The Historical Facts of Prohibition in the United States

dumping alcohol during Prohibition
With all of the different brands of beers, beer ads on television and flavored vodkas, it might be hard to believe that at one time in the United States, it was illegal to make, sell, consume or buy beer and alcohol. This was called prohibition. For 13 long years, you could not legally buy or drink alcohol, but that did not stop the selling and drinking of alcohol.

How Prohibition Started

Prohibition did not just start one day, it was a movement that had been building momentum for many years. Temperance movements had been trying to get people to moderate their alcohol drinking for decades. At the start of the 20th century, these temperance movements became more forceful.

The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893 and became a real force in the prohibition movement to outlaw alcohol in the United States. The Anti-Saloon League was not a political movement; it was a non-partisan group with the single purpose of outlawing alcohol, the prohibition of alcohol.

By 1913, the Anti-Saloon League along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had started a national campaign to add a constitutional amendment to outlaw alcohol throughout the entire United States. Before the prohibition of alcohol became an official amendment, 16 states had already outlawed the manufacturing and sale of alcohol. When World War I broke out against Germany in 1918, it was thought that outlawing alcohol, especially beer was patriotic, since at that time many brewers in the United States were owned by German-Americans.

The talk in the United States at this time was not so much about Republicans and Democrats; it was the Drys versus the Wets, with the Drys being for prohibition and the wets against prohibition. During World War I, the Drys called Milwaukee’s brewers beer “Kaiser Brew” and provoked the anti-German sentiment. At the same time, the wets, those against prohibition argued that the taxes the United States collected on the sale of beer and alcohol more than paid for the war effort. It is important to remember that at this time, there was no income tax in the United States. It was becoming a widespread belief that alcohol was the cause of crime and a social evil that had to be stopped.

Carrie Nation

No article about prohibition would be complete without the mention of Carrie Nation. Carrie A. Nation was an intimidating woman who stood 6’ tall and was against all alcohol and no one could stop her, not even being arrested 30 times. Between 1900 and 1910, she walked into saloons with a bag full of rocks and bricks in one hand and holding a hatchet in the other, she would throw these rocks at the mirrors and bottles in each saloon. Along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union urging uprisings against saloons, 600 people signed petitions to close every saloon in Wichita.

Carrie Nation
Carrie Nation in 1910

Prohibition and the 18th Amendment

Congress voted in favor of prohibition in December 1917 and in 13 months, enough states had voted for prohibition. On January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution went into effect, prohibition became law. The 18th Amendment prohibited the manufacturing and sale of intoxicating liquors, but did not prohibit the consumption, possession or transportation of liquor.

The Volstead Act

For many in Congress, especially the Drys, who were comprised mainly of Republicans and Progressives, the original 18th Amendment, did not go far enough. Republican Congressman Andrew John Volstead of Minnesota introduced what was known as the Volstead Act which would prohibit the manufacturing, transporting, exporting, sale and possession of any alcohol within the United States. Alcoholic beverages were defined as anything that contained more than 0.5% alcohol.

The Volstead Act passed Congress in October 1919, but was vetoed by President Wilson (Democrat). Congress once again passed the bill, this time with enough votes to override the Presidents veto and the Senate did the same thing. The Volstead Act became law. The Volstead Act also cleared up any confusion as to whether or not beer and wine were legal, they were not legal anymore.

Prohibition and Crime

At first alcoholism and the crime rate dropped dramatically. With distilleries, wineries, breweries, liquor stores and bars closed, prohibition was hard to enforce and corruption became the normal. Liquor was smuggling across the Canadian border, bootlegging and illegal speakeasies popping up in every city, liquor was actually easier to find and drink than before prohibition. And there were loopholes in the prohibition law. Whiskey could be bought with a medical prescription and wine could be bought for religious purposes.

confiscated liquor barrels
Confiscated barrels of liquor

The Cost of Prohibition

Congress originally appropriated $3 million to enforce prohibition, but three years later, Congress estimated the cost to enforce prohibition would be $300 million (over $3 billion in 2010 dollars). As prohibition continued, smugglers, rum runners, bathtub gin, bootleggers and gang wars were becoming common. Even though the death rate from alcoholism was cut by 80% initially after prohibition went into effect, by 1927 the death rate from homemade alcohol jumped to 50,000 and many more people suffered with paralysis and alcohol induced blindness.

Prohibition and Business

As prohibition continued through the 1920’s, it became clear that many politicians were not only looking the other way, but drinking alcohol themselves. President Harding had a well-stocked basement in the White House full of alcohol, even though as a Senator, he voted for prohibition.

Many cities and states refused to spend money on the enforcement of prohibition and looked to the federal government to fund enforcement. The government did continue to enforce prohibition laws, smashing stills, confiscating alcohol from smugglers and arresting anyone with alcohol. Al Capone from Chicago made a living smuggling alcohol and reportedly took in $60 million in 1927 alone. Americans were getting tired of the double standard by the politicians, the gang wars and prohibition.

Prohibition almost destroyed the beer brewery business in the United States. Before prohibition, St. Louis had 22 breweries, only nine reopened after prohibition ended. During prohibition, Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Budweiser, made near beer, ice cream, root beer, refrigerated cabinets and ginger ale.

prohibition liquor prescription
Prescription for medicinal liquor during prohibition

Prohibition and the 18th Amendment Repealed

In 1932, while campaigning for president, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) promised if elected he would repeal the 18th Amendment. Once elected, President Roosevelt signed into law the legalization of 3.2% beer. This was the beginning of the end for prohibition. Repealing the 18th Amendment and making alcohol legal again was also seen as a way to raise tax revenues during the Great Depression. On April 7, 1933, beer (3.2%) was once again legal and the first case of beer was delivered to the White House with a sign that said, “President Roosevelt, this first beer is yours”.

In early 1933, Congress submitted to the states the 21st Amendment which would repeal prohibition and the 18th Amendment. By December 5, 1933, the required thirty-seven states had voted yes for Amendment 21, the repeal of the 18th Amendment and prohibition. Even though prohibition had officially ended in the United States, twenty-nine states had voted to remain dry.


Prohibition might have been the oddest experiment in American history, legislating moral values has never worked even though for the first couple of years it did lower the crime rate and deaths due to alcoholism. Prohibition did have lasting effects since many states remained dry. Okalahoma was the last state to repeal their prohibition laws in 1966. Today there are still numerous dry counties in the United States.

Copyright © 2011-2014 Sam Montana

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