Prohibition: Quenching the National Thirst cover

Prohibition: Quenching the National Thirst

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While the 18th Amendment prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol it did not outlaw the drinking of alcohol. Because the taste of the available liquor was rough, bartenders used sweeteners and other additives resulting in a number of cocktail recipes that are still popular today. Welcome to the world of circumventing the law, bootleggers, rum-runners, moonshine and stills!





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Prohibition: Quenching the National Thirst

Quenching the National Thirst

While the 18th Amendment prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol it did not outlaw the drinking of alcohol.

The American thirst for alcoholic beverages did not subside as expected. The amount of rum entering the U.S. from the Caribbean dramatically increased. The demand for moonshine increased and enforcement agents increased efforts to shut down illegal and untaxed alcohol manufacture and distribution. Many rural Americans began to make their own corn whiskey that was often more potent than any legal spirits to be made before Prohibition. Saloons became soft drink saloons and speakeasies flourished.

Because the taste of the available liquor was rough, bartenders used sweeteners and other additives resulting in a number of cocktail recipes that are still popular today. The number of prescriptions for medicinal liquor dramatically increased as doctors and pharmacies became distribution outlets for legal liquor. Because there were no legal controls, stills blew up, bottles exploded and people were poisoned by drinking tainted spirits.

Fresh Fish and Fruit

Fresh Fish and Fruit

Boat with sign "Fresh Fish and Fruit" delivers bottled drinks to men on pier (possibly Prohibition, selling illegal alcohol).

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Circumventing The Law

The 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol in the United States, but did not specify

how the ban was to be enforced. The Volstead Act identified penalties, defined “intoxicating liquors” and specified exceptions, such as medical use. Enforcement was difficult due to a number of factors. A significant proportion of the public had been accustomed to (legally) drinking alcohol and viewed the new law as unnecessary or an imposition of someone else’s moral code.

As a result, many defied the ban or supported those who defied it. Organized crime gangs grew wealthy supporting illegal alcohol trade, and could pay off poorly-paid enforcers. Finally, the degree of opposition to prohibition was underestimated and the resources provided for enforcement were insufficient.

Beer is Sold in Milwaukee

Beer is Sold in Milwaukee

"Beer is Sold in Milwaukee," 1921 article regarding sale of medicinal beer.

Courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.

Beer Sign

Beer Sign

"Beer Sign," 1931 article.

Courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.

Bootlegging and Rum Running

Enforcement of the prohibition law fell to the Department of the Treasury and intercepting the flow of rum via the sea fell to the Coast Guard.

Over the years, bootleggers devised a number of ways to try to avoid capture while transporting their liquor. One of the most common was to enhance, or "soup up" the engines of the cars they drove. Their sea-faring counterparts had more logistical problems to overcome. Rumrunners would dock their loaded ships beyond the three-mile limit of US government jurisdiction and unload the cargo to smaller boats under the cover of night. The larger ships could then sail into port, subject to routine inspections without the fear of detection.

Stolen Whiskey

Stolen Whiskey

Whiskey Stolen from Box Car by Max Florence, 1919.

Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved.

Rum Runner Mary

Rum Runner Mary

Rum runner Mary seized with $175,000 in liquor in Dorchester Bay, brought in to Boston Waterfront, 1932.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Large Profits

The Coast Guard found it difficult to enforce the prohibition of alcohol as there were hundreds of these “mother ships’

anchored off shore from the major ports. Large profits increased the activity. One measure of such activity could be measured by the amount of liquor that passed through Nassau, Bahamas on route to the U.S.: 50,000 quarts in 1917 to 10,000,000 in 1922.

Rum Runner Black Duck

Rum Runner Black Duck

Rum runner Black Duck escorted by Coast Guard boats to Newport, RI harbor after CG-290 fired shots killing 3 or 4 of crew, 1930.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Taxes

Tension between the government and alcohol producers is long-standing, dating back to 1794 when a whiskey tax was imposed

leading to the “Whiskey Rebellion”. The Civil War saw the reinstatement of excise taxes on whiskey and tobacco in an effort to raise funds for the troops. The government kept the taxes in place after the war to help fund the reconstruction of the nation. After the Civil War the Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department was formed with revenue collectors or “revenuers” acting as a police agency and going after moonshiners.

Mountain Moonshine

Mountain Moonshine

Photograph of mountain moonshine still.

Courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.

Mobile

Mobile

Man operates still out of the back of a carriage.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Unintended Consequenses

Congress increased the whiskey tax in 1894 with the intent to raise more money. The unintended consequence

of this higher tax was to create a larger demand for the (illegal) untaxed liquor. Many distillers chose to sell their product illegally rather than pay the higher taxes. Moonshining grew in popularity at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. As pressure was put on legitimate distillers by temperance and prohibition movements the demand for moonshine increased.

Destruction

Destruction

Still raided and destroyed by federal agents, 1934.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.