Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression

Prohibition Repealed 1920-1933

Prohibition Repealed 1920-1933

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
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National Prohibition, a result of a century of moral and religious crusades, lasted but 13 years, from 1920 to 1933. The newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) commented to an aide in March 1933 that it was surely a good time for a beer. The sentiment Roosevelt expressed had been echoed in America since its birth.

The earliest colonists considered liquor a good gift of nature, a necessity of life. Rum was the beverage of choice for weddings, funerals, and generally all community gatherings. Parents spoon-fed it to crying babies, however, it was a sin to overindulge. Nevertheless, gradually as more and more people misused rum, movements began to curtail its use. Temperance campaigns to promote the use of alcoholic beverages in moderation or to abstain completely began as early as 1808. Maine was the first state to pass Prohibition legislation that prohibited manufacture and sale of liquor. In 1862 the United States government, strapped for cash due to the Civil War (1861–1865), began collecting revenue from a federal liquor tax. Ironically between 1870 and 1915 one half to the two-thirds of the revenue of the United States government came from the liquor tax as no income tax existed.

In the early 1870s women's groups began an assault on the "demon rum." The Women's Christian Temperance Union crusaded against liquor and supported Prohibition. By 1893 the Anti-Saloon League had joined in. Ultimately on January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment, or otherwise known as the "Prohibition Amendment," took effect nationwide. Americans expected Prohibition to make America a wholesome, perfect place, but as Herbert Asbury in his book Great Illusion explains:

They had expected to be greeted, when the great day came, by a covey of angels bearing gifts of peace, happiness, prosperity, and salvation, which they had been assured would be theirs when the rum demon had been scotched. Instead they were met by a horde of bootleggers, moonshiners, rumrunners, hijackers, gangsters, racketeers, trigger men, venal judges, corrupt police, crooked politicians, and speakeasy operators, all bearing the twin symbols of the Eighteenth Amendment–the tommy gun and the poisoned cup (Asbury, p. 137).

From the start Prohibition had been heavily promoted as a reform to protect community and home, yet it appeared by the mid-1920s to have unleashed a crime wave. Gangsters had organized and were becoming wealthy. The boom of "bootleggers," or people who smuggle liquor, in the United States overwhelmed the number of Prohibition agents, respect for law became less every day as reports of bribery and corruption continuously surfaced, and courts were inundated with Prohibition cases. It seemed evading the ban on liquor became a national sport, while speakeasies thrived, otherwise law-abiding citizens made home brews and looked at the activity as only slightly illegal, and even women who seldom drank alcohol began to drink. Thousands of lives were lost in futile attempts to enforce Prohibition, and the federal government lost millions in revenue taxes while enforcement costs reached toward a billion dollars.


The Woman's Crusade with bands of singing and praying women sweep into saloons to protest the "demon rum."
November 1874:
Women's National Christian Temperance Union organizes in Chautauqua, New York, and soon becomes known as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, or the WCTU
Anti-Saloon League (ASL) organizes.
Carry A. Nation wields her hatchet destroying saloons.
January 16, 1919:
A full 36 states ratify the Eighteenth Amendment.
May 1919:
Congress passes the Volstead Act.
January 16, 1920:
The Eighteenth Amendment, or the Prohibition Amendment, goes into effect nationwide.
With every passing year Prohibition is ignored more and more. Organized crime becomes immensely wealthy from "bootlegging" illegal alcohol.
The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), originally founded in 1918, gains support of many influential Americans.
An anti-Prohibition group of lawyers, the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers, incorporates.
Attorney Wayne B. Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League dies suddenly.
The Wickersham Commission studies problems of Prohibition enforcement and issues inconclusive report.
May 1929:
Pauline Sabin forms the Women's Organization for National Prohibition reform (WOWPR).
October 1929:
The Great Depression begins.
U.S. citizens elect New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt president.
February 1933:
Congress passes a resolution to submit the Twenty-First Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment, to the states for ratification.
March 1933:
President Roosevelt sends a special message to Congress asking them to pass a bill legalizing 3.2 percent beer; Congress quickly does.
December 5, 1933:
The thirtieth state ratifies the Twenty First Amendment.
June 24, 1935:
American Can Company and Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, New Jersey, introduce canned beer.

Ultimately two factors brought an end to Prohibition. First, American women under the banner of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) pushed for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, the Prohibition amendment, and secondly the Great Depression began. In October 1929 the stock market crashed as over valued stocks plummeted in price causing investors to lose millions of dollars. Soon the economic crisis spread to the rest of the economy. Financiers could no longer pour investment money into businesses and factories using new assembly line technology were turning out products faster than the public could purchase them. As a result companies needed to cut payrolls. Banks began going out of business having lost investments in the stock market and citizens not able to keep their loan payments on houses and other property they purchased on credit. The downward economic spiral continued until finally hitting bottom by early 1933 when at least 12 million workers representing 25 percent of the work-force were unemployed.

Americans, confused and dismayed by the economic crisis, listened as "wets," those in favor of repeal, laid partial blame for the Depression on Prohibition. Legalizing alcohol, they claimed, would bring back desperately needed jobs in breweries and distilleries, generate tax revenue for the government's coffers, and stop expensive attempts to enforce Prohibition. By December 5, 1933, the necessary number of states had ratified the Twenty-First Amendment that repealed Prohibition. The Great Depression of course did not come to an end, but what had come to an end was the most extensive social experiment ever undertaken in the United States.

Issue Summary

Results of the Noble Experiment

As the 1920s came to a close illegal manufacture and sales of liquor continued in the United States on a large scale. In geographic areas where the population was sympathetic to Prohibition it was enforced more vigilantly than where the majority of citizens opposed it. Enforcement generally was stronger in small towns and rural areas and considerably weaker in large cities especially those in the North and East. Mid-decade surveys revealed that Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and areas from Texas to California appeared to have somewhat accepted Prohibition. The cities of Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, however, all had strong wet components. In the Southern states Prohibition seemed to be enforced for black Americans but much less than it was for whites. Throughout the Midwest rural areas generally observed Prohibition, but city residents largely ignored it. Scandinavians of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota continued drinking as did the large ethic communities in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Overall less drinking was taking place largely because illegally obtained liquor was very expensive. The more prosperous middle and upper classes routinely violated Prohibition as did young adults who regarded drinking as a sign of sophistication. The working class, at least those not making their own beverages at home, reportedly reduced drinking the most because of the expense. A quart of beer cost 80 cents during Prohibition, which was six times more expensive than it was in 1916. Likewise the cost of whisky and gin drastically increased after Prohibition commenced. The anger of many Americans was barely repressed. Throughout the nation Prohibition took on an image not of a respected law that reduced alcohol consumption but the image of a law to be widely disregarded. Many Americans realized for the first time that the law of the land could be misguided or, in their eyes, completely wrong and therefore could be ignored.

By the end of the decade the results of the great social experiment were clear. From the start Prohibition had been heavily promoted as a reform to protect community and home. Yet it appeared to be unleashing a crime wave. Prohibition had created a widespread disrespect for the law. Organized crime had become wealthy beyond imagination and would henceforth be a part of the American landscape. Politicians, Prohibition agents, local police, the courts, and prison system were overwhelmed and often corrupted with bribery and payoffs. Citizens lost respect for the legal system and for politicians. Many Prohibition agents, police, and innocent citizens lost their lives in shootouts over the illegal trafficking of alcohol. Physical harm, blindness, and the deaths of over ten thousand people resulted from drinking bootlegged alcohol containing poisonous chemicals. Thousands of honest people employed in the brewery, distillery, and wine industries lost their jobs, and if they chose not to become criminals, they took far lower paying jobs outside their area of expertise.

The drinking habits of America changed dramatically during Prohibition. In pre-Prohibition days little drinking took place at home except for the wealthy, who had wine or beer with dinner and brandy or port wine afterwards. For most of the public, alcohol at home was for medicinal purposes only. During Prohibition, however, drinking at speakeasies was very expensive. As a result liquor was stored at home or made at home and therefore could be drunk more often. Also the cocktail made with liquor became popular. Eight ounces of gin mixed with soda or juice became eight drinks whereas eight ounces of beer was one drink. Those who had disliked the taste of beer, wine, or hard liquor found cocktails irresistible.

Before Prohibition women drank very little, and prohibitionists considered the fact that immigrant women drank beer or wine an outrage. Prohibition was intended to help keep womanhood pure but it had the opposite effect. As soon as drinking became illegal women began to drink. For example, younger women passed the flask with men, and speakeasies invited women in and they came. For those that stayed at home alcohol stored at home allowed women to privately find out what all the uproar was about.

Finally and probably one of the most important reasons leading to repeal was the cost of Prohibition. Enforcement costs by some estimates topped a billion dollars between passage and repeal. Additionally the government lost millions in revenue taxes that would have been collected if alcohol was legal. Also honest brewmasters, wine makers, and distillers were denied the income to pay workers and to turn a profit. Instead liquor revenues went by and large into the deep pockets of organized crime.

Enforcement of Prohibition

From the start of Prohibition agencies charged with enforcement had insufficient funds and manpower. Drys had insisted enforcement would be easy with most Americans voluntarily obeying the law, while wets hoped they were wrong. Congress counted on enforcement being cheap. Responsibility for enforcement under the Volstead Act was with the Bureau of Internal Revenue, a division of the Treasury Department. The first Prohibition Commissioner appointed was John F. Kramer, a dedicated Prohibitionist and lawyer from Ohio. Kramer formed the Prohibition Unit whose name changed much later, in 1927, to the Prohibition Bureau. The Unit, as organized, had a total of 1,520 enforcement agents operating in the United States or one to every 70,000 Americans. Most were paid approximately $1,680 a year, hardly a decent livable wage for men with families in a city. Kramer predicted that "this law will be obeyed in cities large and small without need of much intervention."

After six months the disillusioned Kramer left his job. Roy Haynes, another Ohioan and ardent supporter of the Anti-Saloon League, was handpicked by the League's lawyer, Wayne Wheeler, to be the new Prohibition commissioner. Within two years Haynes claimed moonshining, or making illegal liquor at home, and bootlegging were all but conquered, yet the facts told a radically different story. His Prohibition Unit had been filled with men owed favors by politicians and was hardly competent to handle the wildfire spread of bootlegging. Bootlegging was becoming, more and more, a highly profitable, gang-controlled business. In 1925 President Coolidge (served 1923–1929) put military man General Lincoln C. Andrews in charge of enforcement. Andrews better organized the bureaus then dealing with liquor control—the Prohibition Unit, the Coast Guard, and Customs Service. He intended to terminate all unqualified men from the Prohibition Unit and replace them with qualified individuals. Politicians, however, scuttled most of his plans, and corruption associated with Prohibition went on as usual. States passed plenty of enforcement laws to keep drys happy but in reality appropriated almost no money to carry out the statutes. Raids on speakeasies were rarely more than an annoyance, and even padlocking doors rarely kept speaks closed more than a day. Courts were overwhelmed with Prohibition cases, and the juries generally sided with the accused. As a result courts began to set aside certain days for bootleggers, moonshiners, smugglers, and speakeasy managers to come, plead guilty, pay a five or ten dollar fine, and go back to what they had been doing.

Federal enforcement agents whose salaries were meager were highly susceptible to bribery and payoffs. In order to operate their speakeasies without trouble, the bootleg crime gangs put police, sheriffs and any other officials likely to get in their way on their payroll. Hundreds of city officials, police officers, state legislators, judges, and prosecuting attorneys were indicted through the 1920s for working with gangs. Often Prohibition Unit agents worked just long enough to learn about contacts then quit to work as bootleggers or speakeasy proprietors themselves.

The Customs Service's Border patrol was charged with stopping liquor from entering the United States over land routes and rivers and lakes. During Prohibition's first years not more than 35 agents were assigned to the Mexican border and one hundred to the Canadian border. Cars and trucks loaded with cases of whiskey had some four hundred roads to enter from Canada and speedboats raced across the Great Lakes and the Detroit and St. Lawrence Rivers. There were probably two hundred routes from Mexico as well has many shallow spots for crossing the Rio Grande. Federal agents admitted two years into Prohibition they seized only one case in twenty crossing the border. Customs Service Agents were also highly susceptible to bribery and corruption.

More About… The Eighteenth Amendment

Section 1. Prohibition

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the importation thereof into or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. Enforcement

The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. Ratification

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.


Section 1: This amendment made it illegal to make or sell alcoholic beverages within the United States. This Amendment was commonly spoken of as Prohibition.

Section 2: Congress and the states could both pass laws to enforce this Amendment. Congress passed the Volstead Act and the states passed numerous enforcement laws.

Section 3: For the first time an amendment included a time limit for ratification. For the amendment to go into effect it had to be ratified or approved by three-fourths of the states within seven years. The Amendment was submitted to the states in the summer of 1917. Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to ratify on January 14, 1919. The Secretary of State announced on January 16, 1919, that the Amendment had been ratified and would go into effect in exactly one year.

In 1927 the Customs Service decided on a major effort aimed at the so-called Detroit-Windsor Tunnel where millions of gallons of liquor were smuggled yearly into Detroit from Canada. The Service hand picked one hundred of its best agents with the Border Patrol and committed one half of its patrol boats to the area. The Prohibition Bureau doubled its number of agents at its Detroit headquarters. Yet in 12 months time ending March 31, 1928, the Service seized only 148,211 gallons of the 3,388,016 gallons of liquor that left Windsor for Detroit. The project was considered a total failure, illustrating the difficulty in controlling borders.

When the Eighteenth Amendment passed it became the Coast Guard's duty to keep smugglers away from American shores. At the time the Coast Guard was a small branch of the Department of the Treasury. Its duties were to protect government revenues, save lives and property at sea, and prevent ordinary smuggling. It had several thousand men, about 30 cutters and a few small harbor boats. Undermanned and underequipped the Coast Guard was almost helpless against Rum Row.

In 1924 the United States and Great Britain agreed to allow the Coast Guard to greatly expand the water it could patrol—allowing it to search British vessels as far out as one hour's run from the American coast by the Guards fastest cutter. Because of Prohibition the Coast Guard expanded during 1920s into a full military service of the United States. By 1928, not counting small lifesaving boats, the Guard had 560 vessels including 33 cruisers, 25 destroyers, and 243 large offshore patrol boats. The Coast Guard, over the fourteen years of Prohibition, captured hundreds of bootlegging boats and was successful in dispersing Rum Row. Nevertheless the gangsters who bootlegged by sea greatly outnumbered the Guard and by operating with a great deal more care continued smuggling enormous amounts of liquor into the United States until repeal of the amendment. …