be sold, except in small qualities for medicinal purposes as prescribed by a doctor, or for use in religious Communion services. However, home possession and consumption for personal use was allowed under the law.

At first, particularly in the period 1919-22, alcohol consumption dropped. This continued a trend during World War I itself, when the temporary wartime prohibition had been in effect.
The unavailability of legal supplies of alcohol affected social classes unevenly. The poor found that alcohol became more expensive, because of the shortness of legal supply, and therefore working-class consumption declined. The saloons themselves were closed, and thus a source of potential temptation to working-class drinking was removed. This appealed to the prohibitionists as evidence of the progressive and ameliorative effects of the measure on poverty. However middleclass people, not known previously as heavy drinkers but as abstainers or light drinkers, were able to afford the higher priced illegal booze, and it became fashionable to drink cocktails in one’s own home or at parties. Young women were among those who drank more, in conformity with the image of the “flapper” and as part of the rise of a mass consumption society in the 1920s. Thus the law changed the pattern of consumption. Beer (the working-class saloon drink) dropped and the more compact form of alcohol, spirits, rose in popularity. Nevertheless, per capita alcohol consumption did not return to pre-World War I levels.The law was widely flouted by the mid- to late 1920s, and gangsterism and crime based on the profits of illegal shipment of alcohol flourished. New institutions for drinking, especially the illegal drinking places known as speak-easies emerged.

Some Americans fought prohibition in legal ways. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), took over the campaign for repeal, led by Pierre DuPont and other powerful corporate leaders. An Organization called the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform seeking amendment of the 18th amendment was founded in 1929. Other women’s groups continued to support prohibition. Wealthy Americans and those who opposed the spread of illegality belonged to these organizations. They argued that disrespect for the law had been increased as a result of the prohibition amendment. Though businessmen at first supported prohibition, prominent capitalists eventually turned against it as did John D. Rockefeller, on account of the illegality associated with prohibition-related crime.

Prohibition affected the politics of the 1920s. The Democratic Party became deeply split between its urban, anti-prohibition wing and the pro-prohibition rural and southern interests. The conflict paralysed the party in the 1924 election and aided the triumph of the Republicans under Calvin Coolidge.

In 1928, the Democrats nominated a “wet” or anti-prohibition candidate, Governor Al Smith of New York. He galvanised anti-prohibitionist and Catholic voters, particularly in the urban areas, and presaged the formation of the coalition of liberals, ethnics, Catholics and urban people generally in the 1930s under the New Deal. However, the “dry” majority held in 1928, largely because of the prosperity of the 1920s, and Herbert Hoover was elected President. He was strongly supported by the Anti-Saloon League and the WCTU. Smith’s anti-prohibitionist and Catholic credentials ruined his chances across much of the West, where Protestant, anti-urban and Republican sentiment was strong.

It was not until the Great Depression (1929-39) that American opinion turned decisively against prohibition. The Depression brought economic issues to the fore and dampened the cultural conflicts. The taxes that could be raised by legalising and taxing alcohol outweighed residual concern over the moral effects of drinking. The Wickersham Commission (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement) appointed in 1929 by President Hoover was divided over whether to recommend modification of the prohibition amendment—by allowing the sale of low alcohol beer. If prohibitionists had accepted the sale of beer, it is likely that the prohibition on spirits could have retained political support but they refused to compromise. This failure to compromise lost prohibitionists a chance to retain partial prohibition.

When the Democratic party gained the presidency under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 it was committed to the anti-prohibitionist stance pioneered within the party by Al Smith and Repeal (the 21st amendment) was quickly passed and ratified.

Prohibition was one of the most profoundly significant social reforms of the early twentieth century—it illustrates the ambivalence of Progressivism in its blend of moral reform and the search for efficiency through a more rational business-dominated organization of society. An alcohol-free society would have better employees, less social problems caused by alcohol, and less welfare problems.

The prohibition movement was a part of the vast cultural cleavage in 1920s America that also involved the separate issues of the Ku Klux Klan and the campaign against evolution, as seen in the Scopes trial (1925). Cosmopolitan Americans and intellectuals scoffed at rural and small town people who supported prohibition and those who were anti-evolution, and there was created a cultural divide in American society not dissimilar to that over issues such as abortion and other Christian right crusades of the 1990s and after. Perhaps the roots of the current cultural divisions could be traced from these 1920s sources, of which the dispute over prohibition was an important part.

Prohibition represented a profound intrusion on the private lives of Americans and contributed to the growth of state power. Enforcement of prohibition was shared jointly between the state and federal governments, with the Department of the Treasury principally responsible for enforcement at the federal level. But the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) led from 1924 by J. Edgar Hoover also became involved in combating the crime which arose from the context of prohibition. Originally called the Bureau of Investigation, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had been expanded in World War I partly to combat anti-war radicalism, but in the 1920s it had to deal with issues arising from he criminal activities of bootleggers.

The anti-alcohol movement left its impact on American life because the repeal of the prohibition amendment turned regulation of the liquor industry back to the states and allowed the states which wanted to continue to restrict alcohol sale and consumption to do so—which they did, especially in the South and Midwest for the remainder of the 1930s. American tastes were also changed by prohibition. The cocktail grew in popularity, while the custom of drinking in restaurants was in many areas lost.

16 responses to “Alcohol Prohibition in the USA

  1. Thanks for this lucid article. I have always thought of Prohibition in terms of its sociological impact and never realized the profound political ramifications. My curiosity was roused while reading period fiction by Upton Sinclair.

    Carl Slade, Pretoria S Africa

  2. the story of alcohol prohibition in usa is too long. a very informative article. learned a lot that i di not know before.

  3. Excellent article………………… most amused.

  4. This is nice, I am going to use this for my essay but in my own words thank you for putting information.

  5. This is one of the more lucid and accurate accounts of the history of alcohol prohibition I’ve ever read.

  6. This article helped me alot when making my history project. It’s very thourough and understandable. Goodwork!

  7. Rockin site!!!

  8. Cool! I’m using these notes for my research paper (in my own words) Thank you very much

  9. perfect thanks!<3

  10. Very informative and clear, thank you! I’ve one question though. I’m writing an essay on the prohibition and I was wondering if you’ve got any scources I can use, especially the ones about the black market of acohol during that time. I hope to hear from you and goodluck!

  11. Sounds just like the prohibition of cannabis that is going on today.

  12. But exactly, Sharon. That’s what gave the cops now (as then) a ready supply of lawbreakers, and jails (these days), the ready supply of the State’s (black) slave labor. All these things I’ve listed are the ONLY BAD THINGS ABOUT MARIJUANA (unless you mix them with some additive or other; which legalization will prevent). It’s used in the treatment of cancers, to make people’s stomachs more accepting of CHEMO. It’s used in the treatment of glaucoma, which causes blindness in a lot of seniors. It’s even beginning to be noted, as good for macular degeneration. It doesn’t reverse it—-but it does prevent FURTHER deterioration past a certain point, depending on the user’s chemistry. Psychological use: it mellows people out, and these days, people need mellowing on the road especially. Think of the Road Rage Deaths, that marijuana (by eliminating the Rage part, alone,) will prevent! And that’s just the Bare Bones that we know, of the GOOD that marijuana can do. For the rest of it? Just legalize and FIND OUT. Who knows? There might even be some BAD SIDE EFFECTS (you know, like in those medicine TV commercials where the guy talks real fast out of the side of his mouth, about how his company’s new med can do everything from killing you to crippling you—-but it doesn’t always cure what’s wrong with you)! But…..it’ll take LEGALIZATION, to find out. One thing for sure—-legalizing marijuana won’t be any worse than those other things that I mentioned. Hell, it’s no less expensive, either!

  13. I used to be able to find good information from your
    blog articles.

    • Retirement seems to have perversely increased my workload. Can’t say I wasn’t warned. There maybe more soon on this site,

      Ian Tyrrell

      • Ellen NicKenzie Lawson

        You might find my new book from SUNy Press of interest,. It is entitled Smugglers, Bootleggers, Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City. Chapters 1-3 are new and based on smuggling records of U.S. Coast Guard which were confidential until 1990s. See Fall Catalogue of SUNY PRess, one line, page 7 for further description of book. Also availabe as ebook on amazon etc,.

        Thank you.

        E. Lawson Ph.D.

  14. Dr. Tyrrell,

    In the course of my own research on American alcohol prohibition and related topics I have read quite a bit of your work and have great admiration for it. So I was delighted to see that you have a blog and are relating some of your expertise here. Hope to meet you at a future SHAD conference.

    Ranjit Dighe
    Professor of Economics
    SUNY Oswego

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