A History to the US Prohibition Era

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Prohibition was established by the 18th Amendment in 1920. This amendment prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors. The prohibition was an effort for moral reform since many thought alcohol was to blame for the increase of failed marriages and separated families. Many saw this as a moral improvement and thought it would help the lives of the poor and just the community in general. Nevertheless, it led to many unintended complications. The prohibition was an effort for moral reformation, however, this backfired and caused more problems than it solved such as organized crime, illegal sale and production of alcohol, and secret drinking spots.

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Prohibition first came to light in the 1820s and 30s due to a religious movement and an increase for temperance in the states. Religions on the rise such as Evangelical Protestantism preached about the corruptness of alcohol and how it only linked to sin. In 1846, Maine passed the first prohibition law and by the time the Civil War came around many others followed. Soon after, societies started to push for the ban of alcohol and stressed a need for a betterment in society’s morals.

Societies such as Women’s Christian Temperance Union, started in 1874, would spread awareness to their cause by going to saloons and telling them to stop selling alcohol. While they were there, they would stand outside singing and praying for the people inside partaking in drinking. By 1911, this group gained much popularity with over 245,000 members and became the largest women’s group in history. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union then started to move on to other issues besides prohibition such as opening kindergartens for immigrants. However, these moral reformers still ran into problems with immigrants, since alcohol was popular amongst their community and was often used for different customs. Other groups such as the Anti-Saloon League, established in 1893, also contributed to the prohibition movement and essentially helped ratify the 18th amendment. By the end of the century, there were temperance societies located all across the United States.

At first, the new law was a success with even a decline in alcohol-related arrests and a 30% drop of alcohol consumption. Others, such as factory workers, supported the law since it would help prevent accidents in the workplace and help to increase work production. This was very important at the time since the 1920s was an era of growth in industrial production. The majority of the support came from the rural South and West, where there was a large population of native-born protestants.

Nevertheless, as time went on the law became increasingly difficult to enforce. At first, the IRS was in charge of enforcing the amendment, but the task was then given to the Justice Department. The Volstead Act was soon established, which was an agency that was in charge of patrolling 18,700 miles of coastline and inland borders, monitoring highways, and supervising industries to ensure the law was being followed. However, the government failed to budget enough money for the task, and the agency only had 1,500 poorly paid federal agents and local police to oversee the entire operation.

Along with poor enforcement came waning support for prohibition all together. By the end of the 1920s, people started to lose support and social views were changing. After World War I, many people wanted to let loose and enjoy life. They stopped thinking of alcohol as a sin but more as a way of socializing and having fun. Prohibition was a clash between big cities and small towns since it was better enforced in small towns then in urban areas.

Problems began to arise due to little support for the law and lack of jurisdiction. One of the first problems that arose was bootlegging, or the illegal sale and production of alcohol. Some of the earliest bootleggers began smuggling alcohol past the borders of Canada, Mexico, and sea coasts through foreign registry by either Bahamas, Cuba, or French Islands. These bootleggers under foreign registry would dock three miles outside of Atlantic City, NJ where enforcement lacked. However, that became very risky and expensive and the U.S. Coast guard began stopping and checking ships.

Despite that, bootleggers found other ways to get alcohol, which included making their own at home called moonshine. Moonshine was around well before the prohibition era and is still made today mostly in southern states. Moonshine, also known as White Lightning and Bathtub Gin, was made out of corn in large copper pots that were used to distill the liquor. Sometimes whole towns would be in on the bootlegging and moonshine operation. These operations were usually done in the woods to avoid being caught by the police.

Another major source for bootleggers was medicinal whiskey that sold only across drugstore counters. This medicinal whiskey could be acquired with either a real or forged prescription from a doctor.

Some industries later started to see the boom of bootlegging and wanted in. So these industries used denatured alcohol mixed with chemicals not fit for drinking. They would then illegally divert or wash the liquor of the chemicals, mix it with water and a splash of alcohol, and then sell it.

With all this bootlegging going on, secret drinking spots started to sprout up all around the cities called speakeasies. To even enter a speakeasy one needed a password, form of ID, or a card to get in. Once inside you would find both men and women of either the middle-class or upper-middle-class drinking and socializing. Speakeasies were equipped with trap doors, collapsible shelves, and codes just in case there was ever a raid and they needed to hide or dispose of any alcohol quickly. Many even had passages for the bootlegged alcohol to be stocked without people seeing.

Bootlegging and speakeasies also brought up another problem: organized crime and gang violence. Gangs started forming around the area and many would control entire chains of bootlegging with a monopoly of distribution to various places. Violence between gangs started to run rampid, and many gangs would have competition or turf wars with rivals. Some gangs of different cities joined forces with others to expand their operation and power. Before long, bootlegging within gangs led to traffic of narcotics, gambling, prostitution, and extortion. Prohibition is remembered as a period of gangsterism and organized crime that lasted well after prohibition.

During this time, the American Mafia of Italian bootleggers and other gangsters rose to power in New York City in the 1920s and early 30s. One of prohibition’s most notorious gangsters, Al Capone, kept his empire by killing off his competition and giving bribes. The gangster operated in Chicago, and by 1927, his estimated wealth was close to $100 million. The man hired by the U.S. Department of Justice to stop Al Capone was the head of the Prohibition Bureau in Chicago, Eliot Ness. Him and his dedicated team, dubbed the Untouchables, helped send Al Capone to jail and also led raids on illegal drinking spots. Al Capone was very good at covering his tracks and was only sent to jail for tax evasion in 1932 even though he did far worse things. Many movies would be later made about the gangsters and the Untouchables.

These problems of bootlegging, speakeasies, and organized crime had their effects on society at the time like corruption of law enforcement and a homicide rate that was driven up 80%. By the mid-1920s, only 19% of Americans still supported prohibition. Politicians voted to repeal the 18th amendment in order to keep popular vote. Due to this, on December 5, 1933 Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment that repealed the 18th Amendment.

In conclusion, after 13 years prohibition finally ended and there was a big celebration throughout America that became known as one of the biggest parties in history. The 18th Amendment is the only amendment to ever be repealed from the Constitution. Even though prohibition was meant to solve social problems, it only made it worse and created new ones along the way such as organized crime, illegal sale and production of alcohol, and secret drinking spots.

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A History to the US Prohibition Era. (2019, Jul 03). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from

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