Prohibition Era Timeline

The cargo of a rumrunner boat is confiscated by the Coast Guard

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The Prohibition era was a period in the United States, lasting from 1920 to 1933, when the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol was outlawed. This period began with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and was the culmination of decades of temperance movements. However, the era of Prohibition was not to last very long, for the 18th Amendment was repealed 13 years later with the passage of the 21st Amendment.

Fast Facts: Prohibition

  • Description: Prohibition was an era in American history when the production and sale of alcoholic beverages were outlawed by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Key Participants: Prohibition Party, Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Anti-Saloon League
  • Start Date: January 17, 1920
  • End Date: December 5, 1933
  • Location: United States

Timeline of the Prohibition Era

Although Prohibition itself lasted only 13 years, its origins can be traced all the way back to the temperance movements of the early 1800s. Many early advocates of temperance were Protestants who believed alcohol was destroying public health and morality.

1830s

The first temperance movements begin advocating abstinence from alcohol. One of the most influential "dry" groups is the American Temperance Society.

1847

Members of Maine's Total Abstinence Society convince the state government to pass the Fifteen Gallon Law, the first prohibition law. The legislation banned the sale of alcohol in amounts smaller than 15 gallons, effectively limiting access to alcohol to the wealthy.

1851

Maine passes the "Maine law," banning the production and sale of alcohol. The law includes an exception for medicinal uses.

1855

By 1855, 12 other states have joined Maine in banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Political tensions began to grow between the "dry" and "wet" states.

1869

The National Prohibition Party is founded. In addition to temperance, the group promotes a variety of social reforms popular with progressives of the 19th century.

Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)
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1873

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union is founded. The group argues that banning alcohol will help reduce spousal abuse and other domestic problems. Later, the WCTU will focus on other social issues, including public health and prostitution, and will work to promote women's suffrage.

1881

Kansas becomes the first U.S. state to make prohibition part of its state Constitution. Activists try to enforce the law using a number of different techniques. The most peaceful demonstrate outside saloons; others attempt to interfere with business and destroy bottles of liquor.

1893

The Anti-Saloon League is formed in Oberlin, Ohio. Within two years, the group becomes an influential national organization lobbying for prohibition. Today, the group survives as the American Council on Alcohol Problems.

1917

December 18: The U.S. Senate passes the Volstead Act, one of the first significant steps toward the passage of the 18th Amendment. The law—also known as the National Prohibition Act—prohibits "intoxicating beverages" (any drink containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol).

1919

January 16: The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified by 36 states. Although the amendment bans the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, it does not actually outlaw their consumption.

October 28: The U.S. Congress passes the Volstead Act and establishes guidelines for the enforcement of prohibition. The law goes into effect on January 17, 1920.

American gangster Al Capone ('Scarface') (1899 - 1947) relaxes in his vacation home, Miami, Florida, 1930.
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1920s

With the passage of Prohibition, a large black market develops around the country. The darker side includes gangs of bootleggers led by figures such as Al Capone, the boss of an organized crime syndicate in Chicago.

1929

Prohibition agent Elliot Ness begins in earnest to tackle violators of Prohibition, including Al Capone's gang in Chicago. It is a difficult task; Capone will ultimately be arrested and prosecuted for tax evasion in 1931.

1932

August 11: Herbert Hoover gives an acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination in which he discusses the ills of Prohibition and the need for its end.

Members of Congress posing with Franklin D Roosevelt at the signing of the Cullen-Harrison Act
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1933

March 23: Newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalizes the manufacture and sale of certain alcoholic products. Support for Prohibition continues to wane, and many call for its removal.

1933

February 20: The U.S. Congress proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would end Prohibition.

December 5: Prohibition is officially repealed by the passage of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.