The Shadow of Danger
The Shadow of Danger
By: Strengthen America Campaign
Date: c. 1925
Source: Strengthen America Campaign. "The Shadow of Danger." Corbis, 1925.
About the Author: The New-York-based Strengthen America Campaign included a number of organizations devoted to the merits of Prohibition. This Prohibition advertisement poster is a part of a collection of images maintained in the archives of Corbis Corporation, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to such communications groups as advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, media organizations, newspapers, and producers. The creator of the advertisement is unknown.
The legal prohibition against the manufacture, possession, sale, or consumption of alcohol or related products was created with the passage of the National Prohibition Act of 1919, more commonly known as the Volstead Act. Prohibition was enshrined as an amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 by way of the 18th Amendment.
The Volstead Act was the culmination of a fierce political and social battle waged for the capture of American public opinion that had lasted almost one hundred years. The consumption of alcoholic beverages had been a significant part of American daily life since the earliest colonial times. In the English colonies, the brewing and the drinking of beer was an accepted social custom in all classes of society. American statesman Benjamin Franklin once observed that for him, beer was proof of God's love for his human creatures.
Drunkenness and its associated disruptions to both family life and the maintenance of gainful employment was known to be a pressing social concern throughout the United States in the early 1800s. Temperance groups were formed to promote the moderate consumption of alcohol, with the popular argument favoring temperance being the protection of families. Various Protestant and evangelical religious groups soon embraced the notion that abstinence, and not mere moderation, was the only viable means to rid society of the evil of alcohol abuse. The melding of religious forces and social opposition to alcohol led to the creation of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1879; the WCTU soon had a membership in the hundreds of thousands across the United States.
After 1900, the increasing influence of the WCTU was buttressed by organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League, founded in Ohio in 1893 and led by the influential Wayne Wheeler (1869–1927). The evangelist William Ashley (Billy) Sunday (1862–1935) was a popular preacher who attracted a large national following while he campaigned forcefully for Prohibition in his revival meeting style.
Prohibition had gained ground well before the passage of the Volstead Act, as three states and a number of local municipalities had banned alcohol prior to 1910.
The national campaign for Prohibition turned in favor of the temperance/abolitionist forces when Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League adopted the tactic of using its significant church membership base to assert pressure on both local and national political candidates; Wheeler directed the prohibition supporters to vote solely regarding the candidate's stand on Prohibition. By the time that the Volstead Act was before Congress in 1919, Wheeler was widely regarded as one of the most influential persons in American politics.
The forces favoring American Prohibition were so significant in 1919 that even a veto of the legislation by President Woodrow Wilson could not deflect the path to the desired constitutional amendment ratified on January 16, 1920.
THE SHADOW OF DANGER
See primary source image.
The image depicted on the Prohibition advertisement is an extension of the primary argument advanced in favor of the extension of Prohibition after the passage of the Volstead Act—the protection of innocent family members from the consequences of the abuse of alcohol by another family member, most often the father and husband. As in the advertisement, alcohol is portrayed as a form of poison, not a controllable or social beverage.
The advertisement is aimed at one of the significant constituencies of the movement that had led to the enactment of Prohibition. Unlike most political causes in the modern age, Prohibition was achieved exclusively through intensive regional grassroots campaigns that attracted little, if any, significant corporate support.
It may be said that with Prohibition, American society traded one set of compelling social problems associated with alcohol for an entirely different but equally vexing group. The first was the fact that Prohibition did not eliminate alcohol abuse in the United States. Clandestine and illegal alcohol consumption using products produced by bootleggers led to thousands of incidences of death or serious injury caused by the consumption of poisonous homemade alcohol mixtures.
The most visible and notorious issue arising from the introduction of Prohibition was the blatant disregard for the law itself across America. It is estimated that for every 260 arrests for violations of the Volstead Act, a single conviction resulted. The use of homemade stills and other private manufacturing of alcohol was a significant cottage industry in America after 1920. The rise of illegal drinking establishments, known variously as clip joints, blind pigs, and speakeasies, became a part of the folklore of the period.
The combined effect of off-shore liquor smuggling, particularly from Canada, and the entry of organized criminals into the liquor industry created significant gaps in law enforcement through bribery and other forms of corruption. Throughout the 1920s, a public perception existed that many law, police, and political officials were complicit in the work of the liquor smuggling industry. Underworld leaders such as Al Capone acquired both wealth and international notoriety during the Prohibition period.
As powerful as the forces favoring Prohibition had grown prior to 1920, public support for Prohibition declined dramatically as the 1920s advanced. Influential and articulate social commentators, such as Baltimore newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken, repeatedly painted Prohibition as a folly and a waste of government resources that encouraged crime. Mencken, who coined the phrase The Bible Belt as a derogatory reference to American religion, praised the virtues of alcohol in his daily columns as vigorously as he attacked the Anti-Saloon League. By 1932, seventy-four percent of Americans favored a repeal of the 18th Amendment. With the election of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, a known "wet" or person who opposed Prohibition, the repeal forces achieved their victory in 1933.
The enduring significance of the Prohibition campaign can be found in the limitations to alcohol sale and consumption that persisted in many American jurisdictions long after the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Eighteen states maintained either complete or partial prohibitions against alcohol until 1966. As of 2006, sixteen states have retained centralized control over the sale and distribution of alcohol from government-authorized outlets.
The modern attitude of the American public at large toward alcohol also reflects a number of concepts at the heart of the institution of Prohibition in 1920. One example is the greater severity of the criminal consequences for alcohol-related misconduct. Every American state and the federal government devotes public funds to combat offenses such as drinking and driving as well as to educate the public concerning the risks of alcohol excess. Drinking and driving has been elevated from the status of a social indiscretion in the period prior to the Second World War to fully criminal conduct that attracts significant legal sanctions in every American state. In a sense, these measures are reminiscent of a true temperance movement, as opposed to outright abstinence from alcohol.
While there are elements of American society, such as the marketing of professional sports, that tend to promote alcohol as a lifestyle choice, a Bloomberg Institute study conducted in 2005 indicated that forty-two percent of all Americans consumed little or no alcohol in the course of a year. While a return to Prohibition is doubtful, it seems equally unlikely that America will ever accept alcohol in the unconditional fashion of early America.
Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1997.
Hirshfield, Al and Gordon Kahn. The Speakeasies of 1932. New York: Applause Books, 2003.
Rogers, Mary Elizabeth. Mencken: The American Iconoclast. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
State University of New York/Potsdam. "National Prohibition of Alcohol in the United States." 〈http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Controversies/1091124904.html〉 (accessed July 22, 2006).