Prohibition in the United States

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This article discusses the particulars of prohibition in the United States of America. For an overview of prohibition throughout the civilized world, see Prohibition.

Prohibition in American parlance typically refers to the movement and body of law that prohibited the manufacture, sale, transport, import, or export of intoxicating liquor within, into, or from the United States of America from 1920 to 1933. It did not make drinking or serving liquor illegal. It was one of the major reforms of the Progressive Era, and was strongly supported by Christian socialists and Social Gospellers, who were mobilized by the Anti-Saloon League.

Two ostensibly unrelated events facilitated Prohibition: the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, which established the federal income tax and thus reduced the dependency of the federal government on liquor taxes, and World War I, which turned Americans against Germany, which was associated with beer manufacturers. While conservatives generally do not favor people consuming hard liquor, in the context of the movement that led up to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, the movement for prohibition was an integral part of Progressivism.[1] After all, where the progressives took it is generally where conservatives do not want go: namely, the use of government by one group of Americans against another group of Americans.


see also Taverns

Growth of alcohol consumption

Alcoholic beverages have been part of almost every culture since the beginning of recorded history. But alcohol consumption in colonial America was initially slow to grow. (Beer was a common exception to this, as the colonists and even the early citizens of the Republic preferred beer over the often polluted water.) The colonials and early citizens tended not to forbid alcohol itself but the act of intoxicating oneself with alcohol.[2]

The following Bible verse summarizes the dichotomy of American feelings toward alcohol in America's early years:

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess;... Ephesians 5:18 (KJV)

Alcohol consumption was at a high level in 1850—five times higher than today. Alcohol consumption, primarily of whiskey, rose steadily throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as whiskey became more plentiful and less expensive.[3]

After the Civil War, especially with the high levels of German immigration, beer became more popular, until in 1890 beer displaced whiskey as the beverage of choice. The saloon appeared. At their height, saloons were so numerous that many places had one saloon for every 200 residents.[4] The saloon existed primarily to sell beer and liquor, but some tolerated gambling and prostitution as well. Most saloons were sponsored by breweries and run by Irish or German ethnics. In cities, the Irish often made them a base for neighborhood politics.

Temperance movements

The spectacle of increased liquor consumption, and the unsavory activities associated with its sale, were impetus enough for many concerned citizens. But the bad effects on the men who consumed the highest amounts of liquor were worse. In those times, men were the primary consumers of liquor; women were either not permitted to partake or, more commonly, had little desire to partake. Instead, women observed the bad effects of liquor on their husbands. Carrie Nation[5] became the most famous agitator for a total prohibition against liquor after her first husband died of alcohol-related illnesses. After agitating for various State prohibition laws, she ultimately took the law into her own hands by barging into illegal saloons and using a hatchet to wreck furniture and beer and whiskey barrels. She was arrested some 30 times, and used the honoraria she earned from lecturing to pay her bail.[5]

Even before Carrie Nation began her campaign, politicians everywhere spoke against the consumption of liquor. By 1855, 13 of the 31 states had prohibited liquor entirely; the first prohibition law was passed in Maine in 1840.[6] Abraham Lincoln famously called liquor "an Egyptian angel of death."[7]

In 1873, matters came to a head with the great "Women's War" or "Women's Crusade."[4] The two most famous organizations formed to have liquor tightly regulated, or prohibited entirely, were the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. The latter organization began in Ohio in 1893 but swiftly gained national importance. These organizations had one issue: the outright prohibition on the sale of intoxicating liquor. First content with the passage of new State laws, they eventually set a goal to amend the Constitution to prohibit intoxicating liquor nationwide. Another key force was the United States Prohibition Party, founded in 1869.[8][9]

After 1890 the WCTU and the Prohibition Party remained active but were far less important in the political battle for prohibition than the new Anti-Saloon League. The League mobilized evangelical ministers and voters state by state.

World War I

The federal election of 1916 saw the election of enough members of Congress to pass in December 1917 a constitutional amendment banning the manufacture, sale, transport, import, and export of alcoholic beverages. But the First World War added another impetus to what became known as the "dry movement." Opposition to Germany meant opposition to German culture, which was heavily involved with beer gardens. the German American were the most important opponents of prohibition, and they were silenced during the war. In terms of effiicency, grain was scarce, and drys argued the distillation of grains to make alcohol was a waste of a vital food resource[10] Indeed, the NIAAA records show a sharp decline in liquor consumption in the five-year period bracketing that war.[4]

Amending the Constitution

Passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in Congress was swift. In January 20, 1919, the amendment achieved ratification. Pursuant to the amendment's terms, the amendment took effect on January 16, 1920. In October 28, 1920, Congress, acting on its "power to enforce" the amendment, passed the National Prohibition Act or Volstead Act,[11] named for US Representative Andrew J. Volstead (R-MN),[12] which defined an alcoholic beverage as anything containing more than 0.5% ethanol by volume and providing for strict enforcement.


Enforcement was largely in the hands of the Internal Revenue Service, which is why agents of the still-extant Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are still called "revenuers" today. Arguably the most famous "revenuers" of all time were Eliot Ness, who operated in Chicago, Illinois, and the team of Isadore Einstein and Moe Smith in New York City.[10] These were the most dedicated of the 2500 "Prohibition agents" who enforced the law at the height of federal enforcement efforts. Sadly, these men operated on a shoestring national budget ($5 million US at first, later increased to $300 million) and were vastly outmatched in numbers and resources. Worse yet, many politicians still partook of intoxicating liquor themselves, leading to a widespread perception of people in authority as hypocritical.

The latter part of the thirteen years of prohibition saw the rise of organized criminal gangs in virtually every city in the country, and the manufacture of liquor on a small scale at millions of locations.[13] This was the era of "speakeasies" (liquor-selling establishments that admitted people by invitation only and on the speaking of a password),[14] "bootleggers" (those who smuggled alcoholic drink either for their own consumption or for sale), and of a general contempt for the law. Al Capone, the most famous "gangster" in US history, built a vast and sprawling empire on the profits from the distribution of illicit liquor. (Ultimately the IRS obtained evidence of tax evasion against him, and upon conviction on that charge he was sent to prison).

The original Volstead Act provided a medical exception to prohibition, in that a person could have a doctor prescribe alcohol to him.[15] Many willing doctors wrote prescriptions, often on highly dubious premises.[16]

The government continued to expect cooperation with the authorities to the end, and issued two scathing reports calling for tougher enforcement in 1927[17] and 1931.[18]

Poisoned Alcohol

With retail alcohol being prohibited, the government moved to prevent people from drinking alcohol intended for industrial use.[19] Wood Alcohol, also known as methanol or 'denatured' alcohol, was still available.[20][21] Despite government action, distillers would attempt to remove the contaminant to make industrial alcohol drinkable, which very often did not work.[20] Drinking denatured alcohol may cause violent illness, blindness, or death.[22][23]

Wayne Wheeler, an activist for "dry" causes, supported the measure. He said: "The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it", and "The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide... To root out a bad habit costs many lives and long years of effort..."[20]

As a result of instituting prohibition, the poisoning of alcohol and the deaths it caused is one of the uglier chapters of the late Progressive Era. It is believed that more than 10,000 people died before the Eighteenth amendment was repealed.[24]

Crime and repeal

The "speakeasy" (or "blind pig") was an illegal bar operated during prohibition (1920–33, and even longer in some states). Most taverns stopped serving alcohol. Drinkers found out-of-the-way speakeasies that would serve them,. They owners had to buy illegal beer and liquor from criminal syndicates (the most famous was run by Al Capone in Chicago), and had to pay off the police to look the other way. The result was an overall decrease in drinking and an enormous increase organized crime, gang warfare and civic corruption, as well as a decline in tax revenue.

The Great Depression dramatically depressed tax revenues for state and local government. The "wet" forces, never dormant nor idle, quickly created a public perception that if only the beverage industry were legitimate once again, many of these suddenly unemployed workers could be gainfully employed once again.[16] The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, led by Catholic Democrats, quickly capitalized on this perception and ran candidates for Congress who favored repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.

In Florida, for example, during 1928-32 a broad coalition of judges, lawyers, politicians, journalists, brewers, hoteliers, retailers, and ordinary wet Floridians joined together to repeal the ban on alcohol. When the federal government legalized near beer and light wine in 1933, the wet coalition launched a successful campaign to legalize these beverages at the state level. Floridians subsequently joined in the national campaign to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, which succeeded in December 1933. The following November, state voters repealed Florida's constitutional ban on liquor and gave local governments the power to legalize or outlaw alcoholic beverages.[25]

Women were influential in the fight to repeal national prohibition, especially through the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). Led by Mrs. Pauline Sabin, the group consisted primarily of middle and upper class women who viewed prohibition as a failure in terms of diminishing the consumption of alcoholic beverages, feared the influence of the speakeasy on the morals of the young, and believed taxes on alcoholic beverages were a needed source of government revenue. The WONPR combated the propaganda of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, supported anti-prohibition candidates for political office, and generally operated in an independent fashion. The group's activities during the late 1920s and early 1930s suggest a revision of the view that the women's movement declined in strength and influence following the adoption of the woman suffrage amendment.[26]

Congress did pass the Twenty-First Amendment and, in an unprecedented move, bypassed the State legislatures and called for the special election of ratification conventions in the several States. Thirty-eight of these conventions—two more than needed—passed repeal in December 1933. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and legitimate taverns reopened in most states.

Remaining Prohibitions

Repeal did not begin immediately. States retained the right, under the new amendment, to regulate or even prohibit liquor as they saw fit. Although no States prohibit liquor today, different States have different regulations governing its manufacture, sale, and transport. (For example, some States allow the private sales of liquor, while others insist that all liquor be sold in "State Stores" operated by State alcoholic beverage control boards.) Liquor is still prohibited in some counties, even if not Statewide. And practically no State allows minors to purchase, attempt to purchase, consume, or transport intoxicating liquor.

Islam prohibits the imbibing of alcohol in all its founding documents. This has recently led to the spectacle of Muslim taxi drivers refusing to pick up fares in the United States who are transporting alcoholic beverages.[27]

Effects of Prohibition and Repeal

A large body of misinformation persists about the effects of prohibition and of its eventual repeal. To begin with, the per capita consumption of intoxicating liquors declined significantly during this period.[4][7] In addition, two economists estimated that the prevalence of cirrhosis of the liver declined by ten to twenty percent during the Prohibition era.[28]

Crime did rise, and this consisted chiefly of direct flouting of the law and the spectacle of members of rival gangs killing one another in all-out wars for "territories" in the major cities, especially in Chicago. But perceptions of a massive crime wave are grossly exaggerated.[7] Sadly, what is not exaggerated are the reports of widespread contempt for the law and for all authority, and the establishment of powerful organized crime syndicates in the United States.

One often overlooked effect, not so much of prohibition per se as of the movement that established it, is women's suffrage. Women did not seriously agitate for the vote until they had a rallying issue. That issue was prohibition, and the concern of these women was that the men would simply vote to continue to enjoy their liquor, and women would continue to feel the secondary effects of desertion of the home, domestic physical abuse, and neglect of the husband's duty to provide. Ironically, women did not definitively win the vote (the Nineteenth Amendment) until after prohibition was already a part of the Constitution.

The NIAAA data compiled by Kerr[4] clearly show that alcohol consumption sank to a bottom in 1933 and has been rising ever since. Today the per capita consumption of liquor is higher than ever. So, too, are its bad effects, effects that any person, not merely any specially affected subgroup, may feel under the right circumstances.[29]

Repeal did not destroy the organized criminal gangs. Instead of selling alcohol, they moved on to other illicit activities. These gangs, of course, persist today.

Prohibition in Popular Culture

At least one motion picture and one long-running television series had their basis in the career of Eliot Ness. Another television project drew its basis from the careers of Isadore Einstein and Moe Smith, though this was clearly a comedy.

Al Capone has been the subject of many motion picture projects about his life and career. In some of these projects his character is the leading character; in others he is a force-of-nature who affects the lives of others.

CBS-TV had a comedy series in the early 1970s that centered on an illicit bar operator and his mobster cousin in 1920's Chicago. Many other television and motion picture projects were set in or shortly after the Prohibition era and sometimes featured bootleggers as minor or major characters. In other projects, some characters would challenge the judgmental attitude of other characters who had lived during the Prohibition era, typically by asking them whether they never took an illicit drink when the sale of liquor was illegal. (Such lines often perpetuated the common misconception that the consumption of intoxicating liquor by adults, as distinct from its manufacture, sale, transport, import, or export, was unlawful.)

At least one comedy motion picture was made about prohibition's repeal. That project featured a gangster who tried to "go legit" after prohibition ended.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer becomes a bootlegger after it is discovered the towns prohibition laws were never repealed.

The Prohibition Party Today

The Prohibition Party has continued to sponsor candidates for office. The party divided in 2003 over dissatisfaction with party leader Earl F. Dodge Jr. The smaller faction held its national convention in Dodge's living room and nominated him for a sixth time. This faction appeared on the ballot only in Colorado and received 140 votes. The larger faction of the party, called the Webb faction, nominated Gene C. Amondson for President. Amondson ran as the Prohibition nominee in Louisiana, where he won 1,566 votes, and in Colorado under the "Concerns of People" Party, receiving 378 votes.[30] Amondson received the most votes for a Prohibition Party nominee since 1988 and was the first Prohibition Presidential nominee to outpoll all other third party candidates in any county since 1960.[31]


  • Bader, Robert Smith. Prohibition in Kansas (1986),
  • Blocker, Jack S. American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform (1989)
  • Blocker, Jack S. Retreat from Reform: The Prohibition Movement in the United States, 1890–1913 (1976)
  • Blocker, Jack S. ed. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia (2 vol 2003)
  • Bordin, Ruth. Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 1981
  • Cherrington, Ernest, ed., Standard Encyclopaedia of the Alcohol Problem 6 volumes (1925-1930), comprehensive international coverage to late 1920s
  • Clark; Norman H. Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. 1976. supports prohibition
  • Dannenbaum, Jed. "The Origins of Temperance Activism and Militancy among American Women", Journal of Social History vol. 14 (1981): 235-36.
  • Dannenbaum, Jed. Drink and Disorder: Temperance Reform in Cincinnati from the Washingtonian Revival to the WCTU. (1984). 245 pp.
  • Gusfield, Joseph R. "Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union," American Journal of Sociology 61,No.3 (1955).
  • Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933 (1998).
  • Timberlake, James H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920. 1963.

See also


  1. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920. By James H. Timberlake
  2. Alcohol in America at "Prohibition: The Noble Experiment," April 20, 2005 (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  3. Alcohol Consumption in America, 1800-55 in the research archive of (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Kerr, Austin (1996), and Shelton, Mitchell (2006), Temperance and Prohibition, Department of History, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Carrie Nation at MSN Encarta
  6. Temperance movement at the Knowledge Rush Encyclopedia
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Egyptian Angel of Death
  8. Partisan Historical Society (official site)
  9. United States Prohibition Party at the Knowledge Rush Encyclopedia
  10. 10.0 10.1 Mintz, S. (2003), "Prohibition," in Digital History, retrieved April 7, 2007 from
  11. Today in History: October 28 at the Library of Congress
  12. "Andrew J. Volstead political biography at Our Retrieved 9/21/2007.
  13. Miller, Carl H. (2000), We Want Beer, retrieved April 7, 2007 from
  14. Hanson, David J., Prohibition: the Noble Experiment, SUNY-Potsdam, Potsdam, NY (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  15. A 1926 Alcohol Prescription Slip in the History Archive of San Mateo County
  16. 16.0 16.1 Rosenberg, Jennifer, Prohibition, (Retrieved April 7, 2007)
  17. History of Prohibition Enforcement before the Bureau of Prohibition Act of 1927 at the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
  18. Report on the Enforcement of Prohibition Laws in the United States, January 7, 1931 at the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 The History of Poisoned Alcohol Includes an Unlikely Culprit: The U.S. Government
  21. NEW DENATURANT FOR GOVERNMENT ALCOHOL SOUGHT, The Daily Illini, December 31st, 1926
  22. The Truth about Poison Liquor, Popular Science, April 1927
  23. WOOD ALCOHOL'S TRAIL; Many Deaths Before Prohibition Throw Light on Methods Needed to Combat Evil, The New York Times
  24. 10 Things You Should Know About Prohibition
  25. John J. Guthrie, Jr., "Rekindling The Spirits: From National Prohibition to Local Option in Florida: 1928-1935," Florida Historical Quarterly 1995 74(1): 23-39. 0015-4113
  26. David E. Kyvig, "Women Against Prohibition." American Quarterly 1976 28(4): 465-482. [ in JSTOR]
  27. Lyderson, Kari, Some Muslim Cabbies Refuse Fares Carrying Alcohol, The Washington Post, Thursday, October 26, 2006; Page A02 (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  28. Dills, Angela K., and Miron, Jeffrey A., Alcohol Prohibition and Cirrhosis, American Law and Economics Review, 6(2):285-318, 2004 (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  29. National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, A Short History of Alcohol Temperance and Prohibition, (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  30. "Gene Amondson political biography at Our Retrieved 9/20/2007.
  31. Authors unnamed, "Battle brewing for teetotaler vote in Colorado," USA Today, Gannett Co., Inc., September 9, 2004. Retrieved April 26, 2007.

External links