When was Prohibition, why was it even a thing – and why did the alcohol-free social experiment fail?

When was prohibition?

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It’s hard to imagine, but 100 years ago, selling alcohol was completely illegal

Prohibition was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages that remained in place in the United States from 1920 to 1933.

The ban — known as the Volstead Act — was enacted through the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which was passed by Congress in 1917, and went into effect on January 16, 1920.

CLOSED for violation of the National Prohibition act sign

The main goals of Prohibition, they said, were to reduce crime and corruption, stabilize family life, and improve the health of America.

However, the booze ban had the opposite effect, leading to the proliferation of bootlegging — that is, illegally manufacturing and distributing alcohol — as well as underground speakeasies.

Another unintended consequence was the expansion of organized crime… including the rise of infamous gangsters like Al Capone. (On the topic of gangsters and beer, you can find out about Scarface’s involvement in the tragic St Valentine’s Day Massacre here.)

Prohibition editorial cartoon - Bootlegger's daughter

When was Prohibition finally over?

Prohibition was eventually repealed by the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution in 1933, and people rejoiced at end of the “dry” era in America.

Today, Prohibition is often remembered as an example of a failed social experiment, as it not only didn’t achieve its intended goals, but there were a whole host of unintended consequences for society. Here’s a look.

The great illusion of prohibition: A look back 50 years after the US tried to go dry (1970)

By Edward T Folliard, Washington Post, in the Tampa Bay Times (Florida) January 11, 1970

Fifty years ago this week, the US exiled John Barleycorn — or thought it did.

It was on January 17, 1920, that the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act went into effect, making it illegal to manufacture liquor or to transport or sell it.

The upshot was a paradox that fascinated the rest of the world: a country legally dry took off on a bender, grand spree.

Bar scene minutes before prohibition went into effect in 1919
Interior of a crowded bar moments before midnight, June 30, 1919, when wartime prohibition went into effect New York City

Besides the crazy drinking, Prohibition brought the era of the scofflaw, of murderous gang wars, and shocking hypocrisy.

THE HYPOCRISY was at its most blatant here in Washington. Capitol Hill was awash with illicit booze, and some off the heaviest drinkers, senators and representatives, were men who had voted for Prohibition and who continued to proclaim themselves as “drys.”

Prohibition arrest and destruction (1920)
1920 People watch men open cases of liquor from the Blue Valley Distillery Company during a Prohibition arrest in Colorado. The men use crowbars to open the wooden cases.

The Hill even had its own bootlegger, a fellow known as “The Man in the Green Hat.” Washington never knew the bloody tumult experienced by New York and Chicago, where gangsters slaughtered each other in their wars to dominate the liquor traffic.

Still, the city did have its violence and tragedy. In the early 1920s, Sen. Frank Greene of Vermont was walking along lower Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the Capitol. As he passed an alley, he was felled by a bullet fired by a Prohibition agent chasing a bootlegger. The poor fellow never recovered from his wound, dying six years later.

Today’s young Americans, especially those who march and demonstrate, may find it hard to believe, but to an old-timer, the controversy over Vietnam seems mild compared to the uproar over Prohibition.

As for polarization, a word that has been the vogue since Vice President Spiro Agnew sounded off, the current division does not seem nearly as sharp as that between the “wets” and the “drys” — nor as raucous and ill-tempered.

Vietnam is a sadness, an issue; Prohibition, as Herbert Asbury said in “The Great Illusion,” was a national obsession.

WA Green, Chief Prohibition Inspector (1925)
WA Green, Chief Prohibition Inspector (1925)

THE QUARREL over Prohibition, bitterest since the Civil War, engulfed the whole U.S., but it was centered, of course, here in Washington.

There still rings in my memory the hull-like voice of Sen. Joseph Robinson of Arkansas as he went after the Al Smith wets, warning them not to foul up the banner of the Democratic Party with “the skull and crossbones of an outlawed trade.”

I can also still hear another politician — Sen. James Reed of Missouri. I think it was — snarling at the drys and shocking them with his statement, irreverent but possibly irrefutable, that if the Lord appeared in the U.S. and repeated the miracle of turning water into wine, he would be seized by Prohibition agents and thrown into jail.

1923 Prohibition officers raiding the lunch room of 922 Pa. Ave., Wash., D.C.

Looking back on it all, the striking thing about Prohibition was that so many people could have been so utterly wrong. The reformers were not wrong in arguing about the dangers of booze; that argument still goes on, and makes sense when aimed at drinking to excess.

Where they went wrong was in believing that Prohibition would work, in believing that a country notorious for its drinking since colonial times, and populated by millions who brought their drinking habits from the Old World, would at a given moment swear off the stuff and yearn for it no more.

Fake cow hoof shoes used by bootleggers during prohibition in the 1920s
Fake cow hoof shoes used by bootleggers to hide their tracks during prohibition in the 1920s

Billy Sunday, the most famous evangelist of his time, celebrated the advent of Prohibition with a rally in Norfolk, Va., highlighted by a “funeral service” for John Barleycorn.

Ten thousand per-sons jammed the tabernacle as a 10-foot casket was brought in, escorted by 20 pallbearers and a man dressed up to look like the devil.

ALSO SEE: Chicago gang kills six: Al Capone & the St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1929)

“GOOD-BYE, John,” Billy Sunday intoned over the casket. . . “You were God’s worst enemy; You were hell’s best friend . . . the reign of tears is over. The slums will be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. We will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

In Chicago, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union announced that, having brought Prohibition to the U.S., it would now proceed to dry up the rest of the world.

Woman with car tire cover - Repeal the 18th Amendment - The Crusaders

Washington was different from most other cities in one respect. It had relatively few speakeasies, none such as those in New York with name bands and floor shows.

Most of the drinking here took place in offices or homes. Nearly every drinker had his favorite bootlegger, and it was only necessary to telephone to get a supply.

For a time, bootleggers sold their gin boldly on the southwest corner of Fourteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street from police headquarters. I walked over there one afternoon to get a pint and went up to my favorite of the moment, a fellow named Betz (or something like that).

Prohibition-era still to make alcohol
Prohibition-era still to make alcohol

“EDDIE,” Betz said, “I’ve just run out of the stuff. Come on, jump in the car and we’ll get some.”

We got into his red roadster and drove west on the avenue. We went past the Sherman statue, and started around the south grounds of the White House.

Betz put on the brake suddenly, walked over to the big iron fence surrounding the White House, and reached in to get a burlap bag. He took out five or six pints of gin, then returned the bag inside the fence.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition (1920s)
New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition (1920s)

In those days, you expected almost anything to happen, but Betz’s audacity left me stunned. Well, he explained, nobody would ever dream that a bootlegger would do such a thing, and therefore it was the safest place of all.

Sometime later, after the Fourteenth and the Avenue corner got “too hot,” Betz and the other bootleggers abandoned it. He told me that if I wanted to write a story about our experience, it was all right with him, just so long as I didn’t mention his name.

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Collier's magazine - 1930 - Prohibition and confiscating alcohol

I wrote a short feature and turned it in. Henry Jones, then news editor of The Post, thought at first that I was faking. He finally agreed to use it, but put it far back in the paper.

GALLEY proofs of my little story went to the Associated Press, and the AP sent it out over the wire. A number of out-of-town newspapers used it, some on the first page.

One paper — I think it was the old New York World — ran the story under a headline that said, “Bootlegger Hides Gin In Coolidge Hedge.”

Beer barrels being smashed in New Jersey (1920s)
Beer barrels being smashed in New Jersey (1920s)

Of course, a police reporter in the 1920s had to cover and write about much more than liquor law violations. Then, as now, there were murders and robberies and hold-ups.

The 1920s are now seen in a romantic haze, and are referred to as the “Roaring Twenties,” and “Golden Twenties,” and so on.

To a young reporter eager to get ahead in journalism, the Twenties were simply a point in time. Years later I read that Gertrude Stein (“A rose is a rose is a rose”), friend of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, said it was the time of the “Lost Generation.”

It may have seemed so in Paris, where Gertrude had her salon, but here at home, it was a time for work as well as play.

Booze from a raid

ALL in all, it was a pleasant time — that is, if you were willing to overlook the deceit and hypocrisy of the lawmakers, the bloody gang wars being waged by Al Ca-pone and his ilk, and the immense revenue that Prohibition was costing the federal treasury. That was the ugly part.

But, as Will Rogers said, the drys had their law, the wets had their liquor, and why worry.

Not being very profound and little given to analysis, I thought that the condition of things in the 1920s — the lifestyle. as we would say now — would go on and on, and my elders confirmed me in that view. They assured me that Prohibition and prosperity would continue indefinitely.

Prohibiton enforcement official (1920s)

Sen. Morris Sheppard of Texas, author of the 18th Amendment, said flatly: “THERE IS as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington monument tied to its tail.”

The Wall Street crash in October 1929 heralded the end of Prohibition. As the Great Depression set in, throwing 12 million Americans out of work, the long dissatisfaction with Prohibition grew into a furious opposition.

The drys had argued for years that Prohibition was responsible for prosperity. Without that argument, they were helpless against the anti-Prohibition tide that now engulfed them.

MORE: 30 fun & fruity non-alcoholic drink recipes (1919)

Drugstore closed for 1 year for prohibition violation

Not only that, but the wets came up with an economic argument of their own. They said that repeal would create thousands of jobs, in breweries and distilleries, in trucking and merchandising, and that repeal would also bring millions in revenue into the Treasury.

The major political parties held their 1932 national conventions in the same city, Chicago.

The Republicans, besides nominating Herbert Hoover for a second term, adopted a “straddle” plank on Prohibition. The Democrats, coming right behind them, met the issue head-on, approving a plank that said: “We favor the repeal of the 18th Amendment.”

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EC Yellowly, Chief of gen. prohibition agents (1925)
EC Yellowly, Chief of gen. prohibition agents (1925)

FRANKLIN D. Roosevelt, in accepting the nomination for president, evoked a storm of cheers when he told the convention: “I say to you that, from this date on, the 18th Amendment is doomed.” And so it was.

Eight months after Roosevelt’s inauguration, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, with the result that the 18th was nullified. In the intervening years, the professional drys have never acknowledged that repeal was a good thing. Very likely, they never will.

The one fact they can’t challenge is that the federal government is now collecting vast sums in revenue that were lost to them during Prohibition.

Confiscated boxes of alcohol during prohibition
Confiscated boxes of alcohol during prohibition

TRUE, ALCOHOLISM is a serious problem, an affliction right up there with cancer and heart trouble, but not many of those in power seem to think that a return to Prohibition is the answer. Indeed, the big worries now are narcotics and cigarettes, although tobacco was once regarded as a blessing.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, John Nance Garner, who was to become vice president under FDR, used to invite some of us to his office in the Capitol. He would pour drinks, and then say with a flourish, “Let’s strike a blow for liberty.”

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Woman pouring out alcohol hidden in a cane (1920s)
Woman pouring out alcohol hidden in a cane (1920s)

That was the spirit of the time, at least outside of reform circles. It would have been very bad form to turn down old Cactus Jack.

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A man who refused a drink in those days was looked upon as a sissy, a slacker. Nowadays a man can go to a party, and if he says he is not drinking, he has nothing to worry about; it is considered very bad manners for others to try and prod a non-drinker into taking a drink.

That is one of the good things about repeal. There may be others, but it probably would be best to end this piece with a sober thought: beware of drunken drivers.

Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (1931)
Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (1931)

Prohibition over: You can drink! Repeal voted (1933)

From the Daily News (New York, NY) December 6, 1933

Prohibition repealed - New York Daily News (NY NY) December 6 1933

Shortage of liquor; Thirsty stampede

From the Daily News (New York, NY) December 7, 1933

Shortage of liquor - New York Daily News (NY NY) December 7 1933

From the anti-booze side: Prohibition by the numbers (1922)

From The Christian Advocate via the Evening Journal (Washington DC) October 3, 1922

Some of the results of prohibition:

1090 breweries out of business.

235 distilleries out of business.

107,790 saloons out of business.

130,000 gallons of whisky withdrawn as against twelve million five hundred thousand previously.

16,665,125 bushels of grain saved, formerly used for distilled liquor.

1,909,998,475 pounds of food material saved — formerly used in making fermented liquor.

Small still and confiscated barrels of alcohol (1920s)

$338,336,000 increase in savings banks deposits.

173,933 increase in depositors.

Life insurance companies report large increase.

Many private institutions for taking care of drunkards closed.

Number of drinkers decreased from twenty million to about two million five hundred thousand.

Pre-prohibition photo from the Officials of the World League Against Alcoholism

Infantile mortality decreased from 101 to 90.

Juvenile crime reduced from twenty-seven percent in 1917 to two and half percent in 1920.

Increase in education, 378,824 more pupils in our public schools.

The first full year of prohibition the school children of America put $4,000,000 in savings banks.

College enrollments 448,287 as compared with 259,537 in 1916.

Thirty-seven leading insurance companies doing eighty percent of entire business report the death rate reduced from 9.8 per thousand to 8.24 per thousand.

Has not cost government one cent to enforce as costs have more than been met by fines.

Those opposed to National Prohibition, report decreased consumption of intoxicating liquor seventy percent.

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