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What Was Prohibition?

By Jo Marshall
Share to PinterestWhat Was Prohibition?

Prohibition was written into law with the passage of the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1920. The period lasted almost 14 years, until December 5, 1933, when the law was repealed in the 21st Amendment. The "Noble Experiment," as prohibition was called, was a time of gangsters, speakeasies, and bootleggers.

Temperance movements, beginning almost 100 years earlier, and supported by churches, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, formed a strong voice against alcohol in the United States. The Volstead Act, passed in 1919, was the first step towards the passage of Prohibition.


Temperance Movements

The temperance movements began in the early 1800s. The movements were backed by a mix of religious revivalists in search of a perfect nation, including Progressive reformers, and women suffragists, who believed that alcohol was destroying their families and finances. Business owners also backed the ideal as industry boomed. They wanted to ensure their workers were sober and putting in a hard day's work.

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The Volstead Act

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Representative Andrew Volstead from Minnesota promoted the National Prohibition Act, which was more widely known as the Volstead Act. It had been originally written by Wayne Wheeler who was part of the Anti-Saloon League. Strangely enough, the act did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol, but it did make it very difficult to obtain. Originally vetoed by President Wilson, the veto was overridden by the House and the Senate by the following day.

The Volstead Act prohibited not only the sale, manufacture, and transport of intoxicating beverages but also prohibited them outright. On the flip side, it did make allowance for religious purposes, fuel, and science. Of important note, the Volstead Act did not make it illegal to consume alcohol.


The 18th Amendment

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Ratification of the 18th Amendment occurred on January 29th, 1919. During World War I, in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had enacted a wartime prohibition, which was to be temporary. This ensured the use of grain for war efforts rather than alcohol. When Congress submitted the 18th Amendment, it took only 11 months to be ratified; much sooner than their projected seven years. At the time, there were already 33 states with some sort of prohibition legislation in place. Followed by the passage of the Volstead Act in October of that year, prohibition became law at midnight on January 17, 1920.


Getting Around the Law Legally

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With a fair warning and the fact that the Volstead Act did not implicitly make consumption of alcohol illegal, people found loopholes in the law. You could drink alcohol with a prescription, making doctors a very popular commodity. Many people purchased alcohol just before it was outlawed and stored it in hidden spaces for later. As it's actual consumption was not illegal, this was a gray area used not only by regular citizens but gangsters as well.


Speakeasies, Bootleggers, and Bathtub Gin

The roaring twenties began with gangsters operating bootleg operations. Rumrunners brought illegal rum up from the Carribean, while homemade stills and bootleggers supplied much of the country with alcohol. Speakeasies were hopping with bathtub gin. This term came to encompass all types of homemade alcohol, much of which was of poor quality.

The glamor of the speakeasies was reminiscent of the gay nineties, a time period where liquor flowed, people dressed to the nines, and there was a heightened sense of gaiety and excitement. Ever fearful of a bust by the Feds, most speakeasies were highly guarded with hidden doors and passwords. Inside, the music played, and the party never ended. It was the age of the flapper and good times.

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Chicago's Al Capone is one of the most well-known gangsters of the Prohibition era. He was just one of the numerous gangsters who had either stockpiled liquor or hired rumrunners or bootleggers to quench the thirst of a now dry nation. Capone's illicit activities made him a wealthy man.

Capone and his cronies owned many of the nightclubs and often bribed local police to turn a blind eye to their activities. Most cities were not prepared for the sheer amount of manpower and resources required to enforce the new law, and a general sense of lawlessness prevailed.


Moonshine and The Revenuers

The federal government began to poison industrial alcohol, and although chemists found ways to remove the poisons, approximately 10,000 deaths are attributed to the consumption of denatured alcohol during Prohibition. Moonshiners and bootleggers modified their vehicles to escape agents from the Bureau of Prohibition, commonly called "revenuers." The bureau was formed not only to enforce the law but to destroy homemade stills since moonshine was not taxed. The modifications bootleggers used to make their cars run faster were the origins of Nascar.

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Prohibition Begins to Fail

As lawlessness and gangland massacres became more widespread, the Noble Experiment began to crumble around the edges. The "wet" Northern senators argued that it was increasing violence. George Cassiday, a well-known bootlegger of the time, not only addressed Congress but wrote in the Washington Post, that about 80% of the Senate and Congress drank. The stock market crash and resulting Depression helped ease the way for the end of Prohibition. People needed jobs, and the government would benefit from the taxation of alcohol. By 1932, the number of supporters to end Prohibition was almost equal to the number who promoted it.

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Repealing Prohibition With the 21st Amendment

The Great Depression had begun and Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the repeal of Prohibition as part of his platform when running for President. The 21st Amendment was passed on December 5, 1933 and it did a lot more than simply end Prohibition. This is the only time a constitutional amendment had been overturned and was also the only time an amendment was used to ratify state conventions. It gave the power of deciding whether a state would be dry or wet to individual states. The last dry state ended in 1966, although there are still dry counties.

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One Last Note on Prohibition Wine

According to the Volstead Act, sacramental wine was allowed for religious ceremonies, and wine-making continued to flourish even during Prohibition. Home consumption of fruit juice led wine-makers to create wine bricks which could be placed in water. These came with a warning, to not allow it to set for more than 20 days. At this point, the juice could become wine, and you wouldn't want that.

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