7 Unintended Side Effects of Prohibition

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American prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933 and banned the sale of alcohol for non-medicinal or religious purposes, is generally viewed as a failed experiment. It damaged the American economy, prompted new kinds of crime (most famously alcohol smuggling and illegal brewing), and did little to curb alcohol consumption. Many of these negative consequences seem pretty obvious in retrospect, but prohibition also prompted more widespread cultural changes, affecting the ways Americans ate, drank, and socialized. Here are a few surprising unintended side effects of prohibition.


Before prohibition, children rarely ate at restaurants. But according to Slate, when prohibition began, restaurants began to see kids as an untapped market. Here were little customers who wouldn’t be disappointed at the absence of alcohol, and whose parents could rejoice in the array of “doctor-approved” healthy menu items restaurants began offering (prohibition coincided with a new children’s health movement that warned parents against feeding their children overly rich or sweet foods). The Waldorf Astoria in New York was the first restaurant to offer a menu just for children; other restaurants quickly followed suit.  


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Today, NASCAR is all about flashy logo-emblazoned cars speeding around a track before a huge audience of cheering fans. But the original stock car racers weren't trying to call attention to themselves—they were moonshiners delivering illegal alcohol across state lines while evading federal tax agents hot on their trail. According to an article in CIO, they'd soup up their cars in order to outrun the police; the faster the car, the greater the chance of escape. But it didn't take long for the moonshiners to develop a taste for speed in its own right. Before prohibition even ended, they'd started holding informal races for bragging rights. By the 1940s, the races had become an organized sport and, in 1947, NASCAR was founded. 


Luxury boat travel certainly existed before the '20s, but the modern day "cruise to nowhere" was born during prohibition. According to CBS, wealthy Americans who wanted to drink publicly and copiously would simply set sail. Rather than traveling to a specific location, the point was the trip itself. Hence, the term "booze cruise." 


Coffee tables are so ubiquitous they've inspired their own genre of decorative, oversized literature. But before prohibition, coffee tables—and the social consumption of coffee in the home—were uncommon. It was only when alcohol became illegal that the tables once known as "cocktail tables" were rebranded for coffee. By the time the Volstead Act was repealed, both the name, and the practice of serving coffee to guests, were firmly set. 


Prohibition hit the restaurant industry hard. In order to make up for lost revenue, they began cutting salaries. According to Jezebel, before prohibition, wait staff made a living wage and had no need for tips from customers. During prohibition, however, waiters began accepting tips to help make ends meet. Though several states outlawed the practice, all bans on tipping were repealed in 1926, four years before prohibition ended.


Before prohibition, it was uncommon for men and women to drink together in public. Though women certainly consumed alcohol, bars were largely the domain of men. Prohibition changed all that. The proprietors of speakeasies, already operating outside of law and eschewing tradition, eagerly welcomed both men and women. According to New York Magazine, the “powder room” was one of the offshoots of this phenomenon. Along with co-ed drinking came the first gender-specific restrooms in bars.


Nowadays, people order brand name liquor at bars because they have a favorite flavor or want to show off their sophisticated taste. But during prohibition, brand name liquor could save your life. Many speakeasies provided a choice between cheaper moonshine and more expensive brand names. Moonshine, which was homemade and unregulated, could be potentially poisonous if made wrong. So concerned imbibers would turn to the label to ensure their own safety. According to Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibitionliquor manufacturers in other countries began shipping their products to the United States for sale in speakeasies. For example, Berry Brothers, who supplied liquor to the British royal family, created Cutty Sark in 1923 specifically for export to America during prohibition.