Prohibition, the laws that banned the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages, were passed in 1919 and went into effect in January of 1920. Actually, those laws were even stronger than most because they expanded a constitutional amendment. They were repealed on December 5, 1933, to the consternation of most people on the religious right and the delight of much of the rest of the country.
There are three basic questions frequently asked about Prohibition: 1) Why did it start? 2) Why did it end?, and 3) What did it accomplish?
Prohibition started at the end of a gradual cultural change. In Europe both men and women had drunk alcohol, primarily beer in the Germanic countries and wine in the Romance countries. This was partly due to the fact that fermentation purified polluted water, making it safer to drink. This custom carried over into the New World and became part of ethnic traditions. It took many years of preaching against the evils of alcohol by the fundamentalist Christians, tied in with extreme, and often misleading, newspaper ads, to convince the majority of the people that the abuse of alcohol warranted laws to forbid it.
The ads for Prohibition did not stress drinking as much as the evils caused by excessive drinking. They implied that every drinker was a potential alcoholic and wife abuser. Everyone knew of a town drunk who had abandoned his wife and children. It was a short step to claim that the only safeguard against such abuse was to ban alcohol.
How much drinking went on before Prohibition? Americans have always been beer drinkers, with distilled liquor, mainly whisky, being a distant second. Over time, the per capita consumption of beer has been about 2 gallons per year. During the pre-Prohibition period, however, most women did not drink and many states had their own prohibition laws, so the rate was far higher for the men who did drink. Before Prohibition, the only sharp drop in beer consumption occurred during the Civil War (probably because beer was expensive to transport), but this was accompanied by a sharp increase in the sales of whisky.
During the nearly 14 years that Prohibition was in effect, the Prohibition laws were some of the most unpopular ever passed and were the most widely violated. Almost anyone who wanted a drink could find a bootlegger and buy illegal whisky. Speakeasies (illegal bars) were common in many large cities and were later glorified in gangster movies. Towards the end of Prohibition, movies started showing young women drinking cocktails and riding unaccompanied with young men in automobiles. Women started to realize that alcohol could be the key to a good time, and they could have the same rights to sin as men.
The farmers in Appalachia had a long history of making whisky, again because of transportation difficulties. It was hard to move a ton of corn to market by horse and wagon, but it was easy to carry a few gallons of “‘white lighting” on horseback. The farmers of Franklin County were fiercely independent and when Prohibition went into effect they saw no reason to obey a law that a few politicians in Washington had forced on the poor people of western Virginia. These bootleggers soon became a source of moonshine for a large part of the state.
Bootlegging became a major industry during Prohibition, mainly because alcohol was legal in Canada. Much of the border between Canada and the United States was either through the Great Lakes or across sparsely settled farmlands and crossing that border was easy for smugglers. For example, one of the high officials of the Ku Klux Klan owned a yacht on Lake Erie that he used to bring in loads of Canadian whisky to entertain state and national politicians. The Klan pushed hard for Prohibition, but that did not stop its top people from drinking all the bootleg alcohol they wanted.
It did not take long for organized crime to move into bootlegging. Their main sources of income were loan sharking and prostitution, but running speakeasies was a nice sideline because it gave them places to party as well as make money. A few mob bosses, most notably Al Capone in Chicago, ran large-scale bootlegging businesses. These activities were reported extensively in the newspapers, and whisky distribution became identified with organized crime.
There were several reasons for the failure of Prohibition. There was a strong legal backlash against it especially among the descendants of recent immigrants, the Catholic and Episcopal Churches, the beer manufacturers, and many senators and congressmen. For example, John Nance Garner, a power in the House of Representatives and later Vice President, frequently invited fellow congressmen to come to his office to “Strike a Blow for Freedom” by having some bourbon and branch water. This was completely legal. The laws banned transporting and selling alcohol, but allowed drinking it.
The beer manufacturers took a lesson from the anti-alcohol ads that had influenced the Prohibition laws and mounted their own advertising campaign against Prohibition. They stressed the intolerance and over-reaction on the part of the “Drys.” Prohibitionists were pictured as intolerant religious fanatics or ignorant bumpkins willing to destroy lives in order to stop social drinking. Every anti-Prohibition person who had been killed by a mob was counted as a victim of those laws. About 1928, the combination of the bootlegging, the mob influence, the movies, the general ignoring of the laws, and the advertising campaigns resulted in a sudden cultural shift. Almost overnight drinking became respectable for the middle class. It was seen as a way to enjoy life rather than a step on the road to Hell.
There were, of course, some benefits from Prohibition. The rates of alcoholism and of cirrhosis of the liver dropped to one half of pre-Prohibition levels and stayed down for another twenty years. It is almost certain that the rate of spousal abuse dropped, although there are no statistics to support that argument. With less money spent on alcohol, more money was available for necessities so the general welfare probably improved among the poorest people.
We are still living with the long time effects of Prohibition. When it ended, many states, including Virginia, required alcoholic beverages to be sold in state liquor stores. Advertising was severely restricted. A “sin” tax was placed on alcoholic beverages, which made them far more expensive than they would be otherwise. This has been expanded to a tax on tobacco. A similar tax probably will be placed on marijuana if it becomes legal in Virginia.
In addition, a number of “nuisance” laws were passed to discourage drinking. For example, in Virginia, until a few years ago, it was illegal for a customer to pick up his beer in a restaurant and move to a different table. It still is illegal for a lady to drink a glass of wine in her front yard, although that law is usually ignored by the police.
The day Prohibition officially ended the bars opened to a scene of mass celebration. This was accompanied by predictions of doom from the remaining Prohibitionists.