The illegalization of
alcohol (consumption and manufacture) was passed into law at a national
level in 1919 and enacted in 1920. Often historians regard Prohibition as the culmination,
perhaps the over-extension, of the efforts at social change which
thrived during the era. Indeed, because of the many important social
policies determined, the period of American history from 1865 until
1920 is often called the "Progressive Era." During the
period, unions expanded greatly, a number of basic labor rights
were secured, including a minimum working age, and women gained the
right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). Ironically,
at the same time that America was pushing forward its own social
policy with a number of progressive, forward-looking policies, the
first Red Scare ended up in the jailing of tens of thousands of innocent
people. The government played an official hand in the chaos, coordinating
raids across the country.
Prohibition Party political cartoon (Kerr).
Prohibition became national law, there were previous attempts
at imposing "dryness" upon Americans. A national political
party, aptly named the Prohibition Party, was formed on the
basis of its "dry" stance in the 1869. From 1873 to
1874, a large coalition of women led the "Woman's Crusade,"
a movement which sought the destruction of liquor and the closure
of saloons through direct actions, primarily petition campaigns
and demonstrations. Later, a number of civic groups formed to
organize the prohibition effort. The most well-known of these
is the Anti-Saloon League, which had offices throughout the
States and worked closely with churches to push forward the
Anti-Saloon League Banner (Kerr).
One of the most outspoken
rivals of Prohibition was Percy Andreae, who organized a saloon-backed
campaign against the illegalization of liquor. Andreae reveals the
connection between religious interests and the political motivations
of the Prohibitionists, demanding that the Prohibition movement
was largely the result of religious forces attaching themselves
to a policy fad to spread their ideals. He writes:
merely the title of the movement. Its real purpose is of a religious,
sectarian character, and this applies not only to the movement in
America, but to the same movement in England, a fact which, strangely
enough, has rarely, if at all, been recognized by those who have
dealt with the question in the public press.
If there is any one who
doubts the truth of this statement, let me put this to him: How
many Roman Catholics are prohibitionists? How many Jews, the most
temperate race on earth, are to be found in the ranks of prohibition?
Or Lutherans? Or German Protestants generally? What is the proportion
of Episcopalians to that of Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians,
and the like, in the active prohibition army? The answer to these
questions will, I venture to say, prove conclusively the assertion
that the fight for prohibition is synonymous with the fight of a
certain religious sect, or group of religious sects, for the supremacy
of its ideas. In England it is the Nonconformists, which is in that
country the generic name for the same sects, who are fighting the
fight, and the suppression of liquor there is no more the ultimate
end they have in view than it is here in America. It is the fads
and restrictions that are part and parcel of their lugubrious notion
of Godworship which they eventually hope to impose upon the rest
of humanity; a Sunday without a smile, no games, no recreation,
no pleasures, no music, card-playing tabooed, dancing anathematized,
the beauties of art decried as impure-in short, this world reduced
to a barren, forbidding wilderness in which we, its inhabitants,
are to pass our time contemplating the joys of the next. Rather
problematical joys, by the way, if we are to suppose we shall worship
God in the next world in the same somber way as we are called upon
by these worthies to do in this" (Andreae,
It was with the American declaration of war in 1917 that the Prohibitionists
got the push in support necessary to enact the Volstead Act at a national level. The seriousness of the war seemed
to demand a nation with a singularly serious mind, and so the prohibitionists
propagandized around the war, inventing slogans like, "Sober
soldiers and factory hands are better soldiers and factory hands"
(Allsop, 28). A few years after the U.S. began its involvement in World War I,
the Amendment passed. In the Senate the Amendment passed after only
13 hours of debate, and in the House it passed after only one
day (Allsop, 28).
A cartoon criticizing Chicago politicians for their corruption (Kerr).
stamp commemorating the Prohibition Era (Citation).
Prohibition did create
a huge drop-off in consumption in its first few years (see this
for a graph on alcohol consumption), despite claims that it was
the "most alcoholic period in American history" (Allsop,
25). However, very quickly after this drop, as we can see, the
amount of consumption began to rise.
The rise was likely caused
by the proliferation of illegal ("bootlegged") alcohol.
Bootlegging, interestingly, began before Prohibition, and actually
continued after it, as a means of bypassing high taxes on alcohol.
Without tax, bootleg liquor was sold much cheaper than legal alcohol.
By 1930, bootlegging was much more efficiently organized, thanks
to criminals who turned the operations into a full-fledged illicit
industry. By that year, it was estimated that 10,000 speakeasies
were operating (Allsop, 33). In
Chicago, hundreds of bars that were supposed to close simply stayed
open after Prohibition became law. There were innumerable "blind
pigs," bars and saloons with blank fronts (unmarked with any
indication of their function), through which one entered a side
door, often fitted with a peep hole(Allsop,
28). A gentleman's magazine at the time featured an article
on bootlegging, and had this to say, "The sale of dissipation
is not only a great business; it is among the few greatest businesses
of Chicago. The leading branch of it ... is the sale of alcoholic
liquor.... The liquor interests are vastly more extended in Chicago
that any other [city]. There are 7,300 licensed liquor sellers in
Chicago, and in addition about a thousand places where liquor is
sold illegally. The only business which approaches it in number
of establishments ... is the grocery trade, which has about 5,200.
The city spends at least half as much for what it drinks as for
what it eats..." (Turner, 576).
Great Lakes Brewing Company's "Elliot
Ness" amber lager (Citation)
The reason bootlegged
liquor stayed so prominent was simple: it turned an enormous
profit; the cost of manufacture was nil compared to the amount
that could be made from selling it. In one year during Prohibition,
it was estimated that professional bootleggers made about
$4,000,000,000 (Allsop, 33).
A few clever bootleggers convinced doctors to write them prescriptions
for alcohol (medicinal use was not illegalized by the Volstead
Act), finding that many druggists took a prescription as a
ticket for unlimited purchase (Allsop,
Ultimately, it was largely
the harsh enforcement of Prohibition which led many to ultimately
reject it - the defenders of the movement seem to have become far
too fervent in their dedication. For example, in 1928 Fred Palm
of Lansing, Michigan was given life imprisonment for possessing
a pint of gin; in 1929 an Aurora, Illinois housewife was killed
and her husband clubbed by a deputy sheriff searching for liquor;
in 1928, an innocent insurance agent was killed during a Chicago
raid (Allsop, 36). Another example of the extremity of enforcement
is provided (ironically) through the brother of Al Capone, "Three
Gun" Hart. Nine days after his election, Roosevelt asked
Congress to amend the Volstead Act to permit brewing and sale of
beverages up to 3.2% alcohol. In February, 1933 resolutions to repeal
the amendment were passed and Prohibition came to an end.