Prohibition: America Dries Out cover

Prohibition: America Dries Out

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By early 1917, temperance supporters held a majority of seats in Congress, drawing members from the Democratic and Republican parties alike. This NoteStream explores the dry out of the nation, the 18th amendment to the Constitution, early enforcement efforts, and finally the 21st amendment, returning control of alcohol regulation to the individual states.





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Prohibition: America Dries Out

The Nation Dries Out

Influenced by the growing temperance movement, state legislation regarding sale and consumption of alcohol appeared as early as the mid-19th century.

In 1851, Maine became the first state to prohibit the manufacture and sale of liquor, yet the law was repealed five years later. Kansas was another early enactor of anti-liquor laws, outlawing alcoholic beverages in 1881. The Sunflower State was also the launch pad for Carrie Nation’s outspoken and often violent temperance activism. Between 1900 and 1910, Nation was arrested over thirty times for destroying Kansas saloons with hatchets and rocks.

Floyd County, Georgia Ballot

Floyd County, Georgia Ballot

Photograph of local liquor law ballot, Floyd County, Georgia, 1887.

Courtesy, Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, flo061.

Postcard of a Legend

Postcard of a Legend

Postcard of Carrie Nation's home.

Courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.

18th Amendment

January 1919 brought the crowning achievement of the Temperance movement:

the United States was voted dry. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors in the United States, was ratified by 46 states; only Connecticut and Rhode Island rejected the amendment. By the terms of the amendment, it was slated to go into effect one year after ratification, which allowed time for development of appropriate legislation for enforcement.

Later that year, the National Prohibition Act (also called the Volstead Act) expanded on the 18th Amendment and the previously enacted War Prohibition Act by specifying strength of alcohol that was prohibited, penalties for lawbreaking, and exceptions that could be made for medicine, religious rituals, and scientific research. Neither law actually prohibited the consumption of alcohol for enjoyment, but they made it more difficult to obtain legally.

The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment; to this day, it is the only constitutional amendment to be repealed in its entirety.

Beer

Beer

Police dump beer out of window in Dorchester.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Enforcement

Enforcement of Prohibition was difficult and ultimately ineffective. Enforcement was initially largely delegated to state and local police.

On the federal level, the Prohibition Unit (later called the Bureau of Prohibition) was established within the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The unit was later moved to the Treasury Department and then Department of Justice, ultimately evolving into today’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The demand for alcohol was high, and organized crime gangs grew wealthy and powerful in meeting that demand, importing alcohol from other countries and establishing illegal bars (“speakeasies”) to sell it.

Enforcement methods included setting up fake speakeasies, tapping phone lines, and executing raids. Illegal alcohol sale was so profitable that even with raids and arrests by law enforcement, speakeasies and other illegal activity thrived. Corruption was also rampant, further complicating enforcement efforts and making convictions after arrest relatively rare.

Police and Illegal Liquor

Police and Illegal Liquor

Police officers and illegal liquor, Northfield, Minnesota, 1930.

Courtesy of the Northfield Historical Society, Northfield, Minnesota.

Dismantling a Speakeasy

Dismantling a Speakeasy

Dismantling speakeasy after raid.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Seized Casks

Seized Casks

Police from Division 9 with casks seized during Prohibition.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

21st Amendment

Prohibition in the United States officially ended after 14 years, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.

This amendment specifically repealed the 18th Amendment (which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors in the United States) and returned control of alcohol regulation to individual states, only banning transportation of alcohol when it violated local laws. Many states opted to remain dry, though none are completely dry today. Many states now delegate alcohol regulation to counties and municipalities.

The 21st Amendment is the only constitutional amendment to date to repeal a previous amendment, and also the only one to have been ratified by state ratifying conventions rather than state legislatures; this method was chosen so that average citizens could weigh in on this sensitive issue without political pressure from the temperance lobby. 38 state conventions ratified the amendment, which officially took effect on December 15, 1933.

Cheering Crowds

Cheering Crowds

Crowd cheers the end of prohibition on the sale of liquor, as crates of liquor are brought into a store,

Marietta, Georgia, April 1935. Courtesy of Georgia State University.

Ratification

Ratification

Governor Laffoon handing gavel to Laura Clay as Temporary Chairman of the Kentucky Convention to ratify the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, 1933.

Courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.