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Everything you ever wanted to know about Prohibition

Perhaps your interest has been sparked by the new Ken Burns documentary, or perhaps you’ve always been curious. Either way, there’s a lot to learn about (and learn from) Prohibition. The following article by Pete Brown is from The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garret Oliver.

Prohibition, or “the Noble Experiment,” refers to the period between 1919 and 1933 when the sale, manufacture, and distribution of alcohol were illegal in the United States. Although it may have  lasted only 14 years, Prohibition was the culmination of decades of protest and lobbying and has ramifications that are still felt today. It remains the focal point of the ongoing debate surrounding the potential dangers and benefits of alcohol and people’s right to drink as they please.


It is easy for those who enjoy alcohol to dismiss prohibitionists as radical fundamentalists or miserable killjoys, so it is important if we want to understand Prohibition properly to appreciate the conditions by which it came about. Throughout the history of alcohol, epidemics of destructive drinking have always occurred at times of massive social upheaval, when populations face the stressful shattering of their lifestyles and the uncertainty of new economic and societal realities.

One such era was the rapid industrialization of the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. Just as Britain had experienced its own gin epidemic in the world’s first Industrial Revolution a century before, so the United States was transformed by forces that ran almost out of control. The big businesses that built railroads, manufacturing industries, and financial centers marched on for a time with unfettered power, with little regard for the social consequences of their actions. Poverty, crime, slavery, prostitution, and alcoholism were seen as blights on the face of a young nation, and the middle classes were keen to define a morality and sense of society that they felt could be described as American.

Alcohol was one of several targets—with some justification. Although many saloons were well run, there were also those that encouraged children to drink to get them into the habit or enticed men with free food or free beer to persuade them to carry on drinking. Alcohol-fueled violence and disorder, although perhaps not epidemic, were certainly significant problems in urban areas.

The Maine Law

In Maine in 1851, a law was passed to prohibit the sale of all alcoholic beverages except for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes.” It was an attempt to “validate American family values,” like the laws against adultery, dueling, and lotteries that were being passed by state legislatures at the time. The Maine example quickly spread elsewhere, and by 1855 a total of 12 states had joined Maine in total prohibition.

The law was highly unpopular, and opposition soon turned violent. Disturbances such as the Lager Beer Riots in Chicago in 1855 ultimately led to repeal in 1856. But these laws were not really working anyway—dry states could do nothing to prevent the transport of liquor across state lines, and some states simply chose not to enforce them. Whereas alcohol consumption was actually declining before the Maine Law was passed, consumption of beer, wine, and whiskey in the United States all increased between 1850 and 1860.

The year 1861 saw the outbreak of the American Civil War. Within the new society’s emerging moral compass, the campaign against slavery temporarily pushed the Temperance issue into the background. The anti-drink lobby retreated to reconsider and began to reorganize much more effectively.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Anti-Saloon League

In 1873, the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement came together not, in fact, to advocate temperance—or moderation—but the outright universal Prohibition of alcohol. They did so because they believed the saloon was the center of society’s ills and campaigned to have them closed down using a mixture of prayer and direct, confrontational action.

The Movement’s most infamous member, Carrie Nation, was an imposing lady, 6 feet tall, dressed in black, and accessorized with an axe. In 1890 Kansas was a dry state, but the law was not being enforced. With a group of her sisters, Nation prayed and read the Bible outside a saloon in the town of Medicine Lodge, hoping God would force it to close. Eventually she grew tired of waiting, strode into the saloon with her axe, and smashed the place to matchwood, while patrons fled and staff stood agape. Between 1900 and 1910 she was arrested 30 times for violent conduct and criminal damage. She paid her fines with fees from lecture tours and sales of souvenir axes. In her own words, she was “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.”

The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) favored careful politicking over sensational stunts and was ultimately more effective. This, the first real single-issue pressure group, was founded in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, by Howard Hyde Russell, who circumvented the politics and infighting that dogged other groups by organizing it more like a bureaucratic corporation than a democratic, committee-led special interest group. The ASL had a clear focus on how politicians voted rather than whether they personally drank. It supported dry political candidates, put pressure on waverers, and succeeded in making Prohibition a vote-winning issue.

Apart from direct pressure on politicians, the ASL carried out a very effective public relations campaign demonizing drink. Using baseless “scientific” studies and scare stories, their simple, effective propaganda portrayed drinkers as victims, lured in and broken down by the saloon. They claimed that alcohol killed 50,000 people a year and that after one taste of alcohol people were hooked and would develop a ruinous habit. Powerful cartoons appeared, such as one showing a man handcuffed to a giant beer bottle labeled “drinking habit” on a saloon bar, while at home his daughter asks, “Mummy, why doesn’t Daddy come home?” Another, “Christmas morning in the Drunkard’s Home,” simply shows children in ragged nightclothes weeping at the sight of their empty stockings.

Over a few decades, popular opinion turned against alcohol. By 1920, some Americans regarded drinkers with such disgust that, at the Fifteenth International Congress Against Alcoholism in Washington, two doctors were able to seriously consider their outright extermination, before pulling back and proposing what they called the more “humane method” of simply rounding them up into concentration camps and sterilizing them.

Against all this, the brewing industry did little to help itself. Unsavory sales promotion practices in saloons continued, and when spirits manufacturers suggested a joint lobbying campaign against Prohibition, the brewers refused to acknowledge the common cause. As late as 1916, a brewing trade publication declared that “All people hate drunkards and whisky makes them. Men drinking beer exclusively may become ‘funny’ but never drunk.”

Th at same year, Congress passed the Sixteenth Amendment, which gave federal government the right to raise a nationwide income tax. A powerful argument against Prohibition had always been that taxes on alcohol sales provided the government with 40% of its revenue. Now, the Prohibitionists argued, those vital funds could be raised by other means.

The Volstead Act

In January 1917 the 65th Congress convened, in which “dries” outnumbered “wets” by 140 to 64 in the Democratic Party and 138 to 62 among Republicans. With America’s declaration of war against Germany in April, the powerful, pro-beer German American lobby was silenced, whereas simultaneously the debate about the best use of raw materials during the war eff ort added yet another argument to the Prohibitionist’s armory.

On December 18, 1917, the Senate proposed the Eighteenth Amendment, establishing a legal definition for intoxicating liquor, outlawing the manufacture, sale, and transportation of any drink stronger than 0.5% alcohol, and setting out penalties for doing so. (Interestingly, the consumption of alcohol was never itself prohibited.) Thirty-three of the then 48 states were already dry by this time: the Act was simply ratifying what many already believed. President Woodrow Wilson exercised his veto, raging,

These miserable hypocrites in the House and Senate . . . many with their cellars stocked with liquors and not believing in prohibition at all— jumping at the whip of the lobbyists . . . The country would be better off with light wines and beers.

The veto was immediately overturned, and the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and put into effect a year later.

The Prohibition Era

It quickly became clear that Prohibition was impractical. The first problem was smuggling. It was illegal to transport alcoholic beverages across state lines; it was also illegal to transport them across national borders. But there was a large difference between stating this and enforcing it. There simply were not enough agents to prevent alcohol entering the United States from Canada. As one commentator observed, “You can’t stop liquor from dripping through a dotted red line.” There are no figures for how much booze was smuggled over the Canadian border, but revenues from liquor taxes to the Canadian government increased fourfold during Prohibition, at the same time as consumption statistics suggest the quantity of spirits drunk by the Canadian population virtually halved.

Spirits also entered the United States from the West Indies. The Rum Runner Bill McCoy became so famous for the quality of his liquor that “The Real McCoy” entered the language to describe the genuine article.

Those who could not get the Real McCoy simply made their own. It is hard to make illegal a process that occurs in nature, and homemade alcohol was easy to manufacture. An estimated 70 million gallons of moonshine were made from corn sugar every year. This was mixed with glycerine and juniper oil to create “bathtub gin” (so called not because it was mixed in bathtubs, but because it was diluted with water from bath taps.)

Most of this imported and home-distilled alcohol was sold in covert drinking clubs or speakeasies. One Prohibition agent reckoned that in 1926 there were 100,000 in New York alone, and although they were sometimes raided, it was futile to make any serious att empt to eradicate them when many numbered city officials and dignitaries among their regular customers.

It is often suggested that Prohibition was such a failure that alcohol consumption actually increased during the years it was enforced. Although there can be no accurate measure of clandestine consumption of illegally brewed booze, this is probably not true. But what is undeniably true is that Prohibition ultimately had the opposite effect of what the original temperance campaigners intended. Before Prohibition, there had been a steady shift from consumption of spirits toward beer. Once alcohol consumption was illegal, speakeasy customers tended to be dedicated drinkers, favoring the more direct alcohol hit from spirits. Beer was also much harder to produce illegally compared with bathtub gin. Those who defied Prohibition therefore tended to become harder drinkers than they had been before. From a position where beer was by far the dominant drink, during Prohibition spirits rose to account for 75% of all alcohol drunk in the United States.

If hypocrisy allowed Americans to keep drinking while supporting Prohibition (one wag said people would “vote dry as long as they were able to stagger to the polls”), the economics of illegal alcohol sales eventually turned public opinion toward thoughts of repeal. Bootleg booze fueled the growth of organized crime across the United States. Most famously, Chicago became a haven for  mugglers, profiteers, and drinkers. Gangsters such as Al Capone and his rival Bugs Moran made millions of dollars from illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the 1920s Capone controlled all of Chicago’s 10,000 speakeasies and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. But when people started dying in intergang rivalry—most notably in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929—the public began to feel that the power of the gangsters was out of control.

Other events that same year also put an end to one of Prohibition’s most persuasive arguments. With income tax in place, Prohibitionists had been able to argue that on the one hand, central government no longer needed liquor tax to keep the treasury running. On the other, they argued that the money being poured into saloons would be freed up and spent on other goods and services, fueling the manufacturing industry rather than lining brewers’ pockets. This never happened—those who still chose to drink ended up spending more as prices increased, and the huge cost of att empting to enforce Prohibition further emptied state coffers. And following 1929’s Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression left the country broke. The economic arguments for Prohibition—which everyone knew was not working anyway—simply fell apart, and the lost revenue from liquor taxes started to look too good to go without.

In 1932, industrialist John D Rockefeller Junior wrote,

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

That year, Franklin Roosevelt stood for the Presidency on a repeal platform. He won one of the biggest landslides in electoral history.


On March 22, 1933, Roosevelt signed into law an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen–Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture, transportation, and sale of some alcoholic beverages. Prohibition was repealed at midnight on April 7, 1933. At 12.01 am , the brewers of Milwaukee and St Louis opened their gates and shipped 15 million bottles of beer. The first consignment from Anheuser-Busch went to the airport, from whence it was delivered to the White House and to pro-repeal lobbyists in New York by the company’s new Clydesdale horses. The manufacture of spirits still required various licensing agreements, and by a simple administrative oversight, homebrewing would remain illegal until 1979. By the time Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing, American beer enthusiasts felt they sorely needed it.

The Prohibition Aftermath

By any true measure, Prohibition can only be regarded as a failure. But it has had lasting repercussions for the United States. Anti-alcohol sentiment ebbs and flows, but still runs very high in American society: 35% of the population do not drink, half of them for religious reasons. Neo-Prohibitionists on the religious right still run campaigns attempting to equate beer with heroin or crack cocaine.

America has Prohibition to thank for the growth of organized crime. Mafia groups had largely confined their activities to gambling and theft before 1920. By 1933, with powerful infrastructures in place and corrupted law enforcement officials under their control, gangs and families simply moved into different product lines once alcohol was no longer quite so profitable to them.

And Prohibition had a permanent effect on America’s beer palate. Of the 1,392 brewers in operation before Prohibition, only 164 remained afterward. America’s fledgling wine industry was destroyed entirely and would take decades to re-emerge. A generation that had known nothing but soft drinks rejected the bitt erness of the Bavarian-style beers that had been popular in America before Prohibition and demanded something sweeter. Modern American beer, less characterful than traditional beer styles, became ubiquitous, and it would only be after the 1979 legalization of homebrewing and the growth of craft brewing that America would once again know an interesting variety of beer styles and tastes.

It was not all bad: the popularity of speakeasies did lead directly to the spread of jazz music across America. But although this is obviously a good thing, it is unlikely that those who suffered the lasting effects of organized crime or bad liquor would consider it a worthwhile legacy.

Barr, Andrew. Drink: A social history. New York : Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1999.
Ogle, Maureen. Ambitious brew: The story of American beer. Orlando, FL : Harcourt Books , 2006.
Peck, Garrett. The prohibition hangover: Alcohol in America from demon rum to cult Cabernet. New Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press, 2009.

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Recent Comments

  1. Jason Karsen

    This was a very good artical
    It dose dose not cover the new Neo Prohibition movement however. This movement tries to impose a course to prohibition through gradual restrictions on all alcohol consumers. Many of there claims are not backed by unbiased research. This has resulted in modern day witch trials where a person can not prove that he or she has been drinking responsibly or that there is such a thing. The focus of these witch hunts have been most prevalent in driving, parenting and divorce. Normal law does not seem to apply and one must admit guilt, abstain completely or face the most severe of penalties.

  2. […] that they would be unwise to oppose it. President Woodrow Wilson, who tried to veto prohibition, was scathing about the supine […]

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