National Prohibition in the United States ran from roughly January, 1919 through December, 1933. During that period, beverage alcohol could not be legally produced, transported or sold. Limited exceptions were for medical purposes. Widespread defiance of Prohibition led to the growth of popularity in the U.S. of Scotch and Canadian Whisky, which were imported illegally. Prohibition also led to the empowerment and spread of organized crime figures who profited from illegal liquor sales. Moonshine was the spirit of choice during prohibition.
Prohibition was any of several periods during which the manufacture, transportation, import, export, and sale of alcoholic beverages were restricted or illegal. The first half of the 20th century saw periods of Prohibition in several countries:
- between 1901 and 1948 in Prince Edward Island, and for shorter periods in other locations in Canada,
- between 1919 and 1932 in Finland (called "kieltolaki"),
- between 1915 and 1922 in Iceland (though beer was still prohibited until 1989)
- between 1919 and 1933 throughout the United States. If the word "Prohibition" is used without further qualification in a US context, it usually refers to this period.
The word prohibition may refer to any law banning the sale and consumption of alcohol, in particular, local laws that have the same effect. Lexicologically, the prohibition of something is the widespread banning of something, whether it be alcohol, drugs, or any other item found unacceptable by a majority.
Canadian prohibition was enforced by a set of provincial laws that were passed by the various provinces during the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Prince Edward Island was the first in 1901. Quebec was the last in 1919. The provinces then repealed their prohibition laws mostly during the twenties. Quebec was first to repeal in 1920, giving it the shortest amount of time with prohibition enforced; Prince Edward Island was last in 1948.
In the United States, this was done by means of the Eighteenth Amendment (ratified January 16, 1919) and the Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919). Prohibition began on January 16, 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. The Volstead Act was amended to allow "3.2 beer" (3.2 percent alcohol by weight) by passage of the Blaine Act on February 17, 1933. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed later that same year with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment.
Prohibition also referred to that part of the Temperance movement which wanted alcohol made illegal. Prohibitionists had some success even before national prohibition; in 1905 three American states had already outlawed alcohol, by 1912 it was up to nine states, and by 1916, legal prohibition was already in effect in 26 of the 48 states.
The 21st Amendment, which repealed nationwide prohibition, explicitly gives states the right to restrict or ban the purchase and sale of alcohol; this has led to a patchwork of laws, in which alcohol may be legally sold in some but not all towns or counties within a state. After the repeal of the national law some states continued to enforce prohibition laws; Oklahoma, Kansas, and Mississippi were still "dry" in 1948. Mississippi, which had made alcohol illegal in 1907, was the last state to repeal prohibition, in 1966. While there are still some dry counties and communities in the United States (mainly in the South), in practice this now means little more than that people wishing to buy alcohol must drive some moderate distance to do so and bars are not allowed in the jurisdiction.
While national Prohibition did much to reduce the consumption of alcoholic beverages by Americans, they were still widely available at speakeasies and other underground drinking establishments, and many people kept private bars to serve their guests. Large quantities of alcohol were smuggled in from Canada and the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Legal and illegal home brewing was popular during Prohibition. Limited amounts of wine and hard cider were permitted to be made at home. Some wine was still produced in the U.S. but was only available through government warehouses for use by churches at communion. Whiskey was available by prescription from medical doctors. "Malt and hop" stores popped up across the country and some former breweries turned to selling malt extract syrup, ostensibly for baking and "beverage" purposes.
Even prominent citizens and politicians later admitted to having used alcohol during Prohibition. This discrepancy between legality and actual practice led to widespread disdain for authorities. Some Prohibition agents took bribes to overlook the illegal brewing activities of gangsters. Many problems arose. It had been estimated that six million dollars would be needed to enforce prohibition laws. Over time, however, people drank illegally and money ended up in gangster's pockets. Gangsters would then bribe officials to ignore their illegal activities. The cost of enforcing prohibition laws thus increased. In some cases, the money likely ended up in corrupt Prohibition agencies.
Mockery took many forms, including the popular Keystone Kops films. There were exceptions to this public scorn such as the activities of Eliot Ness and his elite team of Treasury Agents nicknamed The Untouchables and the New York City prohibition agent team of Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, known collectively as simply Izzy and Moe. For these exceptions, Ness' honesty and flair for public relations and Izzy and Moe's more eccentric, but highly effective, methods with disguises attracted considerable media attention.
Prohibition also presented lucrative opportunities for organized crime to take over the importation ("bootlegging"), manufacture, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Al Capone, one of the most famous bootleggers of them all, built his criminal empire largely on profits from illegal alcohol.
With alcohol production largely in the hands of criminals and unregulated clandestine home manufacturers, the quality of the product varied widely. There were many cases of people going blind or suffering from brain damage after drinking "bathtub gin" made with industrial alcohol or various poisonous chemicals. One particular notorious incident involved the patent medicine Jamaica ginger, known by its users as "Jake". It had a very high alcohol content and was known to be consumed by those desiring to circumvent the ban on alcohol. The Treasury Department mandated changes in the formulation to make it undrinkable. Unscrupulous vendors then adulterated their Jake with an industrial plasticizer in an attempt to fool government testing. As a result, tens of thousands of victims suffered paralysis of their feet and hands - usually, this paralysis was permanent. Amateur distillation of liquor could be dangerous to the producer as well, since poorly built stills sometimes exploded in flames.
In the 1890s, ethanol (grain alcohol) was the first fuel used by American cars. Alcohol powered engines were used in farm machines, train locomotives, and cars in Europe and the United States. In 1919, Prohibition police destroyed corn-alcohol stills which many farmers made their low cost ethanol fuel with. Prohibition taxes slowed the use of ethanol as a fuel. This increased farmers' expenses and forced them to rely on oil, which was cheap then.
Many social problems have been attributed to the Prohibition era. A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Racketeering happened when powerful gangs corrupted law-enforcement agencies. Stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. The cost of enforcing prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers. When Prohibition ended, organized crime lost nearly all their black market alchohol profits, due to competition with low priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores. Organized crime later adjusted by selling illegal drugs instead. The black market thrives on the sale of any illegal product. On such points as these, the modern "War on Drugs" has been compared to Prohibition. There is disagreement on the validity of this argument.
Prohibition had a notable effect on the brewing industry in the United States. When Prohibition ended, only half the number of breweries reopened as had existed before. Many small breweries were out of business for good. Because mainly the largest breweries had survived, American beer came to be chided as a characterless, mass-produced commodity. Beer connoisseurs lamented the decreased quality and variety. It was only in the 1980s that craft brewing finally recovered. Fritz Maytag has been credited with jumpstarting the microbrew revolution that awoke brewing from its post-Prohibition doldrums.
- United States Prohibition Party
- Temperance movement
- near beer
- alcoholic beverages
- Bureau of Prohibition
- James D. Porter, Jr. and Four Mile Law in Tennessee.