The Impact of Banned Alcohol in Prohibition-era America

From the 1920s up until the early 1930s, an unprecedented alcohol ban took place in America. What was the cost and impact of Prohibition?

Jul 4, 2023By Ching Yee Lin, BA (Hons) History
impact alcohol ban prohibition era america


The 18th Amendment in 1919 prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of liquor in the United States from 1920–1933. Believing that the ban could stop alcoholism and resolve health issues and social problems like family violence, the US government embarked on what would later prove to be one of the most ill-conceived policies in history: Prohibition. What were the intentions behind this alcohol ban and how did Americans react to the Prohibition laws? What were some of the far-reaching effects of Prohibition and how has it contributed to our understanding of American society of the 1920s and 1930s? This article delves into the troubled history of Prohibition.


The Temperance Movement in the United States Before Prohibition

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Illustration of women gathered in protest outside a local saloon, 1874, via The Mob Museum, Las Vegas


Advocating moderation or abstinence from liquor consumption, the temperance movement in the United States took root in the early 1800s. That was a time when heavy drinking among men was extremely common. The average adult male was said to be consuming between seven to 12 gallons of alcohol per year. This was turning into a social problem, sparking further issues such as domestic violence and crime. As a result, women were particularly supportive of the temperance movement. This was further motivated by religious reasons as women, particularly middle-class Protestants, championed Christian virtues of temperance and prudence.


By 1831, there were already a total of 24 women’s organizations promoting the ideals and benefits of temperance in various parts of the country. Some of their methods included confrontations, picketing, and sit-in protests at saloons, breweries, and distilleries frequented by men. As the temperance movement gained momentum in the 1870s, temperance advocates began delivering anti-drinking sermons and hymns inside saloons to halt alcohol sales in the Midwest and West.


The Road to the 18th Amendment

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Men protesting for dry laws in states throughout the country, date unknown, via PBS


In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed. Headed by its president Frances Willard, the WCTU advocated for a nationwide ban on alcohol. Willard’s work in promoting temperance went hand in hand with her efforts on women’s suffrage, education, and welfare. In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League was founded and was headed by Wayne Wheeler, a political tactician. Wheeler would later be instrumental in pushing for a constitutional amendment banning alcohol, especially with the onset of World War I.

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Witnessing the rising anti-German sentiments, Wheeler and his entourage cleverly exploited Americans’ patriotism and resentment against German-American beer makers to push for their agenda. They successfully convinced Congress to pass a law on Wartime Prohibition, laying strong foundations for the eventual 18th Amendment. In August 1917, the US Senate voted in favor of the amendment, and four months later, the House of Representatives did the same. In January 1919, the 18th Amendment became written into law and was to take effect one year later in 1920.


The Scurry for Alternatives

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Inside a speakeasy in New York City by Margaret Bourke-White, 1933, via LIFE Magazine


Finally, over a century of crusade against liquor use was over. The temperance advocates had won. The entire American society was in an upheaval, as people reacted differently to the one-size-fits-all approach at banning alcohol. Almost overnight, saloons, breweries, and distilleries across the country had to be closed and Americans had to find alternative ways to get booze. Speakeasies, illicit bars that sold alcohol away from the privy eyes of the law, sprouted quickly for those who wanted to sneak a tipple. The clandestine nature of speakeasies also made them a haven for the Flappers of the Roaring Twenties as rebellious women found a somewhat public place to drink.


Hardcore drinkers also looked to places like pharmacies and churches where legal liquor use was permitted, and to bootlegging syndicates who had ways of procuring alcohol, whether of poor or high quality. Bootleggers would often smuggle alcohol using vehicles that had hidden compartments that could evade law enforcement. The lucrative bootlegging industry in the 1920s was run by organized crime syndicates that controlled large-scale interstate liquor smuggling. Al Capone, the legendary mob boss, made over $60 million a year supplying bootlegged alcohol to his network of speakeasies in the late 1920s.


Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

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Policemen raiding the home of Eugene Shine, a bootlegger, during the Prohibition era, 1930, via History


During Prohibition, many people turned to homemade alternatives. The term bathtub gin was invented to describe any kind of liquor that was made illegally in one’s home. These drinks were often of poor quality and were said to be even potent recipes of poison due to their questionable ingredients such as rotten meat and chemicals. Contrary to its name, alcoholic products weren’t made in an actual bathtub, but rather stashed there. It was estimated that in 1929, Americans produced almost 700 million gallons of homemade beer.


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Moonshine still recently confiscated by the Internal Revenue Bureau photographed at the Treasury Department, 1921–1932 via Library of Congress, Washington


Those who made these illegally distilled alcoholic products were called moonshiners and they were one of the supply lines for bootleggers during Prohibition. Some of the alcohol made by the moonshiners eventually made its way to speakeasies all over the country via the bootlegging network. However, the poor quality of the bathtub gin made it difficult for bartenders to use them as they were. Ingredients such as soda pop, fruits, and juices had to be used to mask the flavor of the poor-quality booze. This process was later credited for the invention of many of the classic cocktails we love today.


The Thriving of Organized Crime

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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre making headlines, Chicago Daily News, 1929, via The Mob Museum, Las Vegas


One major, disastrous consequence of Prohibition was the rise of organized crime in the United States. From Gambino to Colombo, several notorious Italian-American crime syndicates had earned their fortunes from running large-scale operations in bootlegging and speakeasies during Prohibition. Territorial clashes and gang violence were commonplace during this period too as rival gangs competed for the lion’s share of the Prohibition Pie.


The most infamous incident of all was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. Seven men associated with the Irish mobster George Bugs Moran were gunned down by police attire-clad men in the chaotic Chicago’s North Side. The tragedy was widely believed to have arisen from the gang rivalry between Moran and Al Capone, although there was no official evidence pointing to Al Capone’s involvement.


The End of Prohibition

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New Yorkers celebrating the end of Prohibition, 1933, via History


As gang violence and heightened criminal activity further destabilized the already chaotic American society, public sentiments began tipping over to the side of repeal. This was compounded by the sobering realization that Prohibition laws were not properly enforced since Americans never stopped drinking during this period. Even Dry Americans became increasingly disheartened by the fact that law enforcement never caught up with the bootleggers and gangsters. More often than not, police officers and federal agents were the ones taking bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to criminal activities.


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President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the first relaxation of the Volstead Act in all the years of Prohibition in Washington, 1933, via Politico


With the Great Depression of 1929, the American economy went on a downward spiral, with millions losing their jobs and declaring bankruptcy. In such circumstances, income from alcohol sales and tax appeared to be a viable lifeline for an economy in shambles. The future US President Franklin D. Roosevelt would campaign for the 1932 elections on the very premise that legalizing liquor again would increase federal revenue by several hundred million dollars a year. On top of that, putting an end to Prohibition was also seen as a direct solution to the rising unemployment problem. Riding on this momentum, Congress passed the 21st Amendment in 1933 which repealed the 18th Amendment, legalizing liquor again.


Evaluating the Prohibition Years

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New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition, c. 1921, via Library of Congress, Washington


Finally, after thirteen long years, Prohibition had come to an end. Across the United States, ecstatic drinkers toasted to the taste of hard-earned freedom and reaffirmed the wonders of alcohol. Marking the only instance in American history where a constitutional amendment was passed to repeal another, the end of Prohibition has made many wonder if it was even necessary to enforce such an ill-conceived law in the first place.


Did Prohibition bring about positive outcomes, if any at all, and how far off was it from its well-meaning intentions? First, Prohibition brought about severe implications for the economy of the United States. It had caused tens of thousands of people to lose their livelihoods as alcohol-related industries suffered an instant blow. Bars, breweries, distilleries, liquor shops, and saloons had to close and occupations such as winemakers, truckers, and waiters became irrelevant overnight, rendering thousands jobless. On a government level, billions of tax revenue from liquor-related trades were lost and an additional $300 million had to be forked out to enforce Prohibition laws.


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German-Americans celebrate the end of prohibition at the Bismarck Hotel, Chicago, c. 1933, via The Guardian


If the economic consequences had to be a necessary outcome of a moral decision, did Prohibition at least achieve what it set out to do? As history and Americans in the 1920s have demonstrated, the reality could not be any further from the expectations. Despite an initial dip, alcohol consumption was shown to have increased sharply in the subsequent years to about 60 to 70% of pre-1920 levels. Thousands of people were also dying every year from consuming alcohol of poorer quality in larger quantities due to the perceived scarcity. Historical data, however, have shown that death rates from cirrhosis and alcoholism had reduced significantly when Prohibition laws came into effect. It was also evident that attendance at workplaces had improved, signaling how controlling one’s alcohol intake was beneficial to productivity.


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The Daily News from 6 December 1933, via CNN


Despite this, given the heavy socio-political costs and the economic repercussions of Prohibition laws, America’s experiment on curbing alcoholism had proven to be a spectacular failure. Thriving organized crime painted the glaring picture of the fallibility of law enforcement and ultimately, the failure of the law to regulate human behavior. In a time when America, the Land of the Free, was forced to go dry, Americans proved that their incredible resourcefulness and their love for alcohol knew no bounds.

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By Ching Yee LinBA (Hons) HistoryBased in Singapore, Ching Yee is a copywriter who focuses on the historical and contemporary issues concerning the Singapore society. She holds a BA (Hons) in History from the National University of Singapore and is passionate about topics related to social and cultural history of Asian societies. In her spare time, she enjoys pottery and watching films.