14 January 2020

American Prohibition: well intentioned but doomed to fail

A wave of C19th religious revivalism swept the USA, leading to in­c­reased calls for temperance. In 1838 Massachusetts passed a temp­er­ance law; it failed but a num­ber of other states followed suit by the time the Civil War began in 1861. In all calls for temper­ance, the movement was driven by Methodists, progress­ives and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1873).  Temp­er­ance appealed to women most; alcohol was seen as a destructive force in families and marriages. [I might have agreed with the women, except I drink a glass of wine each night].

Irish immigrants faced religious discrimination and xenophobia from the longer-settled Protestants. Protestant groups, who believed the Irish were constantly drunk, gravitated toward the Republican Party that sometimes promoted the prohibition of alcohol sales. In resp­onse, Catholic immigrants like the Irish felt targeted and blamed.

By the turn of the century, temperance societies popped up in com­munities across the USA. In 1906, a new wave of attacks began on the sale of liquor, led by the powerful Anti-Saloon League (1893) and driven by urban growth, the rise of evangelical Protestantism and the view of culture as ungodly. And many factory owners supported prohibition, to increase the effic­iency of their workers.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John Leach, right, 
watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, 1921 

Police clearing private home of booze, 1930 
History Channel 

Home liquor still c1920 
to make alcohol for home consumption or to sell illegally.

Large beer breweries included Pabst Brewing Co. built by German im­migrants, as were Valentin Blatz, Joseph Schlitz, Miller and Weston, all in Milwaukee. In St Louis, a German immigrant Eberhard Anheuser purchased a brewery and joined with a brewery supplier, his son in law Adolphus Busch. Busch renamed it Anheuser-Busch which, with its Budweiser beer, went on to be the largest beer brand in the world. The successes of these “immigrant” companies bred resentment and xenophobia in Eng­lish speaking families, particularly once Germany became the enemy in 1914. How much did this xenophobia help bring about Prohibition?

In 1917, after the USA entered WWI, President Woodrow Wilson ins­tituted a temporary wartime prohibition in order to save grain for producing food. That same year, Congress submitted the 18th Amend­ment which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of al­cohol, for state ratification. The amendment received the sup­port of the necessary 75% of US states in just 11 months! In Oct 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act.

Governments struggled to enforce Prohibition throughout the 1920s, initially assigned to the Internal Revenue Service, and later tran­s­ferred to the Justice Department. In general, Prohibition was en­forced much more strongly in areas where symp­athetic rural popul­at­ions lived.

Those who wanted to keep drinking found very creative ways. The illegal mak­ing and sale of liquor/boot­legging increased, as did nightclubs selling alcohol/speakeasies, the smuggling of alcohol across state lines and the production of liquor/moonshine in homes.

A rise in gang violence led to waning support for Prohibition by the late 1920s. The Chicago gangster Al Capone (1899–1947) earned a staggering $60 million annually from bootleg operations and speak­­easies! Chicago’s St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 saw several Capone men, dressed as policemen, shoot and kill an enemy gang.

The high price of bootleg liquor meant that the working classes were even more restricted during Prohibition than they usually were. Even before the Depres­sion hit. Given the dire ec­on­omic sit­uation brought on by the Great Depres­s­ion, by 1932 the fed­eral government could not afford to forego the gov­ernment tax rev­enues from the production and con­sumption of al­coh­olic drinks. Before Prohibition, many states relied heavily on excise taxes in liquor sales to fund their bud­gets. In New York, 75% of the state's revenue was derived from liquor taxes. With Pro­h­ibition in effect, that revenue went down and the cost of en­for­cing the law went up.

Now consider the Unintended Consequences of Prohibition. When the law went into effect, Prohibition's supporters expected sales of household goods/clothing to skyrocket. Real estate developers and landlords expected rents to rise, as saloons closed and neighbourhoods improved. Snack food companies and rest­aur­ants expected growth, but they failed. Theatre prod­ucers expect­ed new crowds but they also failed. The closing of breweries, dis­tilleries and saloons led to the elim­in­ation of thousands of jobs, and thousands more jobs were eliminated for barrel makers, waiters, truckies and other related trades.

And consider the loopholes in Prohibition legislation. While the 18th Am­endment prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of in­toxicating beverages, it did not outlaw the drinking of al­co­hol. Furthermore pharm­acists were all­ow­ed to disp­ense whiskey by prescription for ail­ments ranging from anxiety to influenza. [The number of registered pharmacists in New York State tripled during the Prohibition era!] And because Americans were also allowed to obtain wine for rel­ig­ious purposes, enrolments rapidly rose at churches and synagogues.

Home stills were illegal, but Americans could purchase them at many hardware stor­es, while instructions for distilling were found in public lib­raries. The law that was meant to stop Am­ericans from drinking alcohol .. instead made them distilling experts.

Pub­lic health was damaged. As the trade in illegal alcohol became more lucrative, the quality of alcohol on the black market declined. On average 1000 Americans died every year during the Prohibition from drinking tainted liquor.

Anti-Saloon League paper American Issue, 1919 
Celebrating with the heading: US is voted dry 
Westerville Library Ohio

A legal medical script for whiskey during the Prohibition

For over a decade the law was meant to foster temperance, but it fostered int­emperance and illegality instead. So the final con­sequence was this: since Prohib­ition made crim­inals of mil­l­ions of ordinary Americ­ans, courts and gaols over­flowed. Many defendants in proh­ib­ition cases waited over a year, just to be brought to trial.

Only by re-legalising the liquor industry could they create jobs and imp­rove revenue. Calling for Prohibition’s repeal, Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt easily won victory over President Her­bert Hoover. FDR’s victory meant the end for Prohibition, and in Feb 1933 Congress proposed a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. It was ratified by the end of that year and the amendment was submitted to the states. In Dec 1933 Utah provided the 36th and final necessary vote for ratification.

Prohibition was an excellent tv series produced by PBS in 2011.


Sue Bursztynski said...

The story of Prohibition is bizarre! Things never go as you expect in these cases. I was thinking, myself, how many jobs it would have cost.

I had heard about the 19th century temperance movement. Did you know that Thomas Cook started off as a way of getting people to temperance meetings?

Joseph said...

Who policed the police?
Who guarded the Canadian border?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Another unforeseen consequence of prohibition was the damage to the American wine industry. In Ohio, The shores and islands of Lake Erie were particularly famous for their wines, as the growing conditions were ideal for grapes. In the 19th century, Ohio wines were perhaps the most highly regarded in the United States.

Places like California and New York regained their wine production, but the Ohio wine industry ever recovered its former renown. Today however there are a number of boutique wineries around Lake Erie and its islands.

mem said...

Yes well some might say that the consequences are being mirrored in the Illegality and criminalization of illegal Drugs. Its an interesting one to contemplate . The prohibition actually focused a lot of attention on what was prohibited as does the covering of women in some cultures where men in particular will be focused on a show of ankle rather than the human being Prohibition seems a very risky business in some ways and yet the urge to prohibit destructive behaviors and substances is coming from a good place at least some of the time

Hels said...


how terrible was the unemployment in working families :( The Beareau of Internal revenue estimated that Prohibition caused the shutdown of over 200 distilleries, thousands of breweries, 200,000 liquor stores and truckies. And while it was destroying legal jobs, it created a black market in which many thousands of illegal jobs were created.

Of course the politicians could not have known that the Great Depression was about to arrive (1929) and 13 million more Americans would lose their jobs.

Thomas Cook (1808–92) was brought up as a strict Baptist, joining the local Temperance Society at 17. Over the next few years he spent his spare-time preaching, campaigning against the demon alcohol and publishing Baptist and Temperance pamphlets. Then his organised trips - clever bloke :)


Hels said...


In 1919 the IRS established the Prohibition Unit, staffed by agents who were not required to take Civil Service exams, leaving the door open for members of Congress and state politicians to appoint their cronies, even those with criminal backgrounds. The government provided funds for only 1,500 agents to enforce Prohibition across the _entire_ nation, men who were issued guns and given access to vehicles, but many had no training.

So the main answer was no-one policed the police. They answered to the loudest political voice in their city, dry or wet.

Hels said...


Whereas most people believed that drinks should only be banned if their alcohol level was, for example, 6.5% or more by volume, the Volstead Act defined “intoxicating” as containing 0.5% or more alcohol, thereby prohibiting virtually all alcoholic drinks. It should never have been necessary for the good wines of the shores and islands of Lake Erie to be closed down.

On the other hand whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, tequila and vodka were typically 40% or more alcohol and would have been prohibited under any definition of intoxicating drink.

Hels said...


I do believe that the urge to prohibit destructive behaviours and substances was coming from a very good place, yes. But the prohibition laws were so clumsy, and the enforcement was so inept or corrupt, that Federal and state politicians should have been alerted to the failures within a year.

They could have banned alcohol to people under 21; banned alcohol being sold in bottle shops and supermarkets so that people HAD to drink in supervised pubs; introduced educational programmes in schools; put alcoholics into residential treatment facilities rather than in gaol etc etc.

Peter Eedy said...

Great article, thanks Hels!

It reminded me of parallels in Brisbane between the 1860s and the early 1900s, when the very active Protestant-driven temperance society railed against alcoholism, and advocated prohibition (which didn't happen, of course)--against the background of large numbers of working-class Irish immigrants from the early 1860s

Inaugural Qld governor George Bowen would have ruffled a few feathers with his entertaining speech at the laying of the foundation stone for the Temperance Hall in 1864:

Hels said...


that reminds me... I should have mentioned Prohibition in other (non Muslim) countries. The impetus for the prohibition movement in Scandinavia and North America came from moralistic Protestant beliefs. Prohibition movements in the West coincided with the advent of women's suffrage, with newly empowered women as part of the political process strongly supporting policies that curbed alcohol consumption and protected families. For example with the exception of Denmark, Scandinavia had a strong temperance movement since the late 1800s. Canada did have a _National_ prohibition from 1918 to 1920 (post WW1), but most action in Canada was in the _Provinces_. Australia, as you mentioned, was less coordinated at the state level.

I would love to know how Prohibition worked in these other countries.

Andrew said...

Proving the saying, be careful what you wish for. It is hard to understand why probably intelligent law makers and government officials didn't really think it through and reach some knock on effect conclusions.

Hels said...


I ask the same question.. since the most politicians, police officers and the President all liked to drink themselves, how did they NOT know that banning alcohol would never convince the population not to drink. Perhaps if the Dry message was coming from God, church leaders or the women's movement, the politicians assumed men across the nation would immediately obey.

Ask yourself and your friends what would happen if this country or state banned all alcohol now. They would not become gangsters with guns, but they might certainly bring bottles from overseas and hide them in the suitcase. Or store up supplies in the home, the week before the ban officially started.

mem said...

well its all about being SEEN to do the right things. Politicians have always been tempted by cynical populism . Look at Trump and his appeal to the evangelical Christians . I have NEVER seen anything as cynical on both sides of the fence as that

Hels said...


imagine politicians being cynical or corrupt!! ha ha. Or senior police, for that matter. And not just re alcohol. Look at the Queensland politicians who got long gaol sentences for corruption, receiving secret commissions and misappropriating public funds.