How Prohibition Worked

By: Alia Hoyt
New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition. Library of Congress

Beer. Wine. Liquor. Hooch. Moonshine. Whatever kind of alcohol you prefer (or don't, for that matter), you can't argue that it has a pretty strong grip on American society. The alcohol industry spends more than $2 billion a year on advertising — bombarding TV watchers with racy commercials, splashing beer logos around stadiums and sponsoring NASCAR race cars. It's hard to believe that less than a century ago, a country that now so clearly embraces alcohol tried its best to completely abolish it.

From 1920 to 1933, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution forbade the sale, manufacture and importation of alcohol (interestingly, the actual act of drinking it was not illegal). This 13-year period was called Prohibition. Support for the legislation had been gaining ground for decades through the anti-alcohol efforts of the temperance movement, which finally achieved its goal of a nationwide ban.


The United States was a very different place when Prohibition was enacted. World War I was just coming to a close, and women and minorities still lacked the right to vote. So why did so many people spend so much time and effort trying to get rid of alcohol? In this article, you'll learn why and how Prohibition was enacted. You'll also find out how it affected the economy, organized crime and corruption — and how it was eventually reversed, much to the relief of future fraternity boys everywhere.

The Temperance Movement

Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union march on Washington, D.C., in 1909 to present a petition supporting Prohibition.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The idea of banning alcohol in the United States started to pick up steam in the 1830s, long before Prohibition was instated. Many people believed that alcohol was strongly connected to insanity, poverty and many of the world's evils, and so the temperance movement gained momentum. The number of people opposed to "demon rum" grew exponentially. Before long, thousands of societies sprouted up that were dedicated to promoting temperance. Hundreds of thousands of supporters helped spread the word, and early temperance laws began to take shape.

­In 1838, Massachusetts created a law that made it possible to buy hard liquor only in large quantities, so working-class citizens wouldn't be able to purchase it. And in 1846, Maine became the first state to pass a statewide Prohibition law. This encouraged other cities and counties to go "dry."


In the 1850s, the First Reform Era began with the intent of bringing change to certain areas of society, namely slavery. The anti-alcohol movement followed suit — at this time, Irish and German immigrants were the focus of reformers. Much of the initial successes happened in rural America, specifically the Western and Southern states. Big-city folk were not nearly as interested in giving up alcohol as those in the Bible Belt were.

The Civil War sucked some of the life out of the Prohibition cause, albeit temporarily. After the war ended, a boom in the liquor industry, which led to increased alcohol consumption, rekindled the movement's fire. A couple of major forces in the Prohibition movement were created at this time:

  • The Prohibition Party formed in 1869 when political advocates grew tired of Republicans and Democrats avoiding the issue. The party platform contended that outlawing alcohol would be the end of social and political corruption.
  • The Women's Christian Temperance Union was formed in 1873 when 70 women from Hillsboro, Ohio, prayed on the floor of local saloons after a rousing pro-temperance sermon at a church. Eventually, the group's membership spread nationally, and it became a major political force.­­­


The 18th Amendment

A man checks out a sidewalk sign pointing the way to an illegal speakeasy.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The groups dedicated to encouraging temperance had a number of reasons for it. They believed there to be a direct link between alcohol and many antisocial behaviors, like child abuse and domestic violence. Another famous concern was that of Henry Ford, who believed that alcohol had a negative impact on labor productivity.

Anti-German sentiment during World War I helped catapult the issue into law. Many of the nation's breweries were operated by German immigrants, also known as "alien enemies" by the Anti-Saloon League. The sentiment was that the grain being produced should be used to feed soldiers rather than produce alcohol.


Many others fought this growing issue tooth-and-nail. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform were just two of these groups.

Despite the efforts of anti-prohibition groups, support gathered for a ban on alcohol, and Congress passed the 18th Amendment on Jan. 16, 1919 (it went into effect in 1920). The amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, export, import and transportation of alcoholic beverages — but stopped short of banning personal possession and consumption.

Basically, if your wine cellar was already stocked, you didn't have much to worry about. The 18th Amendment brought to a national level what was already accepted in many states. Sixty-five percent of the country, including 19 states, had already banned alcohol on a local level.

The Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act, was crucial to the success of the 18th Amendment — it provided the federal government with enforcing ability. It also defined criminal penalties, exceptions (medicinal and religious-ceremony use) and the alcohol levels that qualified as "intoxicating." Any beverage with more than 0.5 percent alcohol was over the legal limit.


Enforcing Prohibition

Bystanders attempt to catch moonshine being poured out of a second- story window by federal agents during a raid on an illegal still.
American Stock/Getty Images

In a perfect world, once a law or constitutional amendment is passed, the resources necessary to enforce it are plentiful and effective. Prohibition, unfortunately for its supporters, was not so easily enforced. Many challenges quickly surfaced when it came time to keep demon rum from being bought, sold or imported.

  • G­angs of illegal alcohol traffickers, comparable to today's illegal drug rings, became common. They were able to charge a steep price for sneaking alcohol into the country — and they thrived in the process.
  • It became obvious that bootlegging had reached an all-time high when the demand for $10,000 notes reached an unprecedented level in 1926. Critics of Prohibition recognized this as a telltale sign of large transactions between bootleggers.
  • European "rum fleets" proliferated. Small boats would sail out to ships waiting in international waters and bring back large quantities of alcohol. It was also very easy to smuggle alcohol from Canada.
  • Political corruption reached new levels, as those who were profiting from illegal trafficking lined the pockets of crooked politicians.
  • Illegal speakeasies flourished. Prior to Prohibition, there were fewer than 15,000 legal bars in the United States. By 1927, however, more than 30,000 speakeasies were serving illegally across the country. Approximately 100,000 people brewed alcohol illegally from home.
  • Undercover police officers were trying to do their jobs, but the available manpower was still tiny in comparison with the thriving industry. Even when arrests were made, corruption made it nearly impossible to convict anyone. For example, during one time period more than 7,000 arrests were made in New York for alcohol violations, and only 17 of those ended in conviction. Many states eventually grew tired of the hassle. In fact, by 1925 six states had developed laws that kept police from investigating infractions. Cities in the Midwest and Northeast were particularly uninterested in enforcing Prohibition.

Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City, testified before the Senate judiciary committee and had this to say about Prohibition: "It is impossible to tell whether Prohibition is a good thing or a bad thing. It has never been enforced in this country."


The Effects of Prohibition

An illegal still, circa 1931
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As we mentioned, Prohibition created a vast illegal market for the production, trafficking and sale of alcohol. In turn, the economy took a major hit, thanks to lost tax revenue and legal jobs.

Prohibition nearly ruined the country's brewing industry. Anheuser-Busch survived Prohibition by turning to other products, such as ice cream, root beer, malt extract and corn syrup. The city of St. Louis boasted 22 breweries before Prohibition, and a mere nine reopened after it ended.


The start of the Great Depression (1929-1939) caused a huge change in American opinion about Prohibition. Economic issues crippled the country, and it just didn't make sense to those suffering that the country couldn't profit from the legal taxation of alcohol. After all, the gangsters and bootleggers certainly seemed to benefit.

Prohibition also produced some interesting statistics concerning the health of Americans.

  • Deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver in men dropped to 10.7 men per 100,000 from 29.5 men per 100,000 from 1911 to 1929.
  • On the other hand, adulterated or contaminated liquor contributed to more than 50,000 deaths and many cases of blindness and paralysis. It's pretty safe to say this wouldn't have happened in a country where liquor production was monitored and regulated.
  • Alcohol consumption during Prohibition declined between 30 and 50 percent.
  • Conversely, by the end of the 1920s there were more alcoholics and illegal drinking establishments than before Prohibition.


Prohibition Ends

People in New York celebrate the ratification of the 21st Amendment ending Prohibition, Dec. 5, 1933
New York Times Co./Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It takes one constitutional amendment to undo another. Enter the 21st Amendment, the first — and, so far, only — amendment to restore rights taken away by a previous amendment. In 1932, both parties called for the 18th Amendment to be repealed. In 1933, Congress answered by passing a resolution proposing the repeal. Once three-fourths of the states had ratified the resolution, the 21st Amendment was passed and alcohol began to flow again legally in the United States.

By Dec. 5, 1933, when the amendment was ratified, even people who had vocally supported Prohibition had changed their tune dramatically. Their opinions about the evils of alcohol remained, but they had realized the effects of Prohibition to be far-reaching and perhaps worse than alcohol itself. According to famous tycoon John D. Rockefeller, "Drinking has generally increased, the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale."


After Prohibition

After Prohibition was repealed, it was left up to the states to decide how to govern alcohol consumption. Most states made 21 the legal drinking age, although a handful required drinkers to be only 18. No national drinking age existed until 1984, when the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed. One major catalyst behind the creation of this law was the increase in deaths related to drunk driving.

The 1980s and '90s saw a major movement to decrease drunk driving — Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after a drunk driver fatally hit her daughter in 1980. Since then, alcohol-related driving fatalities have decreased substantially. In 1982, 60 percent of automobile-related fatalities involved alcohol. By 2017, that number had dropped to 29 percent.


Despite the national repeal on Prohibition, hundreds of counties in the United States enforce "dry" laws. These laws typically ban the manufacture and sale but not consumption.

  • Six of Mississippi's counties are dry.
  • Kentucky isn't much better for alcohol lovers. Of the 120 counties in Kentucky, 15 counties are dry, including
  • Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Kansas and Virginia also have a large proportion of dry counties.
  • Hundreds of dry towns (within wet counties) also exist across the country.

Many, many other rules exist regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol on a local level. They often seem confusing and contradictory. One other once-common rule restricts the sale of alcohol on Sundays. This law was developed in Colonial times to honor the Christian Sabbath day in Colonial times.


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