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Prohibition is the name given to the time in U.S. history when the federal government banned the sale and consumption of alcohol throughout the country. The Prohibition era began in 1920, with the ratification of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned alcohol sales and consumption. The 18th amendment was supported by the Volstead Act, which outlined the enforcement of Prohibition.

Religious Revival Sparks Prohibition Sentiment

In the 1820’s and 1830’s a wave of religious revivalism swept through the country. With the renewed religious zeal, there came a greater call for temperance, or the act of abstaining from alcohol. The state of Massachusetts first passed a law banning alcohol being sold in quantities less than 15 gallons. This act was passed in 1838 but was repealed two years later. However, this law set a precedent for other states, allowing Maine to pass a similar law in 1846; several other states followed suit by banning alcohol during the U.S. Civil War.

One of the common temperance societies during the 19th Century

By the turn of the century, temperance societies (clubs that campaigned against alcohol) were common all through the U.S. Many temperance societies were led by women, as alcohol was seen as a destructive force in both families and in marriages. In addition to the temperance societies, many factory owners favored temperance, since this would decrease accidents and make their workers more efficient.

U.S. Government makes Prohibition a Reality

In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson established a temporary wartime Prohibition in order to save grain for making food instead of alcohol. Also in 1917, Congress submitted the 18th Amendment to the States for ratification (confirmation). The 18th Amendment banned the sale, consumption, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. The amendment received the support of the necessary three quarters of states in just 11 months. The 18th Amendment went into effect in 1920, banning alcohol all over the U.S.

In October 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, which outlined the ways that Prohibition would be enforced by the government. As the act was championed by Congressman Andrew Volstead of Mississippi, the act commonly became known as the Volstead Act.

The Struggles to Enforce Prohibition

A scene from one of New York City’s speakeasies.

Prohibition proved difficult for the government to enforce. After some initial success, including a reported 30 percent decline in alcohol use and a decrease in alcohol-related arrests, Prohibition ran into some obstacles. Although Prohibition was strongly enforced in rural areas where it had been actively promoted in the first place, the act was more loosely enforced in urban areas. In such urban areas, Speakeasies were common. Speakeasies were cafes or restaurants where alcoholic beverages were illegally sold and consumed in secret. In addition to Speakeasies, the practice of bootlegging, or the illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol became popular in the 1920’s. “Moonshine” or “Bathtub Gin” was one of the most popular bootlegged alcohols.

The Mafia was involved in many of the larger Speakeasies and Bootlegging operations and so gang violence rose sharply during the 1920’s as well. Al Capone was perhaps the most famous gangster of this era (and arguably the most famous American Gangster of all time). Capone made roughly $60 million per year from various bootlegging operations and speakeasies. Of course, the race to control the speakeasies and bootlegging led to gang rivalries and with it violence. During the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, a group of Capone’s men, dressed as police officers, killed a group of men in a rival gang.

The End of Prohibition

By 1932, with the country sunk in the Great Depression, there was a call to make alcohol legal again in order to create jobs and revenue. In the 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed ending Prohibition, and thus Roosevelt easily defeated Herbert Hoover.  In February 1933, Congress proposed the 21st Amendment that would end the 18th Amendment and Prohibition. When Utah provided the last necessary vote in December 1933, Prohibition reached its end.

Support for Prohibition began to wane by the late 1920’s. The high cost of bootlegging meant that those in the lower classes were much more restricted from alcohol than those in the upper classes. The costs for enforcing Prohibition, including the costs of prison and jails, spiraled upward, meaning that it was harder for the government to afford.

Prohibition Fun Facts

  • Mississippi did not end Prohibition and was a dry (alcohol free) state until 1966
  • Speakeasies got their name because customers had to whisper a code name or word through a locked door in order to be let in
  • Some Prohibition era speakeasies, such as The Landmark Tavern and 21 Club, still operate in New York City
  • Cruises to nowhere or “Booze Cruises” became popular during Prohibitions. Ships would sail to international waters where they could serve alcohol legally
  • After alcohol became legal again, President Roosevelt is reported to have said “What America needs now is a drink.”