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.


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.[1]

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)

The records of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that alcohol consumption was at a relatively low level in 1850, the earliest year for which they have records, and enjoyed steady growth until the five years immediately before 1920. In fact, alcohol consumption, primarily of distilled spirits (whiskey, gin, and the like), rose steadily throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as whiskey became more plentiful and less expensive. Indeed, whiskey was legal tender for debts, even public ones like taxes.[2]

Beginning after the end of the Civil War, however, consumption of beer became more popular, until in 1890 beer displaced distilled spirits as the beverage of choice. With the tremendous growth in beer demand and the establishment of large-scale breweries, a new kind of retail establishment called the saloon appeared. At their height, saloons were so numerous that many places had one saloon (or more) for every 200 lawful residents.[3] The saloon existed primarily to sell liquor. But the typical saloon became famous for other activities, such as gambling and prostitution. Worse yet, they often sold liquor to minors.[4]

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."[4]

In 1873, matters came to a head with the great "Women's War" or "Women's Crusade."[3] 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.[7][8]

World War I

The federal election of 1916 saw the election of enough Representatives and Senators to propose 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." Grain was scarce, and Americans considered the distillation of grains to make alcohol an unpatriotic waste of a resource that, they felt, the country needed to make bread for its soldiers overseas.[9] Indeed, the NIAAA records show a sharp decline in liquor consumption in the five-year period bracketing that war.[3]

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[10], named for Senator Andrew Volstead (R-MN), 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.[9] 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.[11] This was the era of "speakeasies" (liquor-selling establishments that admitted people by invitation only and on the speaking of a password),[12] "bootleggers" (those who smuggled alcoholic drinks 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 Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay.)

The original Volstead Act provided a medical exception to prohibition, in that a person could have a doctor prescribe alcohol to him.[13] Many willing doctors wrote prescriptions, often on highly dubious premises.[14]

The government continued to expect cooperation with the authorities to the end, and issued two scathing reports calling for tougher enforcement in 1927[15] and 1931.[16]


The Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression carried with it the spectacle of widespread unemployment. 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.[14] The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment would quickly capitalize on this perception and run candidates for Congress that favored repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.

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 of 1933.

Remaining Prohibitions

Repeal did not immediately mean that everyone across the country had the right to drink. 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 State-wide. And practically no State allows minors to purchase, attempt to purchase, consume, or transport intoxicating liquor.

Islam prohibits the imbibition 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.[17]

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.[3][4] In addition, two economists estimated that the prevalence of cirrhosis of the liver declined by ten to twenty percent during the Prohibition era.[18]

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.[4] 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[3] 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.[19]

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 1970's 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.


  1. Alcohol in America at "Prohibition: The Noble Experiment," April 20, 2005 (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  2. Alcohol Consumption in America, 1800-55 in the research archive of (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Kerr, Austin (1996), and Shelton, Mitchell (2006), Temperance and Prohibition, Department of History, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Prohibition at MSN Encarta
  5. 5.0 5.1 Carrie Nation at MSN Encarta
  6. Temperance movement at the Knowledge Rush Encyclopedia
  7. Partisan Historical Society (official site)
  8. United States Prohibition Party at the Knowledge Rush Encyclopedia
  9. 9.0 9.1 Mintz, S. (2003), "Prohibition," in Digital History, retrieved April 7, 2007 from
  10. Today in History: October 28 at the Library of Congress
  11. Miller, Carl H. (2000), We Want Beer, retrieved April 7, 2007 from
  12. Hanson, David J., Prohibition: the Noble Experiment, SUNY-Potsdam, Potsdam, NY (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  13. A 1926 Alcohol Prescription Slip in the History Archive of San Mateo County
  14. 14.0 14.1 Rosenberg, Jennifer, Prohibition, (Retrieved April 7, 2007)
  15. History of Prohibition Enforcement before the Bureau of Prohibition Act of 1927 at the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
  16. Report on the Enforcement of Prohibition Laws in the United States, January 7, 1931 at the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
  17. Lyderson, Kari, Some Muslim Cabbies Refuse Fares Carrying Alcohol, The Washington Post, Thursday, October 26, 2006; Page A02 (retrieved April 7, 2007)
  18. 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)
  19. National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, A Short History of Alcohol Temperance and Prohibition, (retrieved April 7, 2007)

See Also

External Links