The Impact of Prohibition on Society in the 1920’s

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The Noble Experiment

America began a 13-year dry spell by enacting the 18th amendment on January 17th, 1920. This amendment prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.

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“The Impact of Prohibition on Society in the 1920’s”

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President Herbert Hoover’s described Prohibition as a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose. (1) Prohibition became known as the Noble Experiment of Prohibition.

There were many reasons that brought about the prohibition of alcohol. One of the most recognized was the idea that alcohol was bringing about a breaking down of the social structure both in the community and in the home. It has been noted that the founding of the United States began with booze. For example, the ship Arbella, which arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, had more than 10,000 gallons of wine in its hold for 700 settlers. It also carried three times as much beer as water. (2) This was just the beginning of Americas drinking problems that lead to the founding of many organization, mostly religiously motivated, that started the crusade to eliminate alcohol. Some of these organizations include, the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the rise of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and various other anti-liquor forces.

The most influential of these organization was credited to the (ASL), led by Protestant ministers and influenced by Eliza Thompson. This organization used religious rhetoric in order to fuel the fire of intolerance that was already a part of the Baptist and Methodist teachings. This religiously motivated push by the anti-liquor organizations provided the most effective political pressure. This pressure was one of the catalysts that sparked The Noble Experiment.

Economic Changes

The impact on the American economy also saw a few changes and most of them were largely negative. Keeping this in mind there were also many positive changes. One of these changes was that the average wage earner in America was not spending their hard-earned pay in the saloon and had more disposable income to spend on other less harmful devices. As a result, banks showed an increase in their total deposits. Building and loan association members increased during this period from 3,103,935 to 11,336,261, and industrial insurance policies in force from 31,134,303 to 81,777,84 Building and loan association members increased during this period from 3,103,935 to 11,336,261, and industrial insurance policies in force from 31,134,303 to 81,777,843.3. (3)

Another positive impact on the work force brought about an interesting and mostly positive impact on industry itself. Herman Feldman, assistant professor of industrial relations at Dartmouth in the 1920’s did an investigation of research done at Yale University by questioner that points out some impacts. Feldman concluded that there were less discipline problems, fewer people were absent from work following pay day, and the work force as a group were stronger and more focused. Although alcohol didn’t disappear and drinking still occurred after the implementation of the 18th amendment, the work force was improved because the sale of alcohol was much less prevalent and saloon life declined dramatically.

Impact on Crime

Crime in America was an issue before the 18th amendment was put into place. There were many organizations that fought for this prohibition to take place and crime was a platform that many used when lobbying. Unfortunately, society didn’t see the results that they had originally hoped to see. Violent crime, public intoxication and gambling were some of the issues America had to deal with when the saloon lifestyle was at its height. The largely Protestant movement against these saloons wanted to clean up the streets and saw the saloon as their battlefield of choice. Once the amendment was enacted the legal saloon died and brought a rise to a different type of crime.

Americans didn’t give up their alcohol as easily as one may think. The saloon was dead, but a new watering hole developed. Illegal bars sprung up quickly and flourished in big cities. The new establishments referred to as speakeasys were places that were a form of underground saloon and were filled with thirsty Americans trying to hold on to the saloon lifestyle.

The crime that was spawned from the newly implemented law didn’t take long to rear its ugly head, it was only an hour when the police recorded the first attempt to break it, with six armed men stealing some $100,000-worth of “”medicinal”” whisky from a train in Chicago. Crime changed, and organized crime transformed with it. Gangs in some of the big cities saw the opportunity that prohibition brought them, and they began to stockpile alcohol before it was illegal. These gangs brought fame to some people like Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein. Both gangsters opened speakeasys, casinos and other illegally operated facilities that got alcohol into the hands of the American people.

Public Health

It should be no surprise that the health of the American people suffered from imbibing excessive amounts of alcohol. Shortly after the implementation of prohibition the rate of consumption was dropped by approximately 30% but this trend didn’t stick around for long and it is estimated that it shot up another 60-70 percent of its pre-prohibition numbers. Although there was only a small widow when alcohol consumption declines, the overall benefits to the public health was not overwhelming.

Unfortunately, the studies regarding public health that have been done are based on information that is not 100% accurate there is enough to see the significance in a couple areas. When it comes to cirrhosis of the liver do to alcohol consumption the data is insignificant, but for deaths due to alcohol and admittance for alcohol related psychosis the data was measurable. After his research of the statistics from 1920-1927 Dr. Dublin states:

The condition we have found to exist in the mortality of adult men in the United States is entirely consistent with the observations universally confirmed of a continued widespread indulgence in alcoholic beverages by men. Prohibition has not been particularly effective in that sex. If the saloon has gone and the great body of men no longer spend a large part of their wages on liquor, it is only too clear that what they drink now, even if in smaller quantities and at a lesser total cost, is of such a deleterious character as to result in no advantage to their health. The quality of liquor used throughout the country is sufficiently bad to make up for the smaller quantity consumed. The economic gains help us to understand the condition among women and children; the character of the present supply of liquor helps us to understand the lack of improvement which appears in the mortality of men. (4)

Unintended Consequences

Prohibition has some consequences that were not intended and may have been unforeseen. A lot of these anomalies occurred because of exception and oversights of the 18th amendment. The amendment didn’t outlaw the consumption of alcohol and it allowed for private production in certain occupation such as farming, medicine and industrial use. An couple examples would be with the catholic church being able to produce wine for communion and farmers making fruit juice concentrate that was fermented.

The loss of tax revenue was also another impact that was unintended. Alcohol production was the fifth largest industry in the United States at the time of prohibition. Although a national income tax was implemented in 1914 there was a large decline in tax money to fund the government after prohibition went into effect. Prohibition cost the federal government $11 billion in lost tax revenue. And it cost over $300 million to enforce. (5)

The enactment of the 18th amendment lead to so some unintended consequences

LAST CALL

The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

By Daniel Okrent

1. Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Cabinet and the Presidency 1920-1933. (New York: MacMillan,1952), 95.

2. Daniel Okrent, American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

1.Boeckel, R. (1928). Social and economic effects of prohibition. Editorial research reports 1928 (Vol. IV). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from https://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1928103100

2.Dublin, Health and Wealth, A Survey of the Economics of World Health, p. 305

3.Lerner, M. Prohibition. PBS website.

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The Impact of Prohibition on Society in the 1920's. (2019, Oct 30). Retrieved September 25, 2022 , from
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