The United States Prohibition of Alcohol

The Rise and Fall of America's "Noble Experiment"

Prohibition protesters parade in a car emblazoned with signs and flags calling for the repeal of the 18th Amendment. One sign reads, I'M NO CAMEL I WANT BEER!

Archive Photos / Getty Images

The prohibition of alcohol in the United States lasted for 13 years: from January 16, 1920, through December 5, 1933. It is one of the most famous—or infamous—times in American history. While the intention was to reduce the consumption of alcohol by eliminating businesses that manufactured, distributed and sold it, the plan backfired.

Considered by many as a failed social and political experiment, the era changed the way many Americans viewed alcoholic beverages. It also enhanced the realization that federal government control cannot always take the place of personal responsibility.

The Prohibition era is most often associated with gangsters, bootleggers, speakeasies, rum runners, and an overall chaotic situation with respect to the social network of Americans. The period began with general acceptance by the public. It ended as the result of the public's annoyance with the law and the ever-increasing enforcement nightmare.

Prohibition was enacted under the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To this day, it is the only constitutional amendment to be repealed by another after the passage of the 21st Amendment.

The Temperance Movement

Temperance movements had long been active in the American political scene with the goal of promoting abstinence from drinking alcohol. The movement was first organized in the 1840s by religious denominations, primarily Methodists. This initial campaign started out strong and made a small amount of progress throughout the 1850s but lost strength shortly thereafter.

The "dry" movement saw a revival in the 1880s due to the increased campaigning of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU, established 1874) and the Prohibition Party (established 1869). In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League was established and these three influential groups were the primary advocates for the eventual passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban most alcohol.

One of the monumental figures from this early period was Carrie Nation. Founder of a chapter of the WCTU, Nation was driven to close down bars in Kansas. The tall, brash woman was known to be vehement and often threw bricks into saloons. At one point in Topeka, she even wielded a hatchet, which would become her signature weapon. Carrie Nation would not see Prohibition herself as she died in 1911.

The Prohibition Party

Also known as the Dry Party, the Prohibition Party was formed in 1869 for American political candidates who were in favor of a nationwide prohibition of alcohol. The party believed that prohibition could not be achieved or maintained under the leadership of either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Dry candidates ran for local, state, and national offices and the party's influence peaked in 1884. In the 1888 and 1892 presidential elections, the Prohibition Party held 2 percent of the popular vote.

The Anti-Saloon League

The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio. It began as a state organization that was in favor of prohibition. By 1895 it had gained influence throughout the United States.

As a non-partisan organization with ties to prohibitionists throughout the country, the Anti-Saloon League announced a campaign for the nationwide prohibition of alcohol. The league used the dislike for saloons by respectable people and conservative groups like the WCTU to fuel the fire for prohibition.

In 1916, the organization was instrumental in electing supporters to both houses of Congress. This would give them the two-thirds majority needed to pass what would become the 18th Amendment.

Local Prohibitions Begin

After the turn of the century, states and counties throughout the U.S. began passing local alcohol prohibition laws. Most of these early laws were in the rural South and stemmed from concerns over the behavior of those who drank. Some people were also concerned about the cultural influences of certain growing populations within the country, particularly recent European immigrants.

World War I added fuel to the dry movement's fire. The belief spread that the brewing and distilling industries were diverting precious grain, molasses, and labor from wartime production. Beer took the biggest hit due to anti-German sentiment. Names like Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz reminded people of the enemy whom American soldiers were fighting overseas.

Too Many Saloons

The alcohol industry itself was bringing about its own demise, which only helped the prohibitionists. Shortly before the turn of the century, the brewing industry saw a boom. New technology helped increased distribution and provided cold beer through mechanized refrigeration. Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and other brewers sought to increase their market by inundating the American cityscape with saloons.

To sell beer and whiskey by the glass—as opposed to the bottle—was a way to increase profits. The companies took hold of this logic by starting their own saloons and paying saloonkeepers to stock only their brand. They also punished uncooperative keepers by offering their best bartenders an establishment of their own right next door. Of course, they would sell the brewer's brand exclusively.

This line of thinking was so out of control that at one time there was one saloon for every 150 to 200 people (including non-drinkers). These "unrespectable" establishments were often dirty and the competition for customers was growing. Saloonkeepers would try to lure patrons, particularly young men, by offering free lunches, gambling, cockfighting, prostitution, and other "immoral" activities and services in their establishments.

The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by 36 states on January 16, 1919. It took effect one year later, beginning the era of Prohibition.

The first section of the amendment reads: "After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

Essentially, the 18th Amendment took the business licenses away from every brewer, distiller, vintner, wholesaler, and retailer of alcoholic beverages in the country. It was an attempt to reform an “unrespectable” segment of the population.

Three months before it was to take effect, the Volstead Act—otherwise known as the National Prohibition Act of 1919—was passed. It gave power to the “Commissioner of Internal Revenue, his assistants, agents, and inspectors” to enforce the 18th Amendment. 

While it was illegal to manufacture or distribute “beer, wine, or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquors”, it was not illegal to possess it for personal use. This provision allowed Americans to possess alcohol in their homes and partake with family and guests as long as it stayed inside and was not distributed, traded, or given away to anyone outside the home.

Medicinal and Sacramental Liquor

Another interesting provision for Prohibition was that alcohol was available through a physician’s prescription. For centuries, liquor had been used for medicinal purposes. In fact, many of the liqueurs still used in the bar today were first developed as cures for various ailments.

In 1916, whiskey and brandy were removed from "The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America." The next year, the American Medical Association stated that alcohol “use in therapeutics as a tonic or stimulant or for food has no scientific value” and voted in support of Prohibition. 

Despite this, the established belief that liquor could cure and prevent a variety of infirmities prevailed. During Prohibition, doctors were still able to prescribe liquor to patients on a specially designed government prescription form that could be filled at any pharmacy. When medicinal whiskey stocks were low, the government would increase its production.

As one might expect, the number of prescriptions for alcohol soared. A significant amount of the designated supplies were also diverted from their intended destinations by bootleggers and corrupt individuals.

Churches and clergy had a provision as well. It allowed them to receive wine for the sacrament and this also led to corruption. There are many accounts of people certifying themselves as ministers and rabbis in order to obtain and distribute large quantities of sacramental wine.

The Purpose of Prohibition

Immediately after the 18th Amendment went into effect there was a dramatic decrease in alcohol consumption. This gave many advocates hope that the "Noble Experiment" would be a success.

In the early 1920s, the consumption rate was 30 percent lower than it was before Prohibition. As the decade continued, illegal supplies increased and a new generation began to ignore the law and reject the attitude of self-sacrifice. More Americans once again decided to imbibe.

In a sense, Prohibition was a success if only for the fact that it took years after repeal before consumption rates reached those of pre-Prohibition.

Advocates for Prohibition thought that once liquor licenses were revoked, reform organizations and churches could persuade the American public not to drink. They also believed that “liquor traffickers” would not oppose the new law and saloons would quickly disappear.

There were two schools of thought among prohibitionists. One group hoped to create educational campaigns and believed that within 30 years American would be a drink-free nation. However, they never received the support they were looking for.

The other group wanted to see vigorous enforcement that would essentially wipe out all alcohol supplies. They were also disappointed because law enforcement could not get the support they needed from the government for an all-out enforcement campaign.

It was the Depression, after all, and the funding was simply not there. With only 1,500 agents nationwide, they could not compete with the tens of thousands of individuals who either wanted to drink or wanted to profit from others drinking.

The Rebellion Against Prohibition

The innovation of Americans to get what they want is evident in the resourcefulness used to obtain alcohol during Prohibition. This era saw the rise of the speakeasy, home distiller, bootlegger, rum runner, and many of the gangster myths associated with it.

While Prohibition was originally intended to reduce beer consumption in particular, it ended up increasing the consumption of hard liquor. Brewing requires more space, both in production and distribution, making it harder to conceal. This rise in the distilled spirit consumption played a big part in the martini and mixed drink culture that we’re familiar with as well as the “fashion” we associate with the era.

The Rise of Moonshine

Many rural Americans began to make their own hooch, "near beer," and corn whiskey. Stills sprung up across the country and many people made a living during the Depression by supplying neighbors with moonshine.

The mountains of the Appalachian states are famous for moonshiners. Although it was decent enough to drink, the spirits that came out of those stills were often stronger than anything that could be purchased before Prohibition.

The moonshine would often be used to fuel the cars and trucks that carried the illegal liquor to distribution points. Police chases of these transports have become equally famous (the origins of NASCAR). With all of the amateur distillers and brewers trying their hand at the craft, there are many accounts of things going wrong: stills blowing up, newly bottled beer exploding, and alcohol poisoning.

The Days of the Rum Runners 

Rum-running, or bootlegging, also saw a revival and became a common trade in the U.S. Liquor was smuggled in station wagons, trucks, and boats from Mexico, Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean.

The term “The Real McCoy” came out of this era. It’s attributed to Captain William S. McCoy who facilitated a significant portion of the rum-running from ships during Prohibition. He would never water down his imports, making his the “real” thing.

McCoy, a non-drinker himself, began running rum from the Caribbean to Florida shortly after Prohibition began. One encounter with the Coast Guard shortly thereafter stopped McCoy from completing runs of his own. However, he was quite innovative in setting up a network of smaller ships that would meet his boat just outside U.S. waters and carry his supplies into the country.

Buy "Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook" at Amazon 

Shh! It's a Speakeasy

Speakeasies were underground bars that discreetly served patrons liquor. They often included food service, live bands, and shows. The term speakeasy is said to have started some 30 years before Prohibition. Bartenders would tell patrons to “speakeasy” when ordering so as not to be overheard.

Speakeasies were often unmarked establishments or were behind or underneath legal businesses. Corruption was rampant at the time and raids were common. Owners would bribe police officers to ignore their business or give advanced warning of when a raid was planned.

While the "speakeasy" was often funded by organized crime and could be very elaborate and upscale, the "blind pig" was a dive for the less desirable drinker.

The Mob, Gangsters, and Crime

Probably one of the most popular ideas of the time was that the mob held control of the majority of the illegal liquor trafficking. For the most part, this is untrue. However, in concentrated areas, gangsters did run the liquor racket and Chicago was one of the most notorious cities for it.

At the beginning of Prohibition, the “Outfit” organized all of the local Chicago gangs. They split the city and suburbs into areas and each gang would handle the liquor sales within their district.

Underground breweries and distilleries were hidden throughout the city. Beer could easily be produced and distributed to meet the population's demand. Because many liquors require aging, the stills in Chicago Heights and on Taylor and Division Streets could not produce fast enough, so the majority of spirits were smuggled in from Canada. Chicago's distribution operation soon reached Milwaukee, Kentucky, and Iowa.

The Outfit would sell liquor to the lower gangs at wholesale prices. Even though the agreements were meant to be set in stone, corruption was rampant. Without the ability to resolve conflicts in the courts, they often resorted to violence in retaliation. After Al Capone assumed control of the Outfit in 1925, one of the bloodiest gang wars in history ensued.

What Led to Repeal

The reality, despite the prohibitionist's propaganda, is that Prohibition was never really popular with the American public. Americans like to drink and there was even a rise in the number of women who drank during this time. This helped to change the general perception of what it meant to be "respectable" (a term prohibitionists often used to refer to non-drinkers).

Prohibition was also a logistical nightmare in terms of enforcement. There were never enough law enforcement officers to control all of the illegal operations and many of the officials were themselves corrupt.

Repeal at Last!

One of the first acts taken by the Roosevelt administration was to encourage changes to (and subsequently repeal) the 18th Amendment. It was a two-step process; the first was the Beer Revenue Act. This legalized beer and wine with an alcohol content up to 3.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) in April of 1933.

The second step was to pass the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. With the words "The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed", Americans could once again drink legally.

On December 5, 1933, the nationwide Prohibition was over. This day continues to be celebrated and many Americans revel in their freedom to drink on Repeal Day.

The new laws left the matter of Prohibition up to state governments. Mississippi was the last state to repeal it in 1966. All of the states have delegated the decision to prohibit alcohol to local municipalities.

Today, many counties and towns in the country remain dry. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia have a number of dry counties. In some places, it is even illegal to transport alcohol through the jurisdiction.

As a part of the repeal of Prohibition, the federal government enacted many of the regulatory statutes on the alcohol industry that are still in effect.

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Your Citation
Graham, Colleen. "The United States Prohibition of Alcohol." ThoughtCo, Aug. 6, 2021, Graham, Colleen. (2021, August 6). The United States Prohibition of Alcohol. Retrieved from Graham, Colleen. "The United States Prohibition of Alcohol." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).