The Centennial of Prohibition, 1920-2020

It was on this day one hundred years ago that the Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, ushering in nationwide prohibition of the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors, went into effect. Yet, even after all this time, there remain a number of curious myths still clinging to the popular perceptions. We will consider four of them.

I. Prohibition forbade consumption of alcohol. It simply did not. We usually derive our understanding of Prohibition from those seemingly countless images of raids with speakeasies turned upside down, dozens of bottles and barrels being poured into the sewers and, sometimes, a young girl being hauled off in handcuffs for nothing more than the harmless act of enjoying a drink. A picture may be worth a thousand words but it can also regularly obscure context. Neither the text of the Amendment nor the Volstead Act and subsequent legislation governing enforcement criminalized the act of consumption and even manufacturing was not entirely illegal. In fact the Volstead Act provided for the production of 200 gallons of wine annually (at this time still largely perceived as the drink of choice for wealthier imbibers) to be enjoyed for family and guest consumption. Being understood at the time, this was why significant stockpiling of alcohol occurred in the months leading up to Prohibition going into effect.

This is usually where the father of the famous Kennedys, Joe Kennedy, enters the picture under the charge of bootlegging — either after ratification or before repeal. In actuality, Kennedy made use of the law’s permission to legally gather and privately share what he had on hand before the law took effect. The drinking of those supplies in private settings for as long as they lasted, once the law did commence, remained legal provided state or local law imposed no additional restrictions to the federal requirements. The Florida legislature in 1918, for instance, would pass a still more tighter law than the federal amendment, prohibiting not only the manufacture and sale but also the barter and exchange of intoxicating liquor. The attempt of prohibition was to deal with the growing nationwide alcohol problem, a problem that has hardly diminished in recent years, and that some argue demonstrates Americans are drinking more than they did in the 1910s, the decade just before Prohibition, fast approaching numbers not seen since the 1970s and 80s. Prohibition sought to expand the wartime restrictions, rein in the social costs of public intoxication and protect the security of home life by removing an incentive to spend household funds at the saloon or bar and neglect, if not actively harm through criminal activities, the welfare of the family. Entirely legal wine production did incredibly well during the era of Prohibition (1920-1933), a fact often lost in current perceptions.

Medicinal use, widely governed at the state level, usually required pharmacists keep close records of doctor’s prescriptions and doctors go through additional state permit requirements to ensure otherwise lawful uses of alcohol were not abused. Vinegar manufacturers remained in business as did numerous other industries using distilled spirits. At the center of enforcement was Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a stalwart lady committed to the integrity of law who persevered through almost a decade at the utterly thankless task and, in the process, received undeservedly the name “Prohibition Portia,” despite her own personal antipathy to prohibition. She would retire in 1929 and begin representing with great effectiveness, you guessed it, the wine growers of California.

Miss Mabel Willebrandt and Congressman I. Foster 6-7-1924

Mabel Willebrandt, Israel Foster and President Coolidge. When Mabel emerged from an especially trying occasion butting heads with the federal district attorneys over enforcement issues, the President told her to keep firing away, he was behind her.

II. The Eighteenth Amendment introduced prohibition to the United States. Again, this distorts the picture at the state level. Like women’s suffrage, the question of nationalizing rights or regulations rarely initiates from Washington. The matter often is well underway among the various states. Even the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (raising the age to 21 across all fifty states, with some provisos, of course) built on the regulations begun in the state capitals. The map below illustrates the situation for state laws before, during, and shortly after the Eighteenth Amendment’s ratification. It clarifies that the Federal Amendment did not meet a situation that had not previously exist but rather had 28 of 48 states already with prohibition regulations on the books. As happens, its ratification was both a stimulant to some legislatures and a validation for others, whose states had long ago become “dry.” The legislative initiates often came in waves, the strongest before the Eighteenth Amendment being 1914-1916, but remains neither the first, like Maine’s original prohibition law (dating back to 1848), nor the only passage and repeal of prohibition effort attempted among the states.

State Prohibition Laws-prior to ratification of 18th Amendment

III. Prohibition ended for good in 1933 with repeal by the Twenty-First Amendment. This again oversimplifies what is, in truth, a very complicated mixture of state and local regulations respecting alcohol production, sale, and consumption down to the present day. In a very real way, prohibition is still in operation. With the repeal, policy determinations did not evaporate, they went back to the states, which in many cases, pushed them down to counties, municipalities, and other local jurisdictions. New York may have led the way with an incredibly early repeal in 1923 but Montana would follow in 1926, Wisconsin in 1929, and Massachusetts in 1930, all before Prohibition’s actual repeal in 1933. Even then, several states continued strict legislative parameters on alcohol. Colorado and Mississippi are often mentioned as stubborn holdouts, relinquishing statewide repeal in the 1960s, but some 18 million Americans remain in “dry” jurisdictions around the United States. Again, this is not to indicate they are somehow held against their will in these areas but to underscore that full, unfettered repeal across every municipality, county, or state did not occur simply with repeal in 1933. Related to these regulations, we also find blue laws maintain a broad presence throughout the states (governing the sale of alcoholic beverages on certain days or times of day). Even in states that have otherwise repealed prohibition, we still find blue laws work in powerful ways. Seventeen states (including Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, among others) retain direct control through government agencies or approved agents over the sale of distilled spirits at the wholesale level and thirteen of those govern retail sales transacted off-site of commercial properties. This represents, according to the National Alcoholic Beverage Control Association (NABCA), 24.8% of the national population and roughly 23% of total sales in distilled spirits, a substantial measure of the United States. Add to this any of the details applicable from state and state:

  • Alaska’s requirement that businesses selling alcohol must remain closed on election days until polls have closed,
  • Massachusetts’ law stating that restaurants are not bound to accept out-of-state IDs as proof of legal age,
  • Tennessee’s strict stipulation that Jack Daniels products cannot be imbibed within county limits,
  • Virginia’s restriction of online, out-of-state orders for Mount Vernon’s Distillery, among other businesses, providing no means to verify qualified purchasers and thus restricting sales to in-person only transactions by visitors to George Washington’s renowned home on the Potomac.
  • Utah’s requirement that if patrons wish to order alcohol they must also purchase food if patronizing bars or restaurants, excluding “taverns”…and we quickly see prohibition is not quite over even these days.

The map below, while not reflecting that states like Arkansas and Oklahoma as late as 2009 and 2019, respectively, just ended the last blue laws or “dry” jurisdictions in their states, gives a sense of how intricate the question of prohibition remains in our present day. So, before we celebrate with a drink over the end of prohibition, perhaps we should look a little deeper at a “noble experiment” that is still very much with us.

State Prohibition Laws-2017


IV. Prohibition, by every standard, was an obvious failure. The illicit speakeasies, the rise of organized crime, the infamous gin parties, the stealthy transport of moonshine at night (sometimes with wooden cow hooves mounted on the soles of shoes to hide human tracks), and, on occasion, violent clashes between enforcement agents and rum runners filled, as salacious headlines do today, papers and fed perceptions that lawlessness was running unchecked across the land. This is no denial that criminal activity occurred, that many flouted the law, but neither does that mean it was understood and diagnosed accurately to trace these illegalities to one source alone: prohibition. Urbanization was a mighty force at work as well, turning worlds upside from the quiet communities many had been into bustling, unsettling combinations of people new and strange to one another, some entirely new to America, and with an expanding range of opportunities to cross distances (in the automobile) and enjoy leisure time that earlier years had not before known. A favorite statistic cited is the 30% net decrease in per capita consumption in the first ten years of prohibition. Another is the decline in cirrhosis and alcohol-related deaths in the opening years of the eighteenth amendment.

As pointed out, however, in Dr. Clark Warburton’s 1932 study of prohibition’s economic impact, the long-term effects of drinking could not be immediately attributed to changes in law that had just occurred a year or two before the sharpest decline in numbers. A sounder reckoning of costs and benefits must account for the wartime restrictions that preceded prohibition which operated parallel with higher costs, lower affordability, lower productivity, and higher accident rates. A similar dilemma existed for workplace accidents and workplace productivity, which revealed a stronger correlation in what data could be confirmed to economic rise and fall (recalling that the 1920-1921 depression corresponded to the decline in health cases, productivity, and other stats)  not credited to the lack of access to alcohol. Nor could a case be clearly made that the rise in automobile accidents traced directly to alcohol since the remarkable rise in mobility and affluence moved along other factors than merely partaking or not partaking of strong drink. Dr. Warburton reminds us that the increase in manufacturing productivity cannot be awarded to merely one factor any more than the increased awareness of safety procedures, the increase in car ownership (and thus accident rates also), the rise in alcohol’s production costs as a more effective deterrent or the improvement of wages as if prohibition had something to do with them all. As Dr. Warburton of Brookings further points out, the decline in beer consumption, which may have been partially absorbed by coffee, soda and milk drinking, did not eliminate the 10% rise in wine and distilled spirits during the decade. Consumption did go up as the decade unfolded but so did productivity, subject yet again to market rises and declines, not prohibition law. While national expenditure on alcohol remained essentially the same as it would have without prohibition in effect, so legal costs canceled out any of the supposed social advantages in economic productivity to prohibition. Dr. Warburton would conclude his study with the finding that the evidence did not conclusively substantiate prohibition’s success or failure.

Yet, it was the same perception that family life was endangered and the public good under assault with prohibition that would lead to its repeal in 1933 as advocates had argued in 1919 for its adoption. That Pauline Sabin and numerous others in state after state argued from the very same premise as those favoring national temperance is illustrative. The perception of prohibition’s part in all that had transpired carried the day, whatever other factors were certainly in play. That perception, whether real or not, mattered. Enforcement ultimately rests where it always has and always will: with the people who make their own laws. The advocates of Prohibition had secured federal criminalization and then walked away to let the national government deal with the results, ultimately consigning to the the states and the people the costs and burdens of their unfinished activism. As Assistant Attorney General Willebrandt would note in her 1929 assessment of conditions, The Inside of Prohibition,

The Federal Government simply can not be the policeman for forty-eight states, and prohibition never can be enforced that way. No “super bureau” at Washington can be more than a makeshift if it causes the field offices, and the states and local communities, to dodge responsibility. It is local opinion and vigilance that will bring about effectiveness in prohibition enforcement, and every other kind of law enforcement, throughout the country.

This is why, President Calvin Coolidge would say: “Any law which inspires disrespect for the other laws–the good laws–is a bad law” and “real reform never begins with a law, it ends with one.”

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