Thursday, May 17, 2012

Prohibition [USA, 1919-1933]

Prohibition of alcohol, often referred to simply as prohibition, is the legal act of prohibiting the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol and alcoholic beverages.

Prohibition was a major reform movement in the United States of America from the 1840s into the 1920s, and was sponsored by evangelical Protestant churches, especially the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples and Congregationalists. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, and the Prohibition Party were major players until the early 20th century, when the movement was taken over by the Anti-Saloon League. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union [believed that Prohibition] would protect families, women and children from the effects of abuse of alcohol. By using pressure politics on legislators, the Anti-Saloon League achieved the goal of nationwide prohibition during World War I, emphasizing the need to destroy the political corruption of the saloons, the political power of the German-based brewing industry, and the need to reduce domestic violence in the home.

Prohibition was instituted with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 16, 1919, which prohibited the "...manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States..." Congress passed the "Volstead Act" on October 28, 1919, to enforce the law, but most large cities were uninterested in enforcing the legislation, leaving an understaffed federal service to go after bootleggers. [1] Three separate Federal Agencies were to enforce the Volstead Act: a) the United States Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, b) the US Treasury Department IRS Bureau of Prohibition and c) the US Department of Justice Bureau of Prohibition [2]

Nationwide Prohibition in the United States began on January 17, 1920 and focused on the manufacture and sale of alcohol [1]…one anomaly of the Act as worded was that it did not actually prohibit the consumption of alcohol; many people actually stockpiled wines and liquors for their own use in the latter part of 1919 before sales of alcohol became illegal the following January.
Photograph via Corbis.

The introduction of alcohol prohibition and its subsequent enforcement in law was a hotly debated issue. The contemporary prohibitionists ("dries") labeled this as the "Noble Experiment" and presented it as a victory for public morals and health. The consumption of alcohol overall went down and remained below pre-Prohibition levels long after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Anti-prohibitionists ("wets") criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural Protestant ideals on a central aspect of urban, immigrant and Catholic everyday life. Effective enforcement of the alcohol ban during the Prohibition Era proved to be very difficult and led to widespread flouting of the law. The lack of a solid popular consensus for the ban resulted in the growth of vast criminal organizations, including the modern American Mafia, and various other criminal cliques. Widespread disrespect of the law also generated rampant corruption among politicians and within police forces. [2]

The sale of alcohol was illegal, but alcoholic drinks were still widely available. People also kept private bars to serve their guests. Large quantities of alcohol were smuggled in from Canada, overland, by sea along both ocean coasts, and via the Great Lakes. Legal and illegal home brewing was popular during Prohibition. "Malt and hop" stores popped up across the country and some former breweries turned to selling malt extract syrup, ostensibly for baking and "beverage" purposes. [1]

Chicago became a haven for Prohibition dodgers during the time known as the "Roaring Twenties". Many of Chicago's most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and his enemy Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the decade Capone controlled all 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Numerous other crimes, including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activities in Chicago and elsewhere in violation of prohibition. [2] 

A speakeasy, also called a blind pig or blind tiger, was an establishment that illegally sold alcoholic beverages.


The term “bootlegging” came into use in the 1880s, when it referred to the practice of hiding flasks of illegal liquor inside boots.


Prohibition became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression. The repeal movement was started by a wealthy Republican, Pauline Sabin, who said that prohibition should be repealed because it made the US a nation of hypocrites and undermined its respect for the rule of law. Her fellow Republicans were put in office by the "drys" and, even though they eagerly partook in consumption of alcoholic beverages at her parties, in public they presented themselves as opposing the repeal of prohibition, lest they be thrown out of office by the dry voting blocks. 

This hypocrisy and the fact that women led the prohibition movement convinced her to start the organization that eventually led to the repeal of prohibition. When her fellow Republicans would not support her efforts, she went to the Democrats, who changed from drys led by conservative Democrats and Catholics to supporting repeal led by liberal politicians such as La Guardia and Franklin Roosevelt. She, and they, emphasized that repeal would generate enormous sums of much needed tax revenue, and weaken the base of organized crime.

The Repeal of Prohibition in the United States was accomplished with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 5, 1933. By its terms, states were allowed to set their own laws for the control of alcohol. The organized Prohibition movement was dead nationwide, but survived for a while in a few southern and border states. [1]


ca. 1925 Photograph via Corbis
photos from Google Images and The New Yorker's article "We Wanted Beer" 

Viewing material:

Documentary on Prohibition

Brian De Palma's The Untouchables [1987]

Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot [1959]

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