The Prohibition Era: One hundred years ago, a constitutional amendment banned the sale of alcohol nationwide--but a lawless underworld of mobsters, speakeasies, and bribery flourished.

AuthorBubar, Joe
PositionTIMES PAST: 1920

It was January 16, 1920, and the streets of San Francisco were crowded with trucks and wagons delivering crates of liquor to people's homes. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, bars were giving away milk bottles filled with alcohol to customers as souvenirs. And every cafe, restaurant, and hotel in New York City was jam-packed with people clinking glasses.

"There were so many corks popping, it sounded like artillery fire," says historian David Wondrich.

The reason for the commotion: It was the last call for alcohol. At one minute past midnight, Prohibition would take effect, by a constitutional amendment, making it illegal to sell intoxicating liquors anywhere in the United States.

Dubbed the "noble experiment," Prohibition was intended to solve the social ills of the day. Instead, it led to a whole new set of problems--fueling the rise of organized crime, corrupting public officials, and creating a nation of lawbreakers.

A century later, many people view Prohibition as a cautionary tale about the government trying to impose its own morals on people.

"The problem with the Prohibition amendment," says Samuel Freeman, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Pennsylvania, "is that it concerned private morality--actions that are harmless to others that we might think are nonetheless wrong based on our personal moral views. And that really isn't the proper role of the Constitution."

The Temperance Movement

Prohibition is most closely associated with the 1920s, but its seeds were planted a century earlier, when the national temperance movement began decrying alcohol as the root cause of societal evils, including laziness and poverty. Around the same time, there was a religious revitalization in America, and many Protestant Christians argued that eliminating alcohol would make Americans happier, healthier, and more prosperous.

Despite not being allowed to vote, women were among the biggest proponents of Prohibition, seeing it as a way to combat domestic violence. The long fight on behalf of Prohibition gave many women the vital experience in politics that would help them succeed in their quest for voting rights.

"Women had no legal rights, and the amount of drinking in the middle of the 19th century was enormous, and family life suffered badly because of it--men coming home drunk, drinking away their money, losing their jobs," says Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. "And the two movements--the suffrage movement and the temperance movement--were led by the same people."

In fact, before Susan B. Anthony became one of the major leaders of the women's suffrage movement, she gave her first public speech, in 1848, in support of stricter liquor laws.

Anti-immigrant sentiment also played a role in the Prohibition movement. Some of the largest breweries in the U.S. were run by immigrants. And many of the men who frequented saloons were working-class immigrants, who had then-own customs and attitudes surrounding alcohol that didn't fit in with small-town America's values. Many people pushed Prohibition as a way to clean up the slums and "lift up" urban immigrants.

By 1913, thanks to lobbying groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, half of all Americans lived under state or local Prohibition laws. But a nationwide ban on booze seemed unlikely, because until then as much as 40 percent of the federal government's funding had come from taxing alcohol. That changed with the ratification of the 16th Amendment later that year, authorizing the federal government to collect income taxes.

On January 16,1919--about a year and a half before women gained the right to vote--the proponents of Prohibition, known as "Drys," achieved their ultimate goal: the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" anywhere within the U.S., was ratified.

"Nobody believed it would happen," says Wondrich. "Prohibition was a small-town, rural...

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