On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed. It banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol.
The path to the 18th Amendment was something that was almost a century in the making, and once it was passed, it was widely ignored both illegally and through numerous legal loopholes.
Finally, after being in place for almost 14 years, it was repealed with overwhelming popular support using a constitutional method that has never been used before or since.
Learn more about prohibition, how it came about, and how it ended on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The period known as prohibition is often overlooked in American history. Yet, both its passage and its repeal were the result of some of the biggest social campaigns in American history.
The origins of prohibition date back to the early 19th century and the Temperance movement.
I will give the temperance movement this one point: early Americans had a huge drinking problem.
If you remember back to my episode on early American alcohol consumption, Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries drank an astonishing amount of alcohol. The Americans of this period arguably drank more alcohol than perhaps any people in world history.
In 1820, the average adult man in the United States consumed 4 gallons of pure alcohol per year, or the equivalent of 18 gallons per year of 90-proof alcohol. That is over four times the alcohol consumed by the biggest alcohol-consuming country today, Moldova.
I should also note that the vast majority of this consumption was, in fact, consumed by men, not women…a fact that will be vital in the history of prohibition.
All of this alcohol couldn’t be consumed without some sort of repercussions. Drunkenness was rampant, as were alcohol-related illnesses.
The movement which spawned the temperance movement was known as the Second Great Awakening. This was a Protestant religious revival that took place in the 1820s.
Part of the Second Great Awakening was the growing call for people to either moderate or abstain from alcohol consumption. This was the beginning of the temperance movement.
The American Temperance Society was founded in Boston in 1826, and it grew rapidly. Within 10 years, it had 8,000 local chapters and over one-and-a-quarter million members who had pledged to abstain from alcohol.
Over the course of the 19th century, a host of other temperance organizations arose, including the Prohibition Party in 1869, the International Organisation of Good Templars in 1851, the Women’s Crusade in 1873, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874, and the Anti-Saloon League in 1893.
The efforts by these organizations ranged from trying to run candidates for office, marches, and protests to more extreme tactics.
One of the more famous members of the temperance movement was Carrie Nation. From 1900 to 1910, she would often lead raids on saloons and bars, where she would literally destroy the establishment with a hatchet.
She was arrested 32 times.
Many of the members in the Temperance Movement were women, and in no small part, the women’s suffrage movement sprang from the temperance movement. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both were heavily involved in the temperance movement.
During the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, many in the temperance movement saw progressive policies as a way to advance their agenda. It was during this period that attempts began to ban alcohol in some states completely.
One of the things that really brought the idea of nationwide prohibition to the forefront was US involvement in World War I.
In the early 19th century, the primary forms of alcohol consumed in the US were cider and whisky. However, by the early 20th century, this had changed to beer. The major breweries in the United States were almost all run by Germans.
Beer and by association alcohol became associated with America’s enemy in the war, which gave the idea of prohibition an element of nationalism that didn’t exist before.
On August 1, 1917, duing the middle of the war, the Senate passed a resolution with the wording of the 18th Amendment to be sent to the states for approval, which was then approved by the House on December 17.
Ratification of the amendment took place when Nebraska, the 36th state to approve the amendment, did so on January 16, 1919.
The amendment itself went into effect one year after its ratification, and it did not make the consumption of alcohol illegal. Rather, it banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol.
Prior to the ratification of the 18th Amendment, on November 18, 1918, congress passed the Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of beverages with more than 1.28% alcohol.
The Wartime Prohibition Act was passed a week after the war ended.
Enforcement of the 18th Amendment was set forth in the Volsted Act, which was drafted by the Anti-Saloon League and proposed by a representative from Minnesota named Andrew Volstead.
The Volstead Act went into effect on the date the 18th Amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920.
Initially, prohibition did decrease alcohol consumption. If nothing else, it couldn’t be sold and manufactured openly. Estimates are that alcohol consumption declined by about 70% overnight.
However, there were many loopholes in the Volstead Act. For starters, any alcohol that was purchased before the enaction of prohibition was technically legal.
Some wealthy people amassed enormous stockpiles of wine and liquor, which meant that, for all practical purposes, they weren’t affected by prohibition at all.
As a result, dinner parties and parties where there wasn’t even food involved rose in popularity.
Another loophole was alcohol used for religious use. Catholics and Jews both used wine for religious purposes, and they were allowed to continue to do so. The Volstead Act allowed for 10 gallons per person per year.
…but the definition of a rabbi was very ambiguous. There were many people who claimed to be rabbis who suddenly had large congregations where they could distribute sacramental wine.
In Los Angeles, one Jewish congregation went from 180 families to 1000 families within a year after prohibition.
Another loophole was medicinal alcohol. You might never have heard of medicinal alcohol, but it was a thing during prohibition. When prohibition began, the American Medical Association came out and said there was no reason ever to proscribe alcohol.
However, soon after prohibition started, doctors realized that there was potential to make quite a bit of money by writing prescriptions for medicinal liquor. Whisky manufacturers were able to continue to make small amounts under a label that said, “for medical use only.”
With a $3 prescription from a doctor, you could go to the pharmacy, get a bottle of liquor, and have your prescription refilled every 10 days.
Another loophole was farmers’ being allowed to preserve their fruit crops. They could create cider and then distill that into a product known as applejack.
Wine producers found an ingenious way around prohibition. Rather than making wine, they sold what were known as wine blocks.
Wine blocks were just blocks of concentrated grape juice. However, grape juice could be used to make wine. As the grape growers didn’t want to be held liable for people using their product to make wine, they explicitly put on the packaging that their product was not for making wine.
In fact, they put detailed instructions for what you should not do to turn their product into wine. They also sold their product with flavors such as Burgundy, Claret, and Riesling.
There was one case in 1927 of a producer of wine bricks that went to court, but they were found not guilty by a jury.
Of course, most people didn’t take such measures to get alcohol. They just got it illegally.
Prohibition proved to be the biggest boon ever for organized crime in the United States.
Organized crime had existed for decades in the United States, but for the most part, it was small-time crime in individual neighborhoods—things like extortion, prostitution, and loan sharking.
Now, all of a sudden, they were able to take things to a whole new level. It was as if a family restaurant suddenly became a nationwide chain restaurant.
There was an almost unlimited demand for an illegal product, and the group that was most able to meet that demand was an organized illegal organization.
The mob and other criminal groups developed elaborate smuggling operations to bring alcohol into the country. This includes smuggling booze across the Canadian and Mexican borders, as well as by sea from the Caribbean and Europe.
The illegal activity extended to the retail level, with taverns, bars, and pubs being replaced with illegal speakeasies.
As a result, some mobsters, like Al Capone, became fabulously wealthy.
The problem wasn’t just people selling illegal alcohol, it was all the illegal activity surrounding it and emanating from it.
There were multiple criminal organizations that were competing with each other. Because they were dealing with an illegal enterprise, they couldn’t compete in the marketplace. They competed with one another with murder and violence. The result was things like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929.
It also corrupted law enforcement agencies around the country. They were paid to look the way to allow the booze to flow, something that most law enforcement officials ethically had no problem with as it had been legal until just a few years before.
The money flowing into crime syndicates also saw increases in other illegal operations that the mob ran.
Over time, the initial reduction in alcohol consumption began to increase back to and possibly even greater than the levels before prohibition.
However, it wasn’t just that prohibition was ineffective at achieving its stated goal of ending alcohol consumption. In many ways, it had made things worse.
Poisonings were common to unregulated production and consumption of alcohol. Products such as bathtub gin often contained poisons.
Worst of all, crime was up across the country, respect for the law was at an all-time low as almost everyone was a criminal, and law enforcement had likewise been corrupted everywhere.
Eventually, even the most ardent supporters of prohibition realized it had been a horrible mistake. One of the most prominent supporters of prohibition was the world’s wealthiest man, John D. Rockefeller, who in 1932 said,
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.
On February 20, 1933, the Blaine Act was presented to Congress, which would enact the 21st Amendment, which would overturn the 18th Amendment.
After being approved by Congress, the states ratified the amendment relatively quickly because they didn’t go the route of having the legislatures approve it. Rather, the states held individual ratifying conventions, whose only purpose was ratification of the amendment.
The 21st Amendment was the first and only amendment to have been ratified in this manner.
The 21st Amendment was ratified, and the 18th Amendment was subsequently overturned on December 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify.
One of the big reasons why the 18th Amendment was overturned wasn’t crime or unpopularity, it was money.
In 1933, the country was in the middle of the Great Depression. Taxing alcohol was an opportunity to raise revenue at every level of government, not to mention the tens of thousands of people who would have jobs in producing beer, wine, and spirits.
While the 21st Amendment removed the national prohibition on the production and sale of alcohol, it still allowed for prohibition at the state level.
Kansas remained dry until 1948, and Mississippi until 1966. Kansas didn’t even allow the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants until 1987.
Today, there are no dry states, but many states allow counties or municipalities to ban the sale of alcohol. In Arkansas today, 29 of the 75 counties in the state ban the sale of alcohol.
Ultimately, prohibition has gone down as one of the biggest failed experiments in American history. In an attempt to solve the problems of alcohol consumption, it arguably made things even worse and ushered in a host of other major problems.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
Today’s review comes from listener Techsquid1010, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
Dang, I was not expecting this show to be super good, but you proved me wrong.
Thanks, techsquid! I’d like to welcome you and many other new listeners who have discovered the show in the last week. While I was gone, the show rocketed to number one on the Apple Podcast history charts and made it all the way to number 13 on the overall podcast charts.
I guess that makes the show a three-and-a-half-year overnight sensation.
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