When clocks struck midnight on January 16, 1920, the United States officially went dry. The age of Prohibition had begun. Brewers, distillers, and saloon-keepers were required to stop selling alcohol as the vending of spirits became criminalized. Within thirteen years, however, alcohol was again allowed by the US Constitution. What happened?
Initially, advocates of alcohol prohibition anticipated the dawning of a healthier, happier America. Many women in particular supported banning alcohol, for they experienced the connections between a husband’s disappearing paycheck, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Employers such as Henry Ford likewise supported Prohibition, believing that alcohol abuse was lowering workers’ productivity. Banning beer even took on a patriotic, xenophobic zeal during World War I; many breweries at the time were German-owned, and the Anti-Saloon League urged the US government to investigate breweries “owned in part by alien enemies.”
Prohibition was not actually imposed overnight in 1920; more than half of America had already banned alcohol. By 1916, nineteen states banned the sale of alcohol. In 1918, President Wilson instituted “partial prohibition” as part of the wartime grain conservation effort; beer was limited to 2.75% alcohol, and production was cut to 70% of the previous year’s supply. Within nine months, Wilson banned wartime production of beer altogether!
The Eighteenth Amendment set forth early terms for national Prohibition. Initially, the law banned specifically “intoxicating liquors” – leaving some with hope that beer and wine would remain legal. Within a year, however, the Volstead Act decreed that no legal drink would contain more than half a percent of alcohol.
However, Prohibition’s challenge was enforcement. Smuggling and bootlegging became immensely profitable. Congress initially estimated enforcement costs would be $5 million, but within just a few years, this estimate skyrocketed to $300 million.
Culturally, Prohibition was especially out of place in northern cities. New York City, for example, was largely comprised of European immigrants. Many were accustomed to drinking in moderation as part of daily life. New Yorkers as a group resisted federal enforcement of Prohibition. They passed laws that forbade local officers from investigating violations. Consequently, of approximately 7,000 reported violations in New York State, fewer than twenty resulted in convictions. Five other states similarly outlawed local enforcement.
Did Prohibition bring the positive health effects that proponents had expected? Initially, yes: medical records showed dramatic decreases in death from cirrhosis and alcohol- related crime. The nation seemed safer once Anheiser-Busch was forced to brew ginger ale and root beer instead of alcoholic beverages. However, as Prohibition plodded on, alcohol-related homicides increased. The citizenry learned to wound its way around liquor laws, and ultimately people drank more alcohol. Sometimes a drink’s source was in Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. Other times, alcohol was home-brewed and more potent than what legal distributors had offered. Home-brew equipment was relatively inexpensive, and the ingredients – chiefly corn, potatoes, and sugar – were readily available. Within seven years, an estimated 30,000 illegal speakeasies had appeared to distribute these underground drinks; this was about twice the number of legal bars before Prohibition. With citizens resorting to brewing gin in their bathtubs, high-ranking politicians and mobsters like Al Capone could profit enormously from the illegal trade in alcohol. In Washington, President Harding’s attorney general was known to accept bribes from bootleggers.
In Chicago, Capone employed half the city’s police officers as alcohol distributors. His operation reportedly processed $60 million in 1927 alone. Underground operations absorbed the consumer base and cash flow that had once participated in a legal alcohol industry. It was soon clear that the national prohibition of alcohol was resulting in the opposite of its aims. Prohibition was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, to relieve the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and to improve residents’ health. But Prohibition bred some of the nation’s largest crime syndicates, alcohol became more dangerous to consume, and drinking grew in popularity. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue (about $500 million each year), and enforcement costs greatly increased government spending. As noble as Prohibition’s intentions had been, the law proved much easier to decree than to enforce. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt (a martini drinker) amended the Volstead Act. The Cullen-Harrison bill allowed the manufacture and sale of lighter beers and wines. That same year, the Eighteenth Amendment was fully repealed, and the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified. This amendment, still in effect today, gives states the right to restrict alcohol sales. Thus, Mississippians lived with Prohibition until 1966. New Yorkers, in contrast, were quick to legalize the bottle.