The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920's and 30's in the United States is one of most famous, or infamous, times in recent American history. The intention was to reduce the consumption of alcohol by eliminating businesses that manufactured, distributed and sold it. Considered by many as a failed social and political experiment, the era changed the way many Americans view alcoholic beverages, enhancing the realization that federal government control cannot always take the place of personal responsibility.
We associate the era with gangsters, bootleggers, speakeasies, rum-runners and an overall chaotic situation in respect to the social network of Americans. The period began in 1920 with general acceptance by the public and ended in 1933 as the result of the public's annoyance of the law and the ever-increasing enforcement nightmare.
Leading up to Prohibition
Temperance movements had long been active in the American political scene but the movement first became organized in the 1840's by religious denominations, primarily Methodists. This initial campaign started out strong and made a small amount of progress throughout the 1850's but shortly thereafter lost strength.
The dry movement saw a revival in the 1880's due to the increased campaigning of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (est. 1874) and the Prohibition Party (est. 1869). In 1893 the Anti-Saloon League was established and these three influential groups were the primary advocates for the eventual passage of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
After the turn of the century, states and counties throughout the United States began passing local alcohol prohibition laws. Most of these early laws were passed in the rural South and stemmed from the concern of the behavior of those who drank as well as the culture of certain growing populations within the country, particularly the European immigrants.
The first World War added fuel to the dry movement's fire as the belief spread that the brewing and distilling industries were diverting precious grain, molasses and labor from wartime production. Beer took the biggest hit due to anti-German sentiment and names like Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz reminded people of the enemy American soldiers were fighting overseas.
On the other side of the coin, the industry itself was bringing about its own demise and fueling the fire of the prohibitionists. Shortly before the turn of the century the brewing industry saw a boom due to new technology that increased distribution and provided cold beer through mechanized refrigeration. Pabst, Annheuser Busch and other brewers sought to increase their market by inundating the American cityscape with saloons. To sell beer and whiskey by the glass as opposed to by the bottle increased profits and the companies took hold of this logic by starting their own saloons, paying saloonkeepers to stock only their beer and punishing uncooperative keepers by offering their best bartenders an establishment of their own next door that would sell the brewer's brand exclusively.
This line of thinking was so out of control that at one time there was one saloon for every 150-200 people (including non-drinkers). These "unrespectable" establishments were often dirty and the competition for customers was growing. Saloonkeepers would try to lure patrons, particularly young men, by offering free lunches, gambling, cockfighting, prostitution and other "immoral" activities and services in their establishments.