The Temperance Movement and Prohibition

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11: The Temperance Movement and Prohibition

Most major social reform movements bring substantial and lasting changes in the way people live, think, and behave. The temperance movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was an exception in many ways: "Temperance" refers to the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, in the context of the temperance movement, the term usually indicated complete abstinence, which means drinking no alcohol at all. The goal of the temperance movement in the United States was to make the production and sale of alcohol illegal. Supporters believed that prohibiting alcohol would solve a number of society's problems, making people safer, healthier, and more productive.

The movement succeeded in its goal in 1919 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment that took effect the following year. For nearly thirteen years, a period known as the Prohibition era, the creation, transport, and sale of alcohol was against the law.

Instead of solving alcohol-related problems, however, Prohibition actually made them worse. Crime rates skyrocketed as the illegal production, transportation, and sale of alcohol thrived. Referred to at the time as "a noble experiment," Prohibition largely failed as a social reform movement. It failed to stop people from drinking alcohol, and it failed in its goal to promote the good morals and clean living of American citizens. The movement opposing Prohibition grew steadily throughout that period, even attracting some who had formerly been part of the temperance movement. In 1933 the temperance advocates faced defeat as passage of the Twenty-first Amendment formally ended Prohibition.

The background of the temperance movement

From the earliest days of Europeans settling in America, alcohol was a part of everyday life. Many people believed it had medicinal value and, when consumed in moderation, could ward off a variety of illnesses. During the colonial era, some religious and community leaders expressed concern about the problems of drunkenness. But in general, the consumption of alcohol was widely accepted.

The seeds of the temperance movement were planted in large measure by religious denominations that strictly opposed all alcoholic beverages. Toward the end of the 1700s and into the 1800s, more and more religious leaders began expressing the view that drinking alcoholic beverages led to sin and would prevent salvation, being saved from one's sins and allowed to enter heaven after death. During the early decades of the 1800s, a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening took root in the United States. The revival had an impact on the temperance movement in two significant ways. First, it preached against all alcohol consumption. Second, it taught that salvation was possible through good works, inspiring many people to become involved in social reform. Throughout the nation, temperance societies formed to spread the word about the dangers of alcohol.


Avoidance; in the case of Prohibition, it meant the avoidance of all alcoholic beverages.
blind pig/blind tiger:
An establishment where alcohol is illegally sold.
A person who makes, sells, or transports alcohol illegally; the term originally referred to hiding or concealing illegal bottles of alcohol in a tall boot.
Illegally distilled alcohol, usually whiskey.
The period from 1920 to 1933 when the U.S. government outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages.
A person who illegally smuggles liquor across a waterway or a land border.
To be saved from one's sins, which Christians believe is necessary in order to enter heaven after death.
An establishment where alcohol is sold illegally.
A person who abstains from all alcoholic beverages.
Moderation in the drinking of alcoholic beverages; in the context of the temperance movement, it usually refers to complete abstinence from all alcohol.

The temperance movement was further fueled by the dramatic changes occurring in the United States due to the Industrial Revolution. Begun in Great Britain in the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution brought a significant shift in the American economy throughout the 1800s. Large

The Second Great Awakening

One of the inspirations behind the wave of American social reform in the latter half of the 1800s came from a widespread religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Taking place in the early decades of the 1800s, the Second Great Awakening was named for a similar revival in the American colonies during the 1700s. It included many Christian denominations and became a highly influential religious and cultural movement. The Second Great Awakening was an evangelical movement, whose leaders used enthusiastic and heart-felt sermons to help followers find salvation.

At the beginning of the 1800s, a number of large-scale Christian camp meetings took place in frontier regions. These religious revivals attracted huge crowds of people, many of whom traveled great distances and camped out for days. The camp meetings consisted of several days of intensive preaching, with the ministers calling for attendees to convert, to be spiritually reborn. The converted were then inspired to convert others. The most famous camp meeting of that period took place in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801. The meeting lasted for a week and drew some 23,000 people.

These camp meetings marked the beginning of the Second Great Awakening. The best-known preacher of the period was Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875). Finney was born in Connecticut and moved during his childhood to western New York, an undeveloped area considered the frontier at the time. Finney grew up with little religious involvement. In 1821, while studying law, Finney experienced a religious awakening and felt compelled to persuade others to join him in his faith. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1824 and soon after began his life as a traveling preacher.

Finney rejected a popular religious notion—that people's actions on Earth did not have any impact on whether they would be saved from their sins and allowed to enter heaven after death. Instead, Finney preached that people could exercise their free will, choosing to be sinners or to perform good works. He urged his followers to surrender to God's will, to live morally upstanding lives, and to help others. They were to do this simply out of love for God and humankind, not for the sake of personal salvation.

Finney's beliefs conflicted with traditional teachings. However, opposition from traditional religious leaders did little to reduce Finney's following. Finney traveled throughout the Northeast, preaching in such large urban areas as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Finney and other preachers influenced by him were known for their charismatic style and popular appeal. They traveled from one community to the next, spending weeks in each place trying to bring residents religious salvation. They held long prayer meetings, urging the unconverted to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. They held special meetings asking for the religious testimony of those who had been converted. Finney and similar religious reformers were unlike traditional ministers. They spoke directly to God in pleading, emotional, and informal language.

Finney's success peaked during the winter of 1830 to 1831. Traveling through New York that winter, Finney preached to large crowds night after night. He urged those in the audience to confess their sins and convert. He spoke of the possibility of finding Heaven on Earth not just through personal salvation but by committing one's life to improving society. Finney's teachings, and those of the Second Great Awakening, inspired many people to become involved in social reform movements, including the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, and prison reform. The Second Great Awakening also played a role in the women's rights movement that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Finney and others urged women to become missionaries and to take an active role in the moral health of their fellow citizens.

factories sprung up in the American Northeast, and many new towns and cities grew rapidly under the influence of the expanding industrial economy. Numerous people left their rural communities and the farming life to seek employment in cities. Vast numbers of immigrants arrived in the United States during this period as well. As a result, urban populations swelled to fill the growing demand for inexpensive, unskilled laborers.

The changes in American industry during the nineteenth century had a significant impact on society. With industrialization and urban living came a host of social ills, including poverty, child labor, unsafe working conditions, and overcrowded and unsanitary housing. A number of social reform movements swept the nation at that time. Many were in direct response to problems associated with the Industrial Revolution. Concerned citizens formed societies to aid the poor, to house and educate orphans, and to help widows and other disadvantaged women. Another significant reform movement of the mid-1800s was the drive to abolish, or end, slavery.

Membership in temperance organizations grew quickly during the mid-1800s, with many citizens believing that controlling alcohol would solve a number of society's problems. In addition, as more and more workers took jobs in factories, many reformers linked worker safety and productivity with abstinence from alcohol. Business owners also supported controls on alcoholic beverages. They believed that a sober workforce would be more likely to show up for work and perform efficiently.

Membership and goals of early temperance societies

From the beginning, women dominated the temperance movement. For many women, involvement with temperance groups was an extension of their religious beliefs. They believed they could save souls by preaching abstinence from alcohol and helping others to lead clean, healthy, moral lives. Other women joined the fight against alcohol for personal reasons, having seen firsthand the negative affects of excessive drinking. Some had been the victims of alcohol-fueled abuse by husbands, brothers, or fathers. Some had been thrown into poverty because the family breadwinner spent his paycheck at the saloon. Others had become widows when their husbands died from alcohol-related ailments.

For many women, the temperance movement represented an opportunity to become involved in social change during a period when women had little power. Women were not granted the right to vote until 1920, and involvement by women in most types of political organizations was discouraged. Working with the temperance movement, however, was seen as acceptable. It was viewed as a natural expression of the female instinct to protect and nurture others. Many prominent leaders of the women's rights movement, particularly the drive for women's suffrage (the right to vote), launched their activist careers in the temperance movement.

Some temperance groups preached moderation in the consumption of alcohol, which reflects the true meaning of the word "temperance." These organizations called for minimal drinking of beer and wine, generally forbidding consumption of "hard" liquors like whiskey or rum. More and more temperance societies, however, came to believe that excessive drinking began as moderate drinking. They reasoned that all forms of alcohol, including some medicines, should be banned. Some societies kept detailed membership lists, and at meetings they would note which members were committed to total abstinence. Such dedicated non-drinkers received a "T" for "total" next to their names, giving rise to the word "teetotaler," which refers to someone who abstains from all alcoholic beverages.

Initially, most temperance societies focused on reforming individuals, securing promises from drinkers to quit and to persuade others to quit. A group of reformed drinkers known as the Washingtonians, named for George Washington, formed during the 1840s. At the meetings, members would speak to the group about their past drinking habits and their path to abstinence. The Washingtonians also held mass demonstrations, preaching to large crowds about the evils of alcohol. Hundreds of Washingtonian chapters formed in many different states.

A group expressly for women, known as the Martha Washingtonians, also formed during the 1840s. Its purpose was to aid women and children who were affected by alcoholism. Although such organizations generated plenty of enthusiasm and many pledges to avoid alcohol, the effects were short-lived. Many converts returned to their drinking ways shortly after signing their abstinence pledges. The activists involved in the temperance movement soon shifted their focus and intensified their efforts.

Cutting off the source: The move to make alcohol illegal

By the 1850s the temperance movement had shifted its focus from reforming individuals to changing the laws pertaining to alcohol. Some temperance activists, including women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), connected the issue of alcohol abuse with women's legal rights. In Two Paths to Women's Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism, Janet Zollinger Giele discussed Stanton's stance. She noted that Stanton proposed that women's temperance organizations should pressure state governments to change divorce and child custody laws so "that the drunkard shall have no claims on either wife or child."

At that time, women seeking divorce had few legal options and rarely obtained custody of their children. Stanton and several other women involved in the temperance movement linked prohibition-friendly law changes to the right of women to vote. They suggested that only when women were granted that right could such laws take hold. For many women, participation in the temperance movement led directly to their involvement in the women's rights movement.

The primary goal of the temperance movement soon became a ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Activists all across the nation campaigned for local and state laws prohibiting alcohol. In 1851 a prohibition law was passed in Maine stating that no alcoholic beverages could be made or sold in that state. A number of states followed Maine's example over the next several years, but the success of such laws was mixed. In some states, prohibition laws were declared unconstitutional or voters decided later to overturn the law. In states where such laws remained in place, a number of citizens ignored the ban and continued to find ways to buy or make alcohol.

During the American Civil War (1861–65), prohibition efforts were dealt a blow when the federal government passed the Internal Revenue Act. This law called for a tax on the production of all liquor and beer. It also required charging a fee to all businesses that sold alcohol. The government thereby raised funds to fight the war and, in the eyes of the temperance activists, gave its approval to the liquor industry.

In the years after the Civil War, the temperance movement became a more powerful force. In 1869 the National Prohibition Party, a political party devoted to a ban on alcohol, was established. The Prohibition Party put forth candidates for political offices ranging from local seats to the U.S. presidency. Prohibition Party candidates did not earn large numbers of votes, but they did help spread the prohibition message.

In late 1873 Dio Lewis, a doctor and an advocate of exercise, good nutrition, and temperance, gave a series of lectures to women's groups in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He urged his audience to become activists and use their powers of persuasion to close down saloons and other drinking establishments in their towns. In response, groups of women took to the streets, holding emotional prayer sessions in front of, and occasionally inside of, local saloons. The women begged saloon owners to get rid of their supply of alcohol and close their doors, thereby preserving the health and morality of the town's residents.

The Woman's Crusade, which continued well into 1874, met with great success. It closed down thousands of saloons in hundreds of towns. As with earlier efforts by the temperance movement, however, these successes were temporary, and many of the shut-down saloons soon reopened. One lasting effect of the crusade was that it filled many women with the activist spirit, showing them that their influence could be felt outside the home and that their united efforts gave them significant power in society.

Around the same time as the Woman's Crusade, local chapters of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) began forming. The WCTU became a national organization in the fall of 1874. Five years later, Francis Willard (1839–1898) became the national president of the WCTU. As the leader of the organization for nearly twenty years, Willard became a well-known and widely admired speaker. She was one of the most famous women in the United States during her lifetime. Willard took the WCTU to international prominence and persuaded thousands of people of the need for a national ban on alcohol.

Targeting saloons

In addition to Willard, another well-known voice of the temperance movement at the turn of the century was Billy Sunday (1862–1935). Sunday spent many years during the 1880s as a professional baseball player in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. One day in 1887, after getting drunk with some teammates in Chicago, Sunday experienced a dramatic religious conversion. He was overcome with emotion after hearing a group of people singing gospel hymns on a street corner. Sunday abruptly decided to quit drinking and to live a religious life.

A few years later, Sunday retired from baseball to devote his life to preaching for God and against alcohol. Sunday attracted a huge following with his colorful, energetic, and passionate sermons. One of his most famous, known as the "booze sermon," proclaimed that alcohol was behind most of the nation's crime and poverty. As quoted by Eileen Lucas in The Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments: Alcohol—Prohibition and Repeal, Sunday used the pulpit to persuade people of the dangers of drinking. "The saloon is the sum of all villainies. It is worse than war or pestilence [devastating contagious disease]. It is the parent of crimes and the mother of sins."

Billy Sunday's passionate condemnation of the saloon was echoed by Carry Nation (1846–1911), perhaps the most eccentric and infamous of the era's prohibition activists. Nation's first marriage was destroyed by alcohol. While pregnant with her first child, she left her husband because of his excessive drinking. He eventually died of the effects of alcohol less than a year later. Throughout her life, Nation blamed alcohol for much of her personal hardship and for the troubles of society. She later remarried and settled in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, where she became active in the WCTU during the 1890s. By the end of the century, believing that she was on a mission from God, Nation had begun visiting saloons in towns throughout Kansas with the aim of shutting them down. Armed with large rocks or an axe, Nation would sing and pray while smashing bottles and kegs filled with alcohol. The constitution in Kansas had been amended to prohibit alcohol, so Nation argued that her actions were not illegal as she was only destroying the property of businesses that were operating against the law.

Groups of women across the country had performed similar actions in saloons, but Nation was distinguished by her single-minded devotion to the cause and her disregard for the consequences. She was arrested and sent to jail numerous times, occasions she used to attract publicity for her cause. With newspaper photographers present, Nation would kneel on the floor of her jail cell and pray loudly for the salvation of drinkers and saloonkeepers.

By the time of Nation's campaign, popular and media support for alcohol prohibition had swelled, while at the same time the saloon had become a fixture of American life. As Larry Engelmann wrote in Intemperance: The Lost War against Liquor, "There were more saloons in America than churches, schools, hospitals, libraries, jails, theaters, or parks…. They lined the main streets of towns and cities like starlings crowded on a clothesline." Many people viewed saloons as harmless neighborhood meeting places where friends could gather to socialize, read newspapers, and discuss community events. A growing number, however, characterized the saloon as the source of all evil. In his 1950 book, The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition, Herbert Asbury described the saloon as "a breeding place of crime and violence, and the hangout of criminals and degenerates of every type."

The campaign for a constitutional amendment

The Anti-Saloon League, which had been established in the 1890s, grew in importance and influence during the early 1900s. Under the leadership of Wayne Wheeler (1869–1927), the Anti-Saloon League became a powerful behind-the-scenes organization that lobbied for the election of political candidates who supported prohibition. In 1913 Congress aided the prohibition cause by passing the Webb-Kenyon Bill, which declared that states with prohibition laws could keep liquor shipments from passing across their borders. Later that year, the Anti-Saloon League officially began campaigning for a constitutional amendment that would establish national prohibition.

In December 1913 the Anti-Saloon League and the WCTU joined together to formally propose the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment that would ban the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages. While Congress examined the proposal, the Anti-Saloon League worked to persuade the American public of the wisdom of the amendment. The group sent thousands of trained speakers and distributed countless pages of prohibition literature throughout the country.

Public opinion increasingly swung in favor of prohibition. Yet in many places the debate continued to rage between the "wets," those who felt the government should not legislate the consumption of alcohol, and "drys," those in favor of prohibition. The drys had the moral advantage, arguing in favor of clean living, crime reduction, and religious salvation. The wets maintained that the government had no business interfering in private lives and deciding what citizens could drink.

Few groups, aside from those representing the liquor industry, organized to oppose the prohibition amendment, perhaps in part because passing a constitutional amendment was an extremely difficult process and they felt it would never succeed. First, two-thirds of the members of Congress would have to vote in favor of the amendment. Then, three-fourths of the states, either through their legislatures or through conventions called for that purpose, would have to ratify, or approve, the amendment.

Passage of the Eighteenth Amendment

When the United States entered World War I (1914–18) in 1917, support for the prohibition cause increased. Congress passed several anti-alcohol measures. One measure was intended to conserve grain for making food rather than liquor; another was to protect the morals of the soldiers. The Anti-Saloon League and others framed the prohibition movement as a patriotic one: a ban on alcohol would help bring victory for the United States, in part by conserving resources for the war effort. In addition, many prohibition advocates suggested that supporting the brewing industry would be anti-American. The United States had joined the war in support of the Allies, including Great Britain, Russia, and France. The enemies of the Allies were the Central Powers, including Germany and Austria-Hungary. The major beer brewers in the United States were German, and prohibition activists equated support of the beer industry with support of the American enemy.

Some politicians in Congress continued to oppose the proposed Eighteenth Amendment, but they agreed to vote for it if a six-year limit (later changed to seven) was placed on ratification, or approval. These politicians could then appear to be patriotic and morally upstanding by supporting the prohibition amendment, while privately believing that ratification by the required thirty-six states would never happen within that timeframe. By the end of 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment had passed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. It was sent to the states for ratification on January 8, 1918. To the surprise of many, just over one year later, Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment. The Eighteenth Amendment had passed easily, and a national ban on alcohol would go into effect one year later. The era known as Prohibition had begun.

The transition

During the year between the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the date it would take effect, the U.S. government had to create a plan for enforcing Prohibition. Minnesota Congressman Andrew J. Volstead (1860–1947) submitted the National Prohibition Bill to Congress. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate in October 1919. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) vetoed the bill, but Congress quickly overrode the veto. The bill became law on October 28, 1919, and was thereafter known as the Volstead Act. Although Volstead had submitted the bill to Congress, it had actually been written by a private citizen: Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League.

The Volstead Act outlined a strict definition of alcoholic beverages: anything containing more than one-half of one percent of alcohol was outlawed. Exceptions included wine used for religious purposes and liquor prescribed by doctors as medication. Many people, including some supporters of prohibition, were surprised by the severity of the law. A number of people had assumed that beer, which generally contains about 3.5 percent alcohol, and wine would still be allowed. The Volstead Act also defined the methods of enforcing Prohibition, which involved a network of agents and investigators who would have the power to arrest anyone violating the terms of the law.

In the months leading up to the beginning of Prohibition, many people began building private storage facilities to house their supplies of alcohol. The assumption had been that the government would allow such stockpiling if the supply was for personal consumption only and not to be sold or distributed. The day before Prohibition was to take effect, however, the government announced that it would seize any supply of alcohol located outside a private home. Those who had built up vast supplies elsewhere rushed to move their stockpiles from warehouses to basements, bedrooms, and garages.

On the last night before Prohibition would take effect, people attended parties at bars where mock funerals were held for John Barleycorn, a fictional character symbolizing liquor. At one bar in New York City, patrons threw their empty bottles and glasses into a coffin being wheeled around the dance floor. At the stroke of midnight on January 16, 1920, Prohibition began. Millions of Americans had drunk what would be their last legal drink, but far from their last drink, for thirteen years.

Getting around the law

At first, it seemed to some that Prohibition would be properly enforced and people would abide by the new regulations. However, it soon became clear, at least in the larger cities, that many people's desire to decide for themselves what they consumed was stronger than their desire to obey the law. Most Americans who violated Prohibition did so on a small scale, obtaining enough alcohol for their own use or having occasional drinks at an illegal bar. Some, known as bootleggers, developed a successful career producing or acquiring alcohol and then selling it. Those wishing to get around the law on any scale found that there were a number of options.

The Volstead Act allowed people to obtain alcohol from a drugstore if they had a doctor's prescription. Such prescriptions poured into drugstores all over the nation during the Prohibition era. One of the most notorious bootleggers of the period, George Remus, made a good portion of his fortune through supposedly medicinal alcohol. At the beginning of Prohibition, Remus bought a number of distilleries (factories that produce whiskey and other liquors) as well as several drugstores. He announced that he would sell alcohol for medicinal purposes. And some of his liquor was distributed legally to those with prescriptions. However, he used various methods of deception to sell most of his liquor illegally.

Some Americans decided to produce their own alcohol at home, investing in the materials necessary to make beer, liquor, or wine. When people wanted to make large quantities of homemade alcohol, they often used their bathtubs, giving rise to the term "bathtub gin." Such home brews were made by combining ingredients that were readily available and allowing them to ferment, or undergo a chemical change converting the mixture to alcohol, for several days. The quality and safety of homemade alcohol varied widely. Some brews just tasted bad, others made the drinkers quite sick.

Winery owners, prevented from selling wine except for religious purposes, faced financial ruin. Some skirted the law by selling products that consumers could make into wine. One such product, known as raisin cakes, was sold as a snack food or for making nonalcoholic grape juice or cider. The manufacturers sold these products with clear instructions on what not to do to convert the juice to wine. For example, these instructions advised customers not to put the juice into a jug and store it in a cupboard for twenty-one days as this would result in a conversion to wine. The companies thereby adhered to the law, having no control over what customers did in the privacy of their own homes. Wine drinkers took great advantage of this opportunity. According to Lucas's Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments, "From 1925 to 1929, Americans drank more than 678 million gallons of home-fermented wine, three times as much as all the domestic and imported wine they drank during the five years before Prohibition."

The illegal alcohol industry

In cities and neighborhoods across the country, millions of people ignored Prohibition in favor of gathering with friends to socialize, drink, and dance in illegal bars known as speakeasies. Such establishments were so-named because patrons were cautioned to "speak easy" about the existence of the private clubs. Speakeasies flourished during the 1920s and became a symbol of the decade's fun-loving image. Also known as blind pigs and blind tigers, these clubs became so popular that, in some parts of the country, they outnumbered the legal saloons that had existed before Prohibition. Some historians estimate that there were twice as many speakeasies in New York City during the 1920s than legal saloons in the previous decade. Customers often had to go through a series of rituals to get inside, finding hidden doorways, navigating dark passageways, and offering secret passwords at the closely guarded doors. The secrecy and mystery involved in gaining admittance to speakeasies, not to mention the thrill of breaking the law, gave the clubs a glamorous and exciting aura that legal saloons never had.

Speakeasies obtained alcohol from a number of sources. A vast network of rumrunners, smugglers bringing in rum and various types of liquor from other countries, arose during Prohibition. Rumrunning flourished on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as on the borders with Canada and Mexico. The border with Canada was particularly busy for smugglers, especially in the Great Lakes region, which became a rum-running hub. Even during the winter, rumrunners continued smuggling liquor from Canada, making treacherous crossings in cars across the frozen lakes.

A stretch of Atlantic coast including New York City was such a busy site for liquor smuggling that it became known as Rum Row. On any given night, dozens of boats could be seen waiting in international waters near Rum Row to transfer their cargo to smugglers' boats. The U.S. Coast Guard and border patrols attempted to stem the flow of illegal liquor into the country, but the number of rumrunning operations overwhelmed law-enforcement resources. Rumrunners smuggling alcohol by sea occasionally were stopped by the Coast Guard, but the danger from pirates was far greater. Pirates would often wait until the smugglers had unloaded their cargo and received payment. Then they would board the rumrunners' boat, attack or kill the crew, and steal the money.

Another source of alcohol for speakeasies was from bootleggers producing their own supplies. Illegally distilled liquor, known by such nicknames as moonshine and rotgut, was often foul-tasting and potentially dangerous. Amateur distillers did not always produce their liquor under sanitary conditions, and the ingredients could be toxic. Thousands of people died during Prohibition from tainted alcohol. Many more suffered blindness, paralysis, and other types of severe damage.

Women during Prohibition

Known by such labels as the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age, the 1920s featured an explosion in artistic creativity and a relaxation of the strict moral codes from earlier in the century. Women had obtained the right to vote nationally with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. With that right came a renewed boldness and confidence.

Increasing numbers of women from the working class were finding jobs outside the home. More and more women from the middle and upper classes had the luxury of attending college. With these changes came a taste for increased freedom and a desire to enjoy the same liberties as men. Many women felt the confidence to challenge conventional ideas of proper female activity and behavior.

Women's fashions evolved during the 1920s, with hairstyles and skirt lengths getting progressively shorter. Dress styles became looser and more fluid, and women traded in their black wool stockings for sheer silk hosiery. One of the best-known images of the 1920s is of the flapper, a fun-loving young woman in a short, sleeveless dress, high heels, and a sleek, short haircut. Flappers did away with the binding, restrictive undergarments of earlier generations, such as the corset. They did this, in part, to free them up for the era's wild, energetic dances, such as the Lindy and the Charleston. Another fashion innovation of the flapper period was bold makeup, including white face powder, red lipstick, and black eyeliner. In the past, such makeup was only worn by actresses (so their expressions could be seen on the stage and screen) and prostitutes. Flappers could even be seen applying makeup in public, a shocking development in the eyes of many.

In earlier decades saloons were visited mainly by men. But during the Prohibition era, it became more acceptable for women to be seen drinking, smoking, and dancing in public. Women from all walks of life frequented speakeasies and nightclubs, engaging in behavior that was previously considered grossly inappropriate for respectable ladies.

One of the most dangerous types of bootleg alcohol started out as industrial alcohol. Some kinds of manufacturing used alcohol in their processes, and such alcohol was deemed legal under the Volstead Act. To keep people from selling industrial alcohol for consumption, it was "denatured." This meant that something was added to it to make it taste terrible (soap), or to make it poisonous (sulfuric acid). Bootleggers would then try to convert the alcohol back to a drinkable state. Such alcohol was responsible for a number of serious injuries and deaths.

Another type of illegal alcohol came from the manufacture of "near beer," an extremely low-alcohol beverage that was legal for brewers to produce. Brewers could make beer the ordinary way but were then supposed to boil off all but one-half of one percent of the alcohol. Some brewers snuck out shipments of regular beer disguised as near beer. In other cases, alcohol was added to near beer through a hypodermic needle stuck into a beer bottle's cork or into a keg. The name for the converted beverage was "needle beer."

The growth of organized crime

At the beginning of the Prohibition era, many bootleggers, rumrunners, and speakeasy owners were independent operators. Soon the illegal alcohol industry was overrun by organized networks of criminal gangs. Organized crime took over nearly every operation related to alcohol, eager to get in on the massive profits associated with illegal goods. In several big cities, violent gang wars erupted as various groups struggled for control. The most infamous center of organized crime during Prohibition was Chicago. The Windy City became the home base of the era's most notorious gangster, Al Capone (1899–1947).

For a time, the American public tolerated the activities of Capone and other organized crime leaders. The primary industry of these gangsters was bootlegging, and since violations of Prohibition met with the approval of so many citizens, the gangsters' industry was not viewed as terribly harmful to society. In addition, Capone and other crime bosses donated large amounts to charitable causes, promoting themselves as community leaders. As the 1920s progressed, however, gangland activity became increasingly violent and people became more and more fearful and disgusted. Corruption of police officers, bribed by gangsters to ignore their criminal activity, only added to the public distaste for organized crime.

In the eyes of many, the event known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre effectively ended the public's acceptance of organized crime. On February 14, 1929, Capone's men brutally killed seven members of a rival gang and made it look like the police had committed the murders. When it became widely known that the massacre was a gangland execution, the public expressed its outrage. The event was a turning point in the Prohibition era. The nation had become sick and tired of the lawlessness and violence associated with Prohibition.

Opposition grows

Opposition to the Eighteenth Amendment had steadily increased throughout the 1920s. By the end of the decade, those calling for the amendment's repeal, or reversal, formed a significant portion of the population. Many people believed the Eighteenth Amendment was unconstitutional, that a program like Prohibition should be mandated by Congress, not by the Constitution. Some felt that Prohibition was an unwelcome intrusion by the government into citizens' private lives and personal decisions. Even some former temperance advocates came to

Al Capone: Public Enemy Number One

An Italian American born and raised in New York, Al Capone moved to Chicago in 1919 to work for Johnny Torrio, a prominent gang leader who had made a fortune from bootlegging. Capone took over the gang after Torrio retired in 1925, quickly rising to a position of tremendous power and wealth. Capone was a brutal, intelligent leader who inspired devotion among his henchmen and fear among his enemies. He earned the admiration of many Chicago residents by donating generously to poor children, widows, and other needy citizens. In a calculated move to improve his image, Capone opened a soup kitchen in Chicago. He boasted to the press about the cost of operating the charitable organization, but in reality much of the food came from businesses he had pressured for donations.

In 1927 Capone was named "Public Enemy Number One" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That year he also earned more than $100 million from his many illegal operations, with bootlegging by far the most profitable. To maintain his position of power, Capone violently murdered anyone who posed a threat. He evaded capture by the police in part by intimidating witnesses into refusing to testify out of fear of retaliation by Capone. Despite his viciousness and strong-arm tactics, Capone was generally regarded in a favorable light by many citizens. This occurred because people were unaware of the extent of Capone's violence, because he made significant donations to charitable causes, and because many people accepted the practice of bootlegging. But public opinion changed after Capone engineered a brutal attack on a rival gang on February 14, 1929.

In an attempt to take over the territory run by the gangster Bugs Moran, Capone sent a carload of his men to one of Moran's warehouses. Some of Capone's men were dressed as police officers. When they barged into the warehouse, the seven men inside assumed it was a police raid. Moran's men were lined up against a wall and shot. Upon leaving the warehouse, the men from Capone's gang dressed as police officers pretended to be arresting those dressed in civilian clothes.

Witnesses thought what Capone wanted them to think: that police had raided the warehouse, gunfire had been exchanged, some men inside had died, and some were arrested. Investigators initially thought that the seven men had been killed by police officers, though it later became widely known that Capone was behind the murders. The outraged reaction by the American public and the threat of retaliation by Moran compelled Capone to retreat from view for awhile.

In 1931, after law enforcement officers had worked for years to build a case against him, Capone was convicted of tax evasion. (A conviction of the more serious crimes Capone had committed proved impossible due to lack of evidence and witnesses.) Capone went to prison in Atlanta, Georgia, and was later transferred to the infamous Alcatraz, a prison located on an island in California's San Francisco Bay. He was released in 1939 and lived out his remaining days in retirement in Florida.

believe that Prohibition should be repealed because it seemed to be counterproductive. Outlawing alcohol seemed to have pushed more people into the dangers of alcoholism. Statistics from the mid-1920s indicate a huge increase in alcoholism-related deaths and arrests for drunkenness over the period before Prohibition.

Many wealthy citizens wanted alcohol legalized so that the government could earn tax revenues from the sale of alcoholic beverages. The money earned from an alcohol tax would mean the government would be less dependent on income taxes and would reduce the tax bills of the nation's richest people.

A number of people blamed Prohibition for the rise in crime and corruption in a number of cities. Prohibition was closely connected to the dominance of organized crime and the corruption of police officers and public officials, many of whom regularly accepted bribes in exchange for allowing bootlegging and speakeasies to continue. Opponents of Prohibition pointed out that the ban on alcohol was unsuccessful. Almost from the beginning great numbers of people had bypassed the law and ignored the ban. Many Americans realized that the image of a clean-living nation promoted by Prohibition supporters was an illusion.

A large part of the problem with Prohibition stemmed from ineffective enforcement of the law. From the beginning of Prohibition, there had been an insufficient number of agents to enforce the law. The agents worked long hours for low pay in a frustrating and futile attempt to stem the tide of speakeasies, rumrunning, and bootlegging. Few agents lasted long in their jobs: many quit after a short time, others took bribes from bootleggers, and some ordered drinks in the very speakeasies they were supposed to be shutting down. Some agents doggedly pursued their targets, making many arrests. Yet in such cases the jails became overcrowded and the court system clogged. So many people resisted the law that it become impossible to arrest them all.

As the 1920s progressed, opponents of Prohibition became more organized in their efforts. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), which had formed just prior to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, gained strength during the 1920s. The AAPA began to copy the techniques that had been so successful for the Anti-Saloon League. They started supporting political candidates who opposed Prohibition and wanted to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. In addition, the AAPA launched a campaign to educate the public about the problems of Prohibition. The goal of the AAPA and other wets was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, but they knew they faced an uphill battle. No constitutional amendment had ever been repealed in U.S. history. The AAPA tried instead to minimize the restrictions of the Volstead Act, attempting to make it legal to produce low-alcohol beer. The die-hard prohibitionists in Congress refused to budge, however.

The movement to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment suffered a setback with the 1928 presidential election. Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33), a Republican and a supporter of Prohibition, overwhelmingly defeated Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944), a Democrat and an opponent of Prohibition. A number of dry candidates running for Congress also won their elections in 1928.

Repeal: Passage of the Twenty-first Amendment

The Great Depression (1929–41), which began in October 1929, played a significant role in the downfall of Prohibition. The Depression brought about financial ruin for millions of Americans. Many people lost their life savings, their jobs, and their homes. Many citizens found themselves in dire need of basics like food, clothing, and medical care. The priorities of Americans shifted from protecting society from the evils of alcohol to feeding and clothing the needy. Opponents of Prohibition pointed out that all the profits from illegal alcohol sales went into the hands of criminals. If alcohol were legal again, the government would gain significant tax revenue from alcohol sales and would save millions of dollars that were being spent on the enforcement of Prohibition. In addition, new jobs would be created if the beer, wine, and liquor industries were allowed to resume full and legal production.

In the run-up to the 1932 presidential election, it became clear that Prohibition, while taking a back seat to the economy, was nonetheless an important issue. The Republicans were divided over the issue, with some advocating revision of the Eighteenth Amendment and some supporting repeal. The Democrats were united in their support of repealing Prohibition, a position wholeheartedly backed by their candidate for president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). Roosevelt won the election, as did a number of wets running for Congress.

Even before Roosevelt had officially begun his term as president, Congress began discussing and voting on the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment through the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment. In February 1933 both houses of Congress voted in favor of sending the Twenty-first Amendment to the states for ratification. Congress had decided to have the states use the convention method, rather than having legislatures put it to a vote, to ratify the amendment. The convention method of ratifying an amendment calls for delegates, selected by voters, to vote on ratification, rather than such votes being cast by the state's lawmakers. The ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment was the only time in U.S. history that the convention method was used.

Upon taking office in March 1933, Roosevelt immediately cut spending for Prohibition enforcement and called for Congress to modify the Volstead Act to legalize beer. This modification became law on April 7, 1933. Three days later, Michigan became the first state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment. In rapid succession, the remaining thirty-five states needed for passage ratified the Twenty-first Amendment. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the final state to ratify the amendment, thus repealing Prohibition.

The aftermath

People throughout the country celebrated the repeal of Prohibition as a victory for individual liberty. Prohibition was widely regarded as a failed experiment, a law that went against the will of the people and was thus violated by millions for more than a decade. In many ways, however, Prohibition led to a better understanding of society's alcohol-related problems, particularly focusing attention on the treatment of alcoholism.

Temperance organizations, which still exist and wield a fair amount of power, have lobbied for a number of regulations to protect young people and other vulnerable segments of the population. They fought to obtain restrictions on television advertisements of liquor and forced alcohol manufacturers to place health warning labels on alcohol packaging. They also helped raise the legal drinking age in all fifty states to twenty-one. Anti-alcohol organizations serve an important function by educating the public about the prevalence of alcoholism. They also study the rates of alcohol-related crimes, domestic abuses, and car crashes. Although the national ban on alcohol backfired in many respects, the legacy of Prohibition has led to a number of benefits to society.

For More Information


Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950.

Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade, 1996.

Engelmann, Larry. Intemperance: The Lost War against Liquor. New York: The Free Press, 1979.

Giele, Janet Zollinger. Two Paths to Women's Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Lucas, Eileen. The Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments: Alcohol—Prohibition and Repeal. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 1998.

Rebman, Renee C. Prohibition. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1999.


"Temperance and Prohibition." Ohio State University Department of History. (accessed on May 28, 2006).

Woman's Christian Temperance Union. (accessed on May 28, 2006).