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Start of Prohibition in the USA

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 17 Jan

Start of Prohibition in the United States of America


  -  January 17th 1920  -  



The history of America flirting with ‘banning the bottle’ actually started in 1851 when Maine passed a stateside law prohibiting the making and sale of alcohol. Twelve other states followed suit. Such was its unpopularity that it led to riots and civil unrest. Several years later it was repealed, such is the nature of a democratic society where popularity means votes and votes means power. As we will see later, history repeats itself. How often do we hear this?


Congress had twice tried to pass a Prohibition Act in 1913 and 1915. Many were questioning why people were drinking whilst their soldiers were fighting in Europe. It did not seem right. The Temperance movement began to get up a head of steam alongside the Anti-Saloon League and religious groups, such as the Methodists, were turning up the pressure too. They were arguing that alcohol was damaging American society and drinking was against God’s will. They believed that banning the making, selling and transportation of alcohol would:

·      Reduce crime and corruption

·      Solve some of the social problems in America

·      Reduce the tax burden created by issues surrounding alcohol especially in prisons

·      Improve the health of the nation

·      Increase the amount of grain available to make bread – especially barley – with which to feed returning US soldiers.


Posters showing the deleterious effects of alcohol became commonplace and the movement eventually led to Congress passing a resolution to submit a constitutional amendment for states to ratify. This would outlaw the “Manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors”. The first state to pass this act was Mississippi on January 8th 1918 and the 36th was Nebraska on Jan 16th 1919 thus passing the new amendment. On October 28th 1919 Congress passed the National Prohibition Act – also known as the Volstead Act. This was ratified on January 16th 1920 and came into force the following day, 17th.


There were some alcoholic drinks that were exempt. Sacramental wine was one of these. In the first two years after the new law came into force an extra 800,000 gallons of communion wine was ordered. Medicinal whiskey was also still allowed as long as it was prescribed by the doctor. Patients with a prescription could order a pint of whiskey every 10 days. Chemists became, in effect, mini bars. The drinking of alcohol purchased before January 1920 was also not illegal and many had stockpiled vast amounts that kept, miraculously, being replenished.


The western states and those in the rural south rigorously enforced the new laws but much less so in the more urban areas. Federal agents were employed to crack down on illegal manufacture and its sale. The problem was that there were only 1500 of these agents nationwide in 1920. These agents were also paid very little and were thus easy to bribe. In Detroit the alcohol industry became the second most important to the economy after motorcar trade and in New York City there were over 30,000 speakeasies – illegal bars. Illegal alcohol was big business and many died from drinking dangerous substances. 10,000 died alone from drinking wood alcohol. A lot of alcohol was also imported illegally from Canada.


Prohibition created huge public demand for illegal drink and this led to a massive increase in organised crime. Gang leaders fought for control of the speakeasies. In Chicago Al Capone battled with Bugs Moran. Between 1927 and 1930 over 500 gangland murders had been committed. The worst of these was the Valentine’s Day Massacre when Al Capone’s gang murdered seven members of Bugs Moran’s whilst Capone was sunning himself on a beach in Florida.


It became evident in the late 1920s, early 1930s, that the law was not working. The bribing of the federal agents led to very few arrests and laws simply not being enforced. Resources at state level were being diverted away from other needy issues, organised crime was spiralling out of control and there were not enough people on the ground to make it work.


The 1932 Presidential election was fought by Franklin D. Roosevelt on the basis of repealing the law and he won by a landslide. Congress ratified the 21st Amendment on December 5th 1933 and states were allowed to set their own laws. Kansas and Oklahoma remained ‘dry’ until 1948 and 1959 respectively and Mississippi until 1966. Indeed, some states still have counties within them that are still ‘dry’ to this day.


The popular perception is that drinking increased the consumption of alcohol. In the 1990s the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston University produced figures showing that in the early years of prohibition consumption dropped by 70%. This jumped in the later years but still remained 30% lower than before 1920 and many argue that consumption stayed lower for 25 years. 

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