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
Home liquor still c1920
to make alcohol for home consumption or to sell illegally.
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
A legal medical script for whiskey during the Prohibition
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.