The History of Prohibition In The United States

“A great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose”
-President Herbert Hoover

ProhibitionProhibition was a turbulent time in American History that spanned nearly 14 years, from 1920 to 1933. Prohibition made it illegal to sell, transport or manufacture beer and liquor.(Perfectly legal to still drink it though!) Today it stands as the only amendment to the U.S. constitution that has ever been repealed.

The Calm Before The Storm

Prior to the 18th amendment coming to pass in 1919 – temperance groups were forming as early as 1826 by a handful of religious denominations to advocate for moderation in America. The first of such groups, The American Temperance Society, would go on to lay the foundation for many more temperance groups throughout the United States.The dry movement viewed alcohol as the cause of many of societies problems and a destructive force in families and marriages. At a time where bars and saloons were a haven for men of the still untamed wild west where barkeeps would often entice young men to spend their money with free meals, gambling, prostitution, cockfighting and more. After several years of fighting to stem the tide of excessive drinking and all the evil it wrought upon their communities and families, the movement lost steam shortly after the 1850s.

After years lying dormant – The dry movement was given new life and a new voice in the 1880’s when new Temperance groups like the Prohibition party, Anti-Saloon League, and the Woman’s Christian temperance union formed to advocate for complete prohibition. At the turn of the century there were Temperance organizations in nearly every state, though these 3 groups would prove to be the driving force behind the alcohol prohibition laws that were being passed in many states and counties in the rural south. While woman were the primary voice behind many of these Temperance groups, Many factory owners and Industrialists such as Henry Ford also became key supporters for prohibition, believing that having a sober work force would mean increased productivity and less risk of injury on the job.

When the 1st World War begun in 1914, the Temperance groups seized the opportunity to attack breweries and distilleries. The activists of the dry movement claimed that national prohibition was a necessary measure of war,claiming that they were diverting valuable grain and molasses from our brave soldiers over seas and wartime efforts at home. German breweries were hit particularly hard, as Anti-German sentiment did nothing but aid the prohibitionists cause, suddenly supporting any of Americas many German-American owned breweries seemed un-patriotic. Breweries like Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz serving as a constant reminder of the enemy we were fighting over seas. The Anti-Saloon League called Milwaukee’s brewers ” the worst of all our German enemies” and began to refer to the beer they produced as “Kaiser brew”.

Ironically, The breweries themselves were busy bringing about their own demise. After the turn of the century, The New technologies (namely refrigeration) born from our industrial revolution had translated into a huge boom for Breweries. Now more than ever before, Breweries large and small were fighting to increase their market share by inundating Americas cities with saloons.

As Americas industrialized work force grew in numbers, so did their saloons. The working mans bar had become popular social outlets and an escape from the workplace and family life for the growing number of men working in factory jobs. Breweries at the time were all to eager to finance new Saloons to meet the needs of the growing market that they themselves were building. The bartenders of many of these new saloons were contractually obligated to sell the Breweries brand of beers exclusively, incentivizing bartenders that played along with kickbacks and punishing those who didn’t by offering their best bartenders a chance to run their own bar next door that would then receive exclusive rights to serve the breweries brand (and only their brand). It was a fiercely competitive market, that lead to an unprecedented number of bars and saloons in every town and city across America. At one point, it had gotten so out of hand that there was one saloon for every every 150-200 people (even the non-drinkers). To put this into perspective, places the number of bars, taverns & nightclubs at 65,885 as of 2012 – Using our current population of roughly 232,988,960 people of drinking age in The United States we have an estimated 1 bar for every 3,536.00. people today.

Even before Prohibition was established, By 1916 more than half of the states had already adopted their own set of anti-liquor laws. In the midst of World War I, Prohibition was positioned to be the patriotic stance that many Americans adopted to conserve supplies for war time efforts. In 1917 – President Woodrow Wilson issued a ‘partial prohibition’ law that limited beer production to 70% of it’s former years output and capped the allowed alcohol percentage of beer to 2.75%. Later that Year the president would issue a complete ban on the wartime production of beer.


The 18th Amendment Passes

The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16th, 1919 by an overwhelming majority of 36 states in support of the new amendment. (Despite President Wilson’s Veto).

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.


While the 18th amendment banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages – It did not prohibit citizens from consuming alcohol. Anyone that could afford to stockpile cases of wine & liquor prior to the 18th amendment being enforced was well within their rights to consume it within their home. The Volstead Act was passed on October 28th, 1919 – detailing the exact rules and regulations for which the 18th amendment would be enforced. While the 18th amendment was only comprised of 3 short sections – The Volstead act was over 25 pages. The ‘New York Daily News’ Interpreted and summarized the Volstead act for the American people as follows:

  • You may drink intoxicating liquor in your own home or in the home of a friend when you are a bona fide guest.
  • You may buy intoxicating liquor on a bona fide medical prescription of a doctor. A pint can be bought every ten days.
  • You may consider any place you live permanently as your home. If you have more than one home, you may keep a stock of liquor in each.
  • You may keep liquor in any storage room or club locker, provided the storage place is for the exclusive use of yourself, family or bona fide guests.
  • You may get a permit to move liquor when you change your residence.
  • You may manufacture, sell or transport liquor for non-beverage or sacramental purposes provided you obtain a Government permit.
  • You cannot carry a hip flask.
  • You cannot give away or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
  • You cannot take liquor to hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining room.
  • You cannot buy or sell formulas or recipes for homemade liquors.
  • You cannot ship liquor for beverage use.
  • You cannot store liquor in any place except your own home.
  • You cannot manufacture anything above one half of one percent (liquor strength) in your home.
  • You cannot display liquor signs or advertisements on your premises.
  • You cannot remove reserve stocks from storage.

Prohibition Officially began on January 1st, 1920.


So Began The “The Noble Experiment”

With prohibition now in place, and many breweries,distilleries and saloons no longer able to produce or serve alcohol – Economists and supporters of prohibition alike had expected the sales of household goods, entertainment and other goods would increase as a result. Landlords and city officials hoped that neighborhoods and housing prices would improve without a bar on every corner. And Many expected soft drink, juice, and other beverage producing companies would see an increase in revenue and growth as well. Unfortunately none of these things came to pass. Restaurants were unable to keep the doors open without liquor sales and revenue amongst entertainment venues was down across the board. Brewers, truckers, barrel makers, waiters and countless other jobs that were tied to the liquor industry suddenly vanished.

While the initial results of prohibition showed some promise – the reality of the situation was that Prohibition had created a nation divided. From organized activists, to homebrewers and even corporations – Almost as quickly as the 18th amendment was passed – The American people were coming together in increasing numbers to rally against it. As the 1920’s progressed and the utopia promised by the temperance movement failed to come to fruition – The anti-prohibition movement continued to grow.

When you think of prohibition – you typically think of rum runners, moonshine and speakeasy’s. But the reality of the situation was that the American people were able to find many more creative ways to find a drink! In fact it was perfectly legal at the time to obtain a “prescription” for alcohol from your doctor. Believe it or not, Less than 100 years ago alcohol was still regarded by the medical community as a cure for various ailments. As a result, Bootleggers were all too eager to infiltrate the American pharmacies and use them as a front for their illegal operations. The number of pharmacies in New York state tripled during prohibition.

Exceptions were also made for religious purposes, allowing churches and clergy members to obtain wine for their congregations. Not surprisingly, enrollment at churches and synagogues across the nation increased. Here too bootleggers saw an opportunity to skirt the laws of prohibition by infiltrating the religious community. As a result, The number of self-professed rabbis quadrupled in the years during prohibition.


The Peoples Rebellion

The 18th amendment saw law-abiding citizens turned into common criminals over night. If you weren’t buying moonshine or hanging out at an underground speakeasy, Like most people of the time, you were probably brewing your own beer or wine. Surprisingly, Home-brewing instructions weren’t actually all that difficult to find – In most cases it was as easy as checking out a book at your local library.

The California grape growers at the time were taking advantage of a legal loophole in the Volstead act that allowed farmers to product non-alcoholic fruit juice. The farmers produced what were referred to as “wine blocks” or “wine bricks” – which were comprised of a semi-solid juice concentrate. (kind of akin to the frozen juice concentrate you see at the grocery store today ) The grape juice concentrates were sold with the following warning:

“After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”

Not surprisingly – The incredible demand for “grape juice concentrate” led enterprising California grape farmers to expand their operations by over 700% during the first few years of prohibition alone.


Prior to Prohibition, there were over 4,000 breweries in operation across America. In 1933 there were only a few hundred breweries left. Resourceful Breweries like Anheiser-Busch for example made it through these dry years by producing soft drinks, yeast, malt extract and even automobile parts. The Yeast, Malt extract and molasses they produced were widely available at nearly any dime store grocery or specialty store. In fact, between the bottles, bottle caps, ingredients and even capping machines could all be purchased legally from your local grocery store. (What happened to you Piggly-Wiggly, You use to be cool!) Many beer related products were often accompanied by comical labels that read more like a beer making recipe. Without breweries to supply American citizens with their favorite brews, beer making had finally come full circle and returned to being a family activity that was done at home.

The following popular poem of the time captured the spirit of Home-brewing during Prohibition

Mother’s in the kitchen – Washing out the jugs.
Sister’s in the pantry – Bottling the suds.
Father’s in the cellar – Mixing up the hops.
Johnny’s on the front porch – Watching for the cops.

Despite how the above poem portrays Johnny’s job – the reality was that there was little threat or concern of getting caught by the cops. By 1925, half of the states (mostly north + Midwest) had passed laws banning local police from even investigating potential violations. Police were required to show that alcohol was not only being produced within the residence, but also being sold. Where the local police really had their hands tied when it came to enforcing such violations – Prohibition agents in general really didn’t concern themselves with the often poor quality home-brew, instead focusing their limited resources on catching manufacturers and distributors of home made spirits.

While running or owning a distillery was of course illegal during the time, what is interesting is that nearly any average joe could waltz down to their local hardware store and purchase their very own still. Just like brewing beer or fermenting wine – Instructions on how to operate these stills could also be found at local libraries. It didn’t take long for people to realize the exact same thing that many bootleggers and criminals had already figured out – There is money to be made in making moonshine. With easy access to the information and all the equipment and materials one could need – Many enterprising rural Americans set out to create and distribute their own ‘near’ beer and whiskey. The Appalachian mountains are legendary for all of the moonshiners that operated deep in the woods of area. The moonshine that was produced by these stills was said to be so strong, that the moonshiners would use their liquor to fuel the cars and trucks that were used to distribute their liquor.

**The intense car chases between law enforcement and Appalachian moonshiners were in fact the origins of NASCAR.


Unintended Consequences

Prohibition began as a far reaching experimenting in national reform and will be remembered not for the many things it set out to accomplish, but rather the litany of un-intended consequences.

One of the main goals for the temperance movements that pushed for prohibition in America was to reduce specifically, the consumption of beer. What they have done by prohibiting it, was foster an environment where liquor was to replace beer. Where beer took more time and space to produce – Bootleggers became partial to distilled spirits as they were easier to hide, distribute and produce. Ultimately leading to a nationwide rise in alcoholism, disabilities and even deaths that would be caused from drinking bad moonshine. To help illustrate this point, Cleveland Ohio had 1,200 legal bars in 1919 and by 1923 had an estimated 3,000+ illegal speakeasies and over 10,000 illegal stills. A staggering 30,000 residents of the city were either involved in selling liquor and a staggering 100,000 were home-brewing beer or bathtub gin.

Even though gangsters utilized rum runners, pharmacies, churches and stills – They simply couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of consumers. One of the more creative (and dangerous) ways for them to aquire alcohol was by ‘denaturing’ industrial grade solvents and chemicals. (Denaturing chemicals that contain alcohol is the process of adding foul or unpleasant tasting chemicals to detour people from consuming them) It is estimated that over 60 million gallons of industrial strength denatured solvents, paints and chemicals containing alcohol were stolen annually by criminal organizations to be “re-natured” and sold to the un-suspecting public.The American Government, In a desperate attempt to enforce prohibition and quell gang related activity decided they would poison known alcohol supplies as a scare tactic to the american population. Specifically they targeted Denatured alcohol sources by adding deadly chemicals such as methyl alcohol, kerosene, gasoline, benzene, cadmium, chloroform, acetone and many others.

After the first reports came through about these alcohol related deaths and the governments involvement behind sabotaging known de-natured supply sources – Outraged health officials and the media exposed the risks to the public as the government intended, though unfortunately it did very little to scare people away from imbibing moonshine. Instead it resulted in over 10,000 american citizens deaths and countless more being severely ill and even blinded by the tainted moonshine and the greedy gangsters who continued to steal, ‘re-nature’ and sell liquor to the unsuspecting public.

Prohibition begins to unravel as the economy declines and bootleggers strength and influence continue to grow. Prohibition had created an unprecedented level of corruption and contempt for the federal government and local law enforcement alike. Al Capone reported that he had over half of Chicago’s police officers on his payroll. In 1930 – Bootlegger George Cassiday came forward and admitted to bootlegging for members of Congress for the last 10 years, estimating that over 80% of congressmen and senators were drinking behind closed doors.

With the country in the middle of the Great Depression, The appeal of ending prohibition and legalizing the liquor industry was undeniable. Ending prohibition would not only bring back thousands of jobs and tax revenue to breath new life into the economy, but it would also completely destroy the income streams of thousands of gangsters, moonshiners, rum runners and illegal distilleries. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for President in 1932, on the platform of repealing prohibition. He easily beat the incumbent President Herbert Hoover, and proposed the end of prohibition to Congress in February 1933.


The 21st Amendment Is Ratified

For the first time in History, a constitutional amendment is repealed. The 21st amendment was passed by Congress on February 20th. The ‘noble experiment’ would officially come to an end at 3:32 p.m. – December 5th, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment.

‘The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.’

President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly celebrated the end of Prohibition with his favorite drink – A dirty martini. Famously declaring to the American People…

What American needs now is a drink.

When all was said and done – Prohibition will have cost the United States over $300 million dollars to enforce and end up costing over $11 billion dollars in lost tax revenue. While the first few years of prohibition showed promise in the form of a dramatic reduction of both alcoholism rates and alcohol related crimes – By the end of Prohibition, even those who were once advocates of the ‘dry movement’ had to admit that prohibition had been a failed attempt at reforming the nation and instead resulted in a myriad of unintended consequences. From the corruption of police and governing officials, to an increased rate of drinking and gang activity – Despite it’s “noble” intentions, the 13 years of prohibition in the United States was by all accounts a failed social experiment on a grand scale.

And while Prohibition had been repealed at the national level, the new laws actually left the local state government with the power to enforce or not enforce liquor legalization as they see fit. The last state to repeal prohibition was Mississippi in 1966. It should be noted however that even though prohibition has been repealed by every state in The U.S. for decades, the states themselves have delegated the decision of liquor legislation and enforcement down to individual municipalities. Leaving us with varied landscape of different laws at a national, state and city level.


Straight 2 The Pint