Prohibition Era: When America Said Goodbye to Alcohol (1920-1933)

In the early 20th century, the United States embarked on a bold and controversial experiment known as Prohibition. This period, lasting from 1920 to 1933, marked an unprecedented attempt to outlaw the production and consumption of alcohol. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the 19th century when it began as a religious crusade. However, it evolved over time, driven by social reformers who saw alcohol as the root cause of societal ills.

The idea of prohibition gained momentum in the late 19th century, with the state of Maine passing the first state prohibition law in 1846. In 1869, the Prohibition Party was established, laying the groundwork for a nationwide movement. By the 1880s and 1890s, social reformers argued that alcohol was responsible for poverty, industrial accidents, and family breakdowns. It was also linked to issues in urban immigrant communities, criminality, and political corruption.

As the United States entered World War I in 1917, prohibition found an unexpected ally in grain conservation. It also had an anti-German sentiment, as many brewers were of German descent. Limits on alcohol production were first introduced as a wartime measure in 1918. The decisive blow came with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which fully established prohibition, effective from January 17, 1920.

Prohibition agents dump liquor out of a raided building, 1929.

The 18th Amendment had strict provisions, prohibiting the making, selling, or transportation of alcohol. ‘Intoxicating liquor’ was defined as anything containing more than one-half of one percent alcohol by volume. However, exceptions were made for medicinal, sacramental, or industrial purposes, creating loopholes that would be exploited during the era.

While the private possession and consumption of alcohol were not illegal, Americans were determined to find ways to satisfy their thirst. This led to the rise of illegal drinking establishments known as ‘speakeasies’ or ‘blind pigs,’ estimated to number around 200,000 by the end of the decade. Many Americans also turned to producing their own illicit beverages, including ‘moonshine,’ ‘bath-tub gin,’ and home-brewed beer.

Enforcing prohibition proved to be a monumental challenge for law enforcement agencies. The federal Bureau of Prohibition, with around 3,000 agents, had to patrol the coasts and borders with Canada and Mexico to prevent smuggling. Simultaneously, they had to combat illegal production and transportation of alcohol within the country. The immense scale of this task often overwhelmed the authorities.

An FBI Officer breaks a confiscated barrel of beer. 1924.

Prohibition did have some unintended positive effects. The consumption of hard liquor dropped by as much as 50 percent, and other alcoholic beverages decreased by about one-third. This resulted in a decrease in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver. However, it also led to deaths from consuming adulterated alcohol, which was a major concern.

In 1929, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the former Assistant US Attorney General responsible for prohibition prosecutions, admitted that alcohol was still readily available across the country. Prohibition also decimated the brewing industry, causing massive job losses and a staggering loss of $11 billion in tax revenues. The cost of enforcement alone amounted to $300 million.

Emptying more than a hundred kegs of beer seized in a raid.

The end of this tumultuous period came in 1933 when the 21st Amendment was passed and ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and effectively ending Prohibition. Control over alcohol shifted from the federal government to the states. While most states embraced alcohol again, a few remained ‘dry’ for some years. Mississippi held onto Prohibition until 1966, and today, there are still local areas where the ban on alcohol persists, a lingering reminder of an era when America said goodbye to alcohol but couldn’t quite make it stick.

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