In the early 19th century, religious revivalists and early teetotaler groups like the American Temperance Society campaigned relentlessly against what they viewed as a nationwide scourge of drunkenness. The activists scored a major victory in 1851, when the Maine legislature passed a statewide prohibition on selling alcohol. A dozen other states soon instituted “Maine Laws” of their own, only to repeal them a few years later after widespread opposition and riots from grog-loving citizens (Kansas later instituted a separate ban in 1881). Calls for a “dry” America continued into the 1910s, when deep-pocketed and politically connected groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union gained widespread support for anti-alcohol legislation on Capitol Hill.
World War I helped turn the nation in favor of Prohibition.
Prohibition was all but sealed by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, but the conflict served as one of the last nails in the coffin of legalized alcohol. Dry advocates argued that the barley used in brewing beer could be made into bread to feed American soldiers and war-ravaged Europeans, and they succeeded in winning wartime bans on strong drink. Anti-alcohol crusaders were often fueled by xenophobia, and the war allowed them to paint America’s largely German brewing industry as a threat. “We have German enemies in this country, too,” one temperance politician argued. “And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.”
It wasn’t illegal to drink alcohol during Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment only forbade the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors”—not their consumption. By law, any wine, beer or spirits Americans had stashed away in January 1920 were theirs to keep and enjoy in the privacy of their homes. For most, this amounted to only a few bottles, but some affluent drinkers built cavernous wine cellars and even bought out whole liquor store inventories to ensure they had healthy stockpiles of legal hooch.
Some states refused to enforce Prohibition.
Along with creating an army of federal agents, the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act stipulated that individual states should enforce Prohibition within their own borders. Governors resented the added strain on their public coffers, however, and many neglected to appropriate any money toward policing the alcohol ban. Maryland never even enacted an enforcement code, and eventually earned a reputation as one of the most stubbornly anti-Prohibition states in the Union. New York followed suit and repealed its measures in 1923, and other states grew increasingly lackadaisical as the decade wore on. “National prohibition went into legal effect upward of six years ago,” Maryland Senator William Cabell Bruce told Congress in the mid-1920s, “but it can be truly said that, except to a highly qualified extent, it has never gone into practical effect at all.”
Drug stores continued selling alcohol as “medicine.”
The Volstead Act included a few interesting exceptions to the ban on distributing alcohol. Sacramental wine was still permitted for religious purposes (the number of questionable rabbis and priests soon skyrocketed), and drug stores were allowed to sell “medicinal whiskey” to treat everything from toothaches to the flu. With a physician’s prescription, “patients” could legally buy a pint of hard liquor every ten days. This pharmaceutical booze often came with seemingly laughable doctor’s orders such as “Take three ounces every hour for stimulant until stimulated.” Many speakeasies eventually operated under the guise of being pharmacies, and legitimate chains flourished. According to Prohibition historian Daniel Okrent, windfalls from legal alcohol sales helped the drug store chain Walgreens grow from around 20 locations to more than 500 during the 1920s.
Winemakers and brewers found creative ways to stay afloat.
While many small distilleries and breweries continued to operate in secret during Prohibition, the rest had to either shut their doors or find new uses for their factories. Yuengling and Anheuser Busch both refitted their breweries to make ice cream, while Coors doubled down on the production of pottery and ceramics. Others produced “near beer”—legal brew that contained less than 0.5 percent alcohol. The lion’s share of brewers kept the lights on by peddling malt syrup, a legally dubious extract that could be easily made into beer by adding water and yeast and allowing time for fermentation. Winemakers followed a similar route by selling chunks of grape concentrate called “wine bricks.”
Thousands died from drinking tainted liquor.
Enterprising bootleggers produced millions of gallons of “bathtub gin” and rotgut moonshine during Prohibition. This illicit hooch had a famously foul taste, and those desperate enough to drink it also ran the risk of being struck blind or even poisoned. The most deadly tinctures contained industrial alcohol originally made for use in fuels and medical supplies. The federal government had required companies to denature industrial alcohol to make it undrinkable as early as 1906, but during Prohibition it ordered them to add quinine, methyl alcohol and other toxic chemicals as a further deterrent. Coupled with the other low-quality products on offer from bootleggers, this tainted booze may have killed more than 10,000 people before the repeal of the 18th Amendment.
The Great Depression helped fuel calls for a repeal.
By the late 1920s, Americans were spending more money than ever on black market booze. New York City boasted more than 30,000 speakeasies, and Detroit’s alcohol trade was second only to the auto industry in its contribution to the economy. With the country bogged down by the Great Depression, anti-Prohibition activists argued that potential savings and tax revenue from alcohol were too precious to ignore. The public agreed. After Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a repeal during the 1932 presidential campaign, he won the election in a landslide. Prohibition was dead a year later, when a majority of states ratified the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th. In New Orleans, the decision was honored with 20 minutes of celebratory cannon fire. Roosevelt supposedly marked the occasion by downing a dirty martini.
Drinking decreased during Prohibition.
The “Roaring Twenties” and the Prohibition era are often associated with unchecked use and abuse of alcohol, yet the statistics tell a different tale. According to a study conducted by M.I.T. and Boston University economists in the early 1990s, alcohol consumption actually fell by as much as 70 percent during the early years of the “noble experiment.” The levels jumped significantly in the late-1920s as support for the law waned, but they remained 30 percent lower than their pre-Prohibition levels for several years after the passage of the 21st Amendment.
It continues in some parts of the country to this day.
Even after the repeal of Prohibition, some states maintained a ban on alcohol within their own borders. Kansas and Oklahoma remained dry until 1948 and 1959, respectively, and Mississippi remained alcohol free until 1966—a full 33 years after the passage of the 21st Amendment. To this day, 10 states still contain counties where alcohol sales are prohibited outright.