100 Years Later: 50 Facts About Prohibition
For 13 years, the United States had a constitutional ban on booze. By 1920, the chorus of citizens who didn't want the "corrupting" effects of alcohol ruining society had grown loud enough that the government acted to shut down booze-based business—and on January 17, 1920, Prohibition in the U.S. officially went into effect. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."
Try considering what life might be like without a local pub or easy access to bottles of wine while you read these 50 not-at-all-dry facts about Prohibition.
1. Prohibition's roots are as old as the colonies.
Distilled spirits were the first domestic product to be taxed by the nascent federal government, led by President George Washington, as a way to raise a significant amount of money from a popular luxury item. The tax also found support with social reformers, who hoped this "sin tax" would stop people from drinking as much.
2. Early Americans protested prohibition back then, too.
Farmers and distillers refusing to pay the tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion, which saw armed resistance challenge Washington's militia. The resistance ultimately fell apart, and two men were convicted of treason. (Washington later pardoned them.)
3. Maine got an early start on prohibition.
The first state to outlaw alcohol was Maine, which passed its law in 1851 thanks largely to the local Temperance movement leader and Quaker mayor of Portland, Neal Dow. After four years under the law, a mob of 3000 stormed city hall in 1855 when "[t]he city’s Irish working-class residents found out their teetotaling, saloon-raiding mayor was storing $1600 worth of liquor at City Hall," according to Smithsonian.com. Oops.
4. Kansas prohibited alcohol in its constitution.
Maine's prohibition test led to several other states adopting similar laws, but Kansas was the first to have a constitutional ban on alcohol manufacturing and sales. Voters passed the amendment in November 1880, and their state legislature made manufacturing alcohol a misdemeanor shortly after.
5. The Supreme Court once called alcohol "evil."
Peter Mugler set up a brewery in Kansas in 1877, and the constitutional ban made his business worthless. So when he was indicted on charges of violating the new ban, he appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court ... where he lost. In the 8-1 decision, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that the court had to consider the social deterioration caused by alcohol and that "idleness, disorder, pauperism, and crime existing in the country are, in some degree at least, traceable to this evil."
6. Prohibition had a trial run during WWI.
Americans got a taste of prohibition when the Wartime Prohibition Act passed and took effect June 30, 1919. The idea behind the act was to preserve grain for the war effort.
7. The Prohibition Party mascot was a camel.
Republicans have the elephant. Democrats have the donkey. The Prohibition Party had the camel, a perfect symbol for not drinking.
8. Economists were in favor of Prohibition.
Many economists, including the former president of the American Economic Association, Dr. Irving Fisher, thought prohibiting alcohol would have a positive effect on the nation's economy. One major target was "Blue Monday," the wasted day of productivity following a Sunday of heavy drinking.
9. Prohibition was entangled with nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments.
While alcohol was the main enemy, communities that favored alcohol (like Catholic immigrant groups) also came under fire. Nativist rhetoric was used alongside anti-alcohol arguments that railed against alcohol as an agent of social corrosion, and at least one national Prohibition figure, Bishop James Cannon, openly used anti-Catholic language.
10. Income tax partially made prohibition possible.
Congress generally refused to consider prohibition because taxing alcohol was so lucrative. But after the income tax was established in 1913, representing two-thirds of the taxes the federal government took in by 1920, the fiscal incentive for denying prohibition was almost completely wiped out, paving the way for genuine consideration of the ban.
11. Some people believed alcohol turned your blood to water.
Odd beliefs and misinformation were common while Prohibitionists fought to get the law on the books. One belief was that your blood would become water if you drank, a notion popularized by the "Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction." But it's not the only such strange belief.
12. Prohibition rebooted the KKK.
Because of the connection between Prohibition and anti-immigrant sentiment, the then-diminished Ku Klux Klan used the 18th Amendment and its social backers as a means of resurgence. The racist organization recruited from Protestant Prohibition groups and provided foot soldiers for raids where law enforcement lacked funds and people.
13. Anti-German sentiment gave prohibition a boost during WWI.
With its connection to nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the Prohibition movement got a big boost when the United States entered WWI against Germany. Since German Americans ran a majority of the breweries, dry activists argued that buying alcohol was akin to supporting the enemy.
14. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act.
While the 18th Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land, the Volstead Act defined what "intoxicating liquors" were and set the parameters for enforcing the new rule. Although publicly agnostic on the wet vs. dry issue, President Wilson vetoed the bill and declared that "personal habits and customs of large numbers of our people" should be legislated with greater caution. However, Congress overrode his veto.
15. Anti-alcohol groups claimed wine was made with cockroaches.
Dry pastor T. P. Hunt warned people off Madeira wine by saying it was "common practice" to make it with a bag of cockroaches.
16. Prohibition supporters also claimed your brain could catch fire …
Prohibition fan George McCandlish said that he'd seen a dead man's brain burst into flame when doctors tested it for alcohol with a lit match.
17. … And that your liver would grow to be 25 pounds.
Drinking does damage the liver, no doubt, but Prohibitionists exaggerated its effect in a bizarre direction when claiming the organ (which is normally about three pounds) could swell up to as much as 25 pounds while drinking.
18. Prohibition proponents also claimed that second-hand alcohol smelling would hurt unborn children.
Alfred Ploetz was a German who moved to Massachusetts in 1890 and wrote in The Influence of Alcohol Upon Race that pregnant women who merely smelled alcohol risked giving birth to deformed babies. He later moved back to Germany and joined the Nazi party as a prominent eugenicist.
19. Prohibition helped women get the vote.
Women were major leaders of the temperance movement, arguing that alcohol made men waste money, become violent, and destroy families. Frances Willard of the Women's Christian Temperance Union called the movement a "war of mothers and daughters, sisters, and wives." Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also created the Women's State Temperance Society. In nationalizing a cause women cared about, Prohibitionists saw their success as working hand-in-hand with progress toward allowing women to vote. They managed to succeed without that, but the 19th Amendment, which granted women's suffrage, was ratified only seven months after the 18th.
20. The 18th Amendment didn't actually make drinking alcohol illegal.
As you can tell by the prohibitive language on manufacturing, selling, and transporting, the 18th Amendment didn't outlaw drinking hooch per se. There was just a lot less of it to go around.
21. There were 1520 federal agents focused on battling booze.
The Department of the Treasury and the Coast Guard were responsible for enforcing Prohibition, and 1520 agents—many with little training—combated breweries, home operations, and smugglers on land and sea.
22. Doctors had a medical loophole during Prohibition.
Medical professionals lobbied to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes while the drug was illegal. Thousands of doctors and pharmacists got official licenses and created a lucrative side gig. Still, there were limits on how much a patient could get: A pint every 10 days.
23. Clergy could also serve sacramental wine during Prohibition.
In 1922, IRS head and main Prohibition regulator David Blair lifted the ban on wine for religious use. It's likely that most local officials let churches use wine even before then.
24. The British refused to help crack down on illegal smuggling.
During Prohibition, British-run Nassau in the Bahamas became a smuggling hub, so the American government repeatedly asked the British government to help shut it down. They did not—probably because alcohol imports to the Bahamas jumped from 5000 quarts to 10 million between 1917 and 1922, and the government collected tariffs on all of it.
25. Winston Churchill had a doctor's note for alcohol so he could drink in America during Prohibition.
Prescriptions for medicinal alcohol were a luxury, and there was that pesky cap on how much you could get—unless you were Winston Churchill. Not only was his prescription for an "indefinite" amount of alcohol, the doctor put a minimum limit of 250 cubic centimeters (a little more than 8 ounces) on it.
26. Breweries started making ice cream and pottery during Prohibition.
While the church helped keep the wine industry afloat, beer brewers had to transition to survive. The equipment, right down to the refrigerated trucks, made ice cream a lucrative change for Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling, and Coors built and expanded their bottling company to make pottery and ceramic tubing for the military.
27. They also made beer without the alcohol.
It probably can't technically be called beer, but Anheuser-Busch also predicted Prohibition passing and launched a cereal-based, non-alcoholic drink called Bevo in 1916.
28. Anheuser-Busch had beer ready when prohibition ended.
In another sign of the company's forward-thinking, Anheuser-Busch got approval from the government to brew 55,000 barrels of beer in anticipation of Prohibition's end, which is why people could raise their glasses when they heard the law was dead.
29. People bought bread-making ingredients to make beer at home.
Sorry, homebrewers: During Prohibition, it was illegal to make beer at home. Fortunately, breweries also shifted to selling malt extract to the public as a baking additive that no one actually used to bake with. One newspaper reckoned that enough malt extract was sold in an Ohio town each week to make 16 loaves for every person who lived there.
30. You could also buy a brick of grapes during Prohibition.
In a similar pivot, winemakers began selling bricks of dried grape juice that came with a warning label with explicit instructions on how not to let it soak and ferment into delicious wine.
31. Prohibition encouraged the Waldorf-Astoria to create the modern kids' menu.
Oases of adult fun, hotel restaurants used to keep children out, but with the threat of losing money during Prohibition, the famous Waldorf-Astoria in New York turned to the youth market with a special menu featuring Little Jack Horner and broiled lamb chops.
32. Medicinal booze really helped Walgreen's.
The burgeoning pharmacy credits milkshakes, but selling booze when it was illegal arguably helped Walgreen's expand from 20 stores to 525 in the 1920s.
33. Men and women started drinking together during Prohibition.
Before Prohibition, men and women were largely separated socially. The pub was a men-only domain. Once alcohol became illegal, speakeasies that were already breaking the law saw no real need to discriminate who they sold to, so women joined in the fun. Over time, men and women drinking and listening to music together in a crowded, sweaty room became the norm.
34. Prohibition gave birth to NASCAR.
The connection between illegal hooch and the sport of driving incredibly fast is a pretty obvious one: Moonshiners transported their illicit wares in the fastest cars they could build to evade police. Since driving fast is fun, people kept doing it even without cops on their tail, and by 1947, NASCAR was founded.
35. Brand-name booze became a big deal during Prohibition.
Moonshine was cheap, but it could blind you. Or kill you. So, if you had the money, you'd order something with a familiar name and a comforting label. Foreign liquor manufactures created brands specifically for the U.S. market to capitalize on the consumer desire to not be killed by unregulated hooch.
36. There was an explosion of slang during Prohibition.
Bathtub gin. Juice joint. Whale. Blotto. A lot of words sprung from the collective imagination while hooch-makers served white lightning to booze hounds on the sly.
37. Enforcement during Prohibition was tragically uneven.
While Congress and the president kept drinking, and the wealthy got by with pricey "medicinal" alcohol from pharmacies, police enforced the law to dramatic effect among urban immigrant and African American communities.
38. There was a lot of hooch at the White House.
Prohibition, schmohibition. President Warren Harding (who voted for the Volstead Act as a senator) kept a fully stocked bar in the White House and had frequent poker nights where everyone drank whiskey.
39. Congressmen kept drinking and had their own supplier.
Bootlegger George Cassiday brought bottles of alcohol to Congressional buildings in a briefcase, making an average of 25 trips a day. He became widely known as "The Man in the Green Hat" when he was arrested while wearing, ahem, a green hat, and banned from entering the Cannon House Office Building (so he switched to the Russell Building). Capitol Police largely let him go through unchecked, but the Prohibition Bureau initiated a sting operation that sent Cassiday to prison for 18 months.
40. George Cassiday estimated that 80 percent of congressmen drank illegally.
The bootlegger wrote articles for The Washington Post and claimed that 80 percent of Congress broke their own law during Prohibition. Apparently, they also left bottles lying all over the place.
41. Prohibition turned public sentiment around on tipping.
Before Prohibition, the public looked down on tipping as an outdated specter of the aristocracy. But with alcohol sales disappearing overnight, a lot of businesses suffered, so they cut corners by not paying servers as much—and encouraged customers to tip servers to make up the difference.
42. Drinking went down during Prohibition.
In the earliest days of the Volstead Act's implementation, alcohol use dropped to 30 percent of pre-Prohibition levels. It jumped back up while the 18th Amendment was still in place, but only to 60 to 70 percent of the original level.
43. Ending Prohibition took doing what had never been done.
In the United States, there are two methods of ratifying amendments to the Constitution: One is sending the amendment to state legislatures; the second is sending it to state ratifying conventions. The second method had never been used before the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, and it hasn't been used again since. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to approve the repeal of Prohibition, making the amendment official. Maine passed it the following day, and Montana, purely symbolically, passed it the following August.
44. Two states rejected the repeal of Prohibition outright.
Both South Carolina and North Carolina did not ratify the 21st Amendment. Even more drastically, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma didn't even call a convention.
45. FDR drank a martini to mark the end of Prohibition.
Prohibition lasted for 13 years, and when Utah put repeal proponents over the mark, President Franklin Roosevelt celebrated with a martini and said, "What America needs now is a drink."
46. Some states stayed dry after Prohibition was repealed.
As you might guess from the states who refused to even consider the 21st Amendment, not everyone was happy about going back to imbibing. Kansas, for example, prohibited alcohol until 1948. In Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, counties have to opt-in to legalizing alcohol. About 18 million American now live in "dry" areas.
47. The black market made $3 billion per year during Prohibition.
Prohibition Commissioner Dr. James Doran estimated in a 1930 interview that the illicit alcohol industry pulled in $3 billion a year, with 25 million gallons of booze a year coming from "distillation in large, hidden stills." That's $45 billion in today's money considering inflation. It also cost the government $11 billion in lost tax revenue and more than $300 million to enforce.
48. Seventy percent of Americans now drink.
Despite Prohibition, Americans never fell out of love with alcohol. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 70 percent of Americans over the age of 18 had consumed alcohol in the past year. More than half reported having a drink within the past month.
49. Almost one-fifth of Americans think drinking is morally wrong.
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 19 percent of Americans said drinking alcohol was morally wrong, and a 2014 CNN poll [PDF] found that 18 percent believed alcohol shouldn’t be legal. So it may not be a surprise that ...
50. The Prohibition Party still exists.
Their platform is still rooted in Christianity and supports assisting vineyard operators to switch their crops.