Prohibition in the United States

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Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the prohibition era.

In the history of the United States, Prohibition, also known as The Noble Experiment, is the period from 1919 to 1933, during which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned nationally as mandated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Following significant pressure from the temperance movement, the United States 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 effected on January 16, 1920. Some state legislatures had already enacted statewide prohibition prior to the ratification of the 18th Amendment.

The "Volstead Act", the popular name for the National Prohibition Act, passed through Congress over President Woodrow Wilson's veto on October 28, 1919 and established the legal definition of intoxicating liquor[1]. Though the Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol, it did little to enforce the law. The illegal production and distribution of liquor, or bootlegging, became rampant, and the national government did not have the means or desire to try to enforce every border, lake, river, and speakeasy in America. In fact, by 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.[2]

Prohibition became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression, especially in large cities. On March 23, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages.

On December 5, 1933, the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment.



"The Drunkard's Progress", an iconic lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, exhibits the beliefs of the Temperance movement in the United States.


In Maysy 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts made illegal the sale of strong liquor “whether known by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy, etc.”[3]

In general, informal social controls in the home and community helped maintain the expectation that the abuse of alcohol was unacceptable. There was a clear consensus that while alcohol was a gift from God, its abuse was from the Devil. "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."[4] When informal controls failed, there were always legal ones.

Explanation was sought by medical men. One suggestion had come from one of the foremost physicians of the late 18th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush. In 1784, he argued that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to physical and psychological health (he believed in moderation rather than prohibition). 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. Within the next decade, other temperance organizations were formed in eight states, some being statewide organizations.

Development of the Prohibition movement

The prohibition or dry WALOO movement began in the 1840s, spearheaded by pietistic religious denominations, especially the Methodists. The late 1800s 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.

"Who does not love wine wife and song, will be a fool for his lifelong!" — a vigorous 1873 assertion of cultural values of German-American immigrants.

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

The issue was revived by Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1873. Despite its name, the latter group did not promote moderation or temperance but rather prohibition of alcohol. 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.

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 as The Carry Nation Prohibition Group which Nation also led. Other activists enforced the cause by entering saloons, singing, praying, and urging saloon keepers to stop selling alcohol.[5] Many other states, especially in the South, also enacted prohibition, along with many individual counties.

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.

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.[6] Prohibition was demanded by the "dries" — primarily pietistic Protestant denominations, especially the Methodists, Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Scandinavian Lutherans. They identified saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin. 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.[7] 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.[8]

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 widely discredited and their protests subsequently ignored.[citation needed]

The Defender Of The 18th Ammendment. From Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty published by the Pillar of Fire Church

A resolution calling for an amendment to accomplish nationwide Prohibition was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses in December 1917. On January 16, 1919, the Amendment was ratified by thirty-six of the forty-eight states. Despite the efforts of Heber J. Grant and the LDS Church, a Utah convention helped ratify the 18th Amendment.[9] While Utah can be considered the deciding 36th state to ratify the Amendment and make it law, the day Utah passed the Amendment, both Pennsylvania and Ohio passed it as well. All 38 states that decided to hold conventions passed the Amendment, while only 36 states were needed (three fourths of the 48 that existed). On October 28, 1919, the amendment was supplemented by the Volstead Act. Prohibition began on January 16, 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 and the Ku Klux Klan strongly supported its strict enforcement[citation needed] 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."[10]

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.[11]

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.

Alcoholic drinks were not illegal in surrounding countries. Distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed by visiting Americans or illegally imported to the U.S. Chicago became notorious as 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.


As Prohibition became increasingly unpopular, especially in the big cities, "Repeal" was eagerly anticipated. On March 23, 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.[1] Upon signing the amendment, Roosevelt made his famous remark; "I think this would be a good time for a beer." The Cullen-Harrison Act became law on April 7, 1933. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933 with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment.

The Twenty-first Amendment explicitly gives states the right to restrict or ban the purchase or sale of alcohol; this has 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 the repeal of the national constitutional 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. There are numerous "dry" counties or towns where no liquor is sold, even though liquor can often be brought in for private consumption.


Many social problems have been attributed to the Prohibition era. Mafia groups limited their activities to gambling and thievery until 1920, when organized bootlegging manifested in response to the effect of Prohibition.[12] A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Powerful gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies, leading to Racketeering. Stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle.

The cost of enforcing Prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers.

When repeal of Prohibition occurred 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 low-priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores.

Prohibition had a notable effect on the alcohol brewing industry in the United States. When Prohibition ended, only half the breweries that had previously existed reopened. The post-Prohibition period saw the introduction of the American lager style of beer, which dominates today. Wine historians also note that 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.[13]

At the end of Prohibition, some supporters openly admitted its failure. A quote from a letter, written in 1932 by wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states:

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.[14]

Some historians have commented that the alcohol industry accepted stronger regulation of alcohol in the decades after repeal, as a way to reduce the chance that Prohibition would return.[15]

Portrayal in media


  • In F. Scott Fitzgerald's book The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan suspects Jay Gatsby of making money by illegally selling alcohol.
  • In the Autobiography of Malcolm X, he tells of his stint working for a moonshiner on Long Island.
  • In Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, the title character prides himself as a progressive who supports Prohibition, but does not follow it and drinks moderately.
  • D.J. MacHale's novel The Never War refers to Maximillian Rose, a gangster, who made millions by selling alcohol during Prohibition.
  • Many of Dashiell Hammett's works (which occur between 1923-1934) contain casual references to the prohibition of alcohol. Hammett's detectives often come up against men who are, or have connections to, bootleggers of some form or another, and there are very few (if any) characters in Hammett's fiction that do not drink or purchase alcohol, in spite of Prohibition.
  • Nelson Algren's novel A Walk on the Wild Side is set during the period of prohibition and much of it is set in speakeasies.


  • The film The Untouchables chronicled the prohibition period, and the efforts of law enforcement during that period.
  • Once Upon a Time in America also depicted prohibition.
  • The sweep of politics from the Indian Wars, through World-War I and prohibition forms the basis of Legends of the Fall (1994), which also comments on the effects on Prohibition on the influence in politics and corruption in law enforcement during that period.
  • The Roaring Twenties, released in 1939 - one of only three films to feature both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
  • The 1930 science fiction comedy, Just Imagine, depicted a 1980s America in which Prohibition was still in effect.
  • The comedy Some Like it Hot (1959), starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, was set during the Prohibition Era.
  • The 1932 movie Scarface was originally about a fictionalized Al Capone during the prohibition era, and his downfall.
  • The 2002 film Road to Perdition portrays the life of a gangster hit-man, Michael Sullivan, during the Prohibition Era.
  • The 2002 film A Walk to Remember performs a stage play about a man named Tom Thorton (set in a speakeasy) during the Prohibition Era.
  • The 1930 film Blotto Starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was during the Prohibition Era and includes a Prohibition Theme.
  • The 1948 film Call Northside 777 Starring James Stewart investigating murder of Police Inspector Blundy on 9 December 1932 during Prohibition.
  • The 1990 film Miller's Crossing takes place during the prohibition era, with the Chicago City Gangs selling illegal alcohol to the Public.
  • The 2008 film Leatherheads featured characters entering a speakeasy, which was subsequently raided.
  • The film Bugsy Malone featured a speakeasy run by local mobster Fat Sam, and hidden behind a bookstore.
  • The 2003 Film Seabiscuit


  • One episode of the science-fiction program Sliders involved the sliders landing on an Earth where Prohibition was never repealed.
  • The TV series The Untouchables chronicled many real-life stories from Prohibition-era Chicago and the anti-racketeering campaign of Eliot Ness.
  • An episode of The Simpsons titled "Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment" involved Springfield deciding to enforce what seemed to be a long ignored Prohibition law.
  • An episode of the anime series Chrono Crusade involved the mafia warfare brought about by the Prohibition.
  • An episode of ABC Family's Greek threw a Great Gatsby prohibition party with a speakeasy.
  • An episode in the 1980 BBC drama Partners in Crime, The American ambassador mentioned prohibition to Tuppence when they were at a "typical English party" where alcohol was provided.
  • In "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," Indiana refers to an alcoholic beverage received at a club after asking for water as "prohibition water," indicating that the club was serving alcohol, despite prohibition.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago", Bob Skilnik, Baracade Books, 2006 and The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health, [1]
  2. ^ [ "Teaching With Documents: The Volstead Act and Related Prohibition Documents"]. United States National Archives. 2008-02-14. Retrieved on 2009-03-24. 
  3. ^ Blue, Anthony Dias (2004). The Complete Book of Spirits : A Guide to Their History, Production, and Enjoyment. HarperCollins. p. 73. ISBN 0-06-054218-7. 
  4. ^ Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David. Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview. In: Moore, Mark H., and Gerstein, Dean R. (eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981. pp. 127-181.
  5. ^ "Carry A. Nation: The Famous and Original Bar Room Smasher". Kansas Historical Society. 2002-11-01. Retrieved on 2008-12-21. 
  6. ^ Paul Kleppner, The Third Electoral System 1853�"1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures. (1979) pp 131-39; Paul Kleppner, Continuity and Change in Electoral Politics, 1893�"1928. (1987); Ballard Campbell, "Did Democracy Work? Prohibition in Late Nineteenth-century Iowa: a Test Case." Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1977) 8(1): 87-116; and Eileen McDonagh, "Representative Democracy and State Building in the Progressive Era." American Political Science Review 1992 86(4): 938-950.
  7. ^ Jensen (1971) ch 5. [Fuller reference needed.]
  8. ^ Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, Harvard University Press, 2007.
  9. ^ Reeve, W. Paul, "Prohibition Failed to Stop the Liquor Flow in Utah". Utah History to Go. (First published in History Blazer, February 1995)
  10. ^ Kyvig, David E: "Women Against Prohibition." American Quarterly. 28, no. 4 (Autumn, 1976), 465-482.
  11. ^ Appel, Jacob M. "Physicians Are Not Bootleggers: The Short, Peculiar Life of the Medicinal Alcohol Movement." The Bulletin of the History of Medicine (Summer, 2008)
  12. ^ Organized Crime - American Mafia, Law Library - American Law and Legal Information
  13. ^ For a discussion of the long term effect of Prohibition on the US wine industry, see Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible, pp 630-631.
  14. ^ Letter on Prohibition - see Daniel Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, New York: Viking Press, 2003. (pp.246/7).
  15. ^ The Day Beer Resumed Flowing, Legally


  • Kingsdale, Jon M. "The 'Poor Man's Club': Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon," American Quarterly vol. 25 (October, 1973): 472-89.
  • Kyvig; David E. Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition Greenwood Press, 1985.
  • Mark Lender, editor, 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) online
  • Moore, L.J. Historical interpretation of the 1920s Klan: the traditional view and the popular revision. Journal of Social History, 1990, 24 (2), 341-358.
  • 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
  • Victor A. Walsh, "'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.

Further reading

  • Behr, Edward. (1996). Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-559-70356-3.
  • Burns, Eric. (2003). The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 1-592-13214-6.
  • 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 1-557-83518-7.
  • 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 0-801-85940-9.
  • Pegram, Thomas R. (1998). Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 1-566-63208-0.
  • Waters, Harold. (1971). Smugglers of Spirits: Prohibition and the Coast Guard Patrol. New York: Hastings House. ISBN 0-803-86705-0.

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