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A Week to Remember: Prohibition

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Men dressed as liquor bottles in the Parade of the Departed during the Prohibition.
Men dressed as liquor bottles - rock rye, whiskey, brandy and gin in the Parade of the Departed, [1920]. Herald Examiner Collection

On January 16, 1919, five states ratified the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, taking the total number of ratifying states to 38, two more than needed to make the Amendment into law. Under the 18th Amendment, the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" was prohibited as of one year after the Amendment's passage, and fourteen years of Prohibition began on January 17, 1920.

The temperance movement, which encouraged complete abstinence from alcohol, had begun in the early 1800s in churches, primarily in the northeastern United States. By the late 19th century, groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union were having success with their campaigns against alcohol. They argued that without alcohol, workplaces would be safer, families would be happier, and the overall quality of American life would be greatly improved.

One of the obstacles faced by the movement was financial. Nearly a third of federal government income at the beginning of the 20th century came from liquor taxes; convincing Congress to pass anti-liquor legislation would be impossible unless some source of replacement income were provided. Advocates of prohibition were therefore among the strongest supporters of the 16th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, allowing the federal government to collect income tax.

The temperance movement gained momentum in the early 20th century; by the time Congress passed the 18th Amendment in December 1917, almost half of the states had passed laws banning saloons. It took slightly more than a year for the amendment to be ratified by the necessary 36 states, and it would have happened faster but for the fact that most state legislatures only went into session in odd-numbered years. A few states that met in even-numbered years ratified the amendment in 1918, and thirty more ratified it in the first two months of 1919, when their legislatures finally had the chance to vote on it; New Jersey didn't get around to ratifying until 1922; Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only states to reject the amendment.

In October 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which more precisely defined the terms under which Prohibition would take effect. The Volstead Act set the legally allowed percentage of alcohol in a beverage much lower than most prohibition advocates had expected, low enough that even beer and wine were made illegal.

In the first few years of Prohibition, it looked as if the most optimistic predictions of its advocates might come true. Hospitals reported that they were treating fewer patients for alcoholism or for liver-related illnesses, and there were fewer arrests for drunkenness.

bottles of Christmas liquor served during prohibition

Christmas liquor, no matter how beautifully and "authentically" labeled, contains numerous poisons which, if taken in large enough quantities, will prove fatal. Shown are some samples of holiday liquor, with the bootleggers' labels and the labels the chemist would place on them. Practically all liquor contains one or more of these poisons, the chemist says. Choral hydrate, introduced to add "kick" is deadly poison and there is no known antidote for it. The others are not so deadly, but injure the health and when imbibed by heavy drinkers eventually prove fatal, [December 18, 1928]. Herald Examiner Collection

But it wasn't long before demand for alcohol created a large criminal underworld. Illegal bars—"speakeasies"—sprang up; smugglers brought alcohol in from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean; doctors began writing phony prescriptions for alcohol, which could be gotten at some pharmacies for "medicinal" purposes. And many people began distilling their own alcohol. Since they didn't have any expertise, and their techniques and equipment were primitive, the homemade product often suffered from impurities and sent many people to the hospital.

police raid during prohibition

Photo shows Officer William Barry making inventory of uncut liquor valued at $62,000. Liquor was seized in a raid on a warehouse at Ninth Street and Long Beach Boulevard. Tony Carnero, notorious alleged bootlegger, was sought as police expressed belief that he had used the warehouse as a distributing depot. William Burton, caretaker of the warehouse, and Sylvanius Woolsey, driver of a truck assertedly loaded with Christmas liquor, were arrested by the raiders, [1931]. Herald Examiner Collection

Some companies found clever ways around the ban. One company sold "Vine-Glo," large blocks of powdered grape juice, with instructions to reconstitute the juice by adding water. The instructions went on to warn the user that they should not add yeast and sugar, or leave the mixture in a dark, cool place, or let it sit too long before drinking. Why, if they were so foolish as to do those things, their grape juice could ferment into wine, and they certainly wouldn't want that, would they?

But eventually, the rise of crime associated with the manufacture and distribution of illegal alcohol was the downfall of Prohibition. Virtually every part of the country saw large increases in theft, burglary, and murder. And while reliable statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cities, alcohol consumption may have actually increased during Prohibition.

police raid illegal bar during prohibition

A police raid at a bar at 8480 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, on December 29, 1932. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

In February 1933, Congress passed the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th and brought an end to Prohibition. It called for the states to vote on ratification in conventions called specifically for that purpose, rather than through votes in state legislatures. The necessary 36 states ratified the 21st Amendment in less than a year, and Prohibition ended on December 15, 1933.

Three women are raising a glass for the photographer as the bartender pours a drink

Interior view of the Malamute Saloon, now open due to the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Three women are raising a glass for the photographer as the bartender pours a drink, [1933]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Two bartenders are serving patrons at the bar.

Interior view of the Malamute Saloon, now open due to the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Two bartenders are serving patrons at the bar, [1933]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

For general histories of the Prohibition era, try Herbert Asbury's The Great Illusion (e-book | print), Edward Behr's Prohibition (e-book | print), or Daniel Okrent's Last Call (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). Okrent's book is a major source for the 6-hour series from documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Prohibition (streaming | DVD). Lisa McGirr's The War on Alcohol (e-book | print) argues that Prohibition eventually gave rise to government control over increasing swaths of American life.

3 book covers about prohibition

Several books offer advice on how to make your own Prohibition-style drinks, though yours will surely be made with better quality liquor: Matthew Rowley's Lost Recipes of Prohibition (e-book), Paul Dickson's Contraband Cocktails (e-book), and Albert W. A. Schmid's How to Drink Like a Mobster (e-book).

Marty Gervais's The Rumrunners (e-book) offers a photographic history of the Canadian smuggling trade. Lisa Lindquist Dorr's A Thousand Thirsty Beaches (e-book) looks at the smuggling network connecting Cuba to the southern United States; Bryce T. Bauer's Gentlemen Bootleggers (e-book | print) tells the story of one Iowa town's economic boom during the era; and Eric Sherbrooke Walker remembers his years as a smuggler in The Confessions of a Rum-Runner (e-book | print). Finally, David E. Kyvig looks at the political changes that led to the end of Prohibition in Repealing National Prohibition (e-book | print).

Also This Week

January 14, 1741

Benedict Arnold was born. Arnold was a general during the American Revolution, who won several important victories for the American Continental Army in the 1770s. In 1780, he plotted to betray the Americans by surrendering the fort at West Point, New York, to the British, but the plot was discovered. Arnold escaped and led British armies against the Americans during the final year of the war. His name has become synonymous with treason. Joyce Lee Malcolm explores Arnold's life and motives in The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold (e-book | print | audio).

January 17, 1904

Anton Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard, was premiered in Moscow. It tells the story of an aristocratic family in decline, struggling to save the family estate and its large cherry orchard. Chekhov described the play as a comedy, but Konstantin Stanislavsky, who directed the first production, treated it as a tragedy; critics and directors have debated its true nature ever since. Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates star in the 1999 film version of the play (streaming | DVD); Marsha Mason and Hector Elizondo lead the cast in the Los Angeles Theatre Works radio production (e-audio | audio).

January 14, 1919

Andy Rooney was born. Rooney's career in journalism began while he was in the Army during World War II, when he wrote for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes; he was decorated for his service as a war correspondent, which he writes about in My War (e-book | print). Rooney is best remembered for his 30 years of providing closing commentary on the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes. The collection 60 Years of Wisdom and Wit (e-book | print) offers a sampling of the best work of Rooney's career.

January 19, 1969

Edwidge Danticat was born. Danticat is a Haitian-American writer who has published novels, short story collections, travel writing, memoir, and children's and young adult novels; she has also edited several anthologies. In 1996, the literary magazine Granta named her one of the 20 Best Young American Novelists. In 1998, Danticat's first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (e-book | print | audio) was chosen as an early selection by Oprah's Book Club; it tells the story of a young Haitian woman adjusting to life in New York, and discovering the weight of her family's history.