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The United States Prohibition of Alcohol - 1920-1933

The Effects of Prohibition


End of Prohibition is celebrated with kegs of beer on the street.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 05: View of men and women celebrating the repeal of Prohibition by rolling down a barrel of alcohol and toasting the 18th Amendment's demise, Chicago, 1933. Two men in front are wearing Legionnaires' uniforms.

Chicago History Museum / Archive Photos / Getty Images
An antique voting machine used as an example for those voting for the repeal of Prohibition.

An antique voting machine used as an example for those voting for the repeal of Prohibition sits in Bill Samuels Jr.'s home amongst many other pieces of history.

Photo Credit: © Shannon Graham
Repeal of Prohibition

Immediately after the 18th Amendment went into effect there was a dramatic decrease in alcohol consumption that made many advocates hopeful that it would be a success. In the early 20’s the consumption rate was 30% lower than it was before prohibition but later in the decade, as illegal supplies increased and a new generation began to ignore the law and reject the attitude of self-sacrifice, more Americans once again decided to indulge. In a sense, prohibition was a success if only for the fact that it took years after repeal before consumption rates reached those of pre-prohibition.

Advocates for prohibition thought that once liquor licenses were revoked reform organizations and churches could persuade the American public not to drink, “liquor traffickers” would not oppose the new law and saloons would disappear. There were two schools of thought amongst prohibitionists.

One group hoped to create educational campaigns and within 30 years American would be a drink free nation, however they never received the support they were looking for. The other group wanted to see vigorous enforcement that would essentially wipe out all alcohol supplies. This group was also disappointed as law enforcement could not get the support of the government they needed for an all-out enforcement campaign. During the depression the funding was not there and with only 1,500 agents nationwide they could not compete with the tens of thousands of individuals who either wanted to drink or wanted to profit from others drinking.

The innovation of Americans to get what they want is evident in the resourcefulness used to obtain alcohol during prohibition. This era saw the rise of the speakeasy, home distiller, bootlegger, rum-runner and many of the gangster myths associated with it.

Many rural Americans began to make their own hooch, ‘near’ beer and corn whiskey. Stills sprung up across the country and many people made a living during the depression, supplying neighbors with their moonshine. The mountains of the Appalachian states are famous for moonshiners and although it was decent enough to drink, the spirits that came out of these stills were often stronger than anything that could have been purchased before prohibition. The moonshine would often be used to fuel the cars and trucks that carried the illegal liquor to their distribution points and the police chases of these transports have become equally famous. With all of the amateur distillers and brewers trying their hand at the craft there are many accounts of things going wrong: stills blowing up, newly bottled beer exploding and alcohol poisoning.

Rum-running also saw a revival as a trade in the United States. Liquor was smuggled in station wagons, trucks and boats from Mexico, Europe, Canada and the Caribbean. The term “The Real McCoy” came out of this era. It’s attributed to Captain William S. McCoy who facilitated most of the rum running via ships during prohibition and would never water down his imports, making his the “real” thing. McCoy, a non-drinker himself, began running rum from the Caribbean into Florida shortly after the beginning of prohibition. One encounter with the Coast Guard shortly thereafter stopped McCoy from completing runs on his own. The innovative McCoy set up a network of smaller ships that would meet his boat just outside U.S. waters and carry his supplies into the country.

Speakeasies were underground bars that discreetly served patrons liquor, often including food service, live bands and shows. The term speakeasy is said to come from bartenders telling patrons to “speak easy” when ordering so as not to be overheard some 30 years before prohibition. Speakeasies were often unmarked establishments or were behind or underneath legal businesses. Corruption was rampant during the time and although raids were common, owners would bribe police officers to ignore their business or give them notice of when a raid was planned. While the "speakeasy" was often funded by organized crime and could be very elaborate and upscale, the "blind pig" was a dive for the less desirable drinker.

Probably one of the most popular ideas of the time was that the mob held control of the majority of the illegal liquor trafficking. For the most part this is untrue, although in concentrated areas gangsters did run the liquor racket. Chicago was one of those cities where they did control distribution. At the beginning of prohibition the “Outfit” organized all of the local Chicago gangs and split the city and suburbs into areas, each of which would be controlled by a different gang who would handle the liquor sales within their district.

Underground breweries and distilleries were hidden throughout the city. Beer could easily be produced and distributed to meet the demand of the city but because many liquors require aging the stills in Chicago Heights and on Taylor and Division streets could not produce fast enough and the majority of spirits were smuggled in from Canada. This distribution operation out of Chicago soon reached Milwaukee, Kentucky and Iowa.

The Outfit would sell liquor to the lower gangs at wholesale prices and even though the agreements were meant to be set in stone, corruption was rampant and without the ability to resolve conflicts in the courts they often resorted to violence in retaliation. After Al Capone assumed control of the Outfit in 1925 one of the bloodiest gang wars in history ensued.

While prohibition was originally intended to reduce beer consumption in particular, it ended up increasing the consumption of hard liquor. Brewing requires more space both in production and distribution than liquor, making it harder to conceal. This rise in the spirit consumption of the time played a big part in the martini and mixed drink culture that we’re familiar with and “fashion” we associate with the era.

Why was prohibition repealed? >>

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