1920s’ Prohibition, restriction of the production, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of alcoholic beverages, began when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution went into effect on January 16, 1920. The Volstead Act, popular name for the National Prohibition Enforcement Act, had been passed on October 28, 1919. Enacted to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, which was ratified on January 16, 1919, the Volstead Act superceded existing prohibition legislation in 33 states. The Anti-Saloon League, the strong prohibition lobby group, was instrumental in securing the bill’s passage over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. Founded in Oberlin, Ohio by evangelical Protestant men in 1893, the Anti-Saloon League organized nationally in 1895.

Prohibition had long been the objective of the temperance movement. Organized efforts to control alcohol consumption in the United States began in the late 1700s. The first recorded temperance association was formed by a group of Litchfield, Connecticut farmers in 1789. Other similar organizations advocating temperance (moderation) rather than abstinence were established throughout the country. Evangelical Protestants spearheaded the temperance crusade in the United States beginning in 1825. Around 1830, most temperance organizations claimed abstinence from alcohol was the only way to prevent drunkenness. The primary victims of alcohol abuse were women and children due to economic deprivation and domestic violence.  Women became increasingly involved in the cause for temperance and in 1874 established the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Cleveland, Ohio. Promoting legislation using educational, social, and political means, the WCTU played a key role in the enactment of 1920s’ Prohibition.


            A "Dry" Leader

Man with Crutch Standing on Ledge Holding Umbrella over Capitol---A "Dry" Leader


1920s’ Prohibition was a reform measure of the Progressive social causes’ movement. Progressives sought government solutions for social problems. The Prohibition political party was formed in Chicago, Illinois in 1869 and began nominating Presidential candidates in 1872. A sizeable portion of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party consisted of Progressives. Pietistic Protestants were the major force for the "dries"; Catholics and Germans were the principal opponents to1920s’ Prohibition.





Down the Drain!
Officers Disposing of Confiscated Illegal Alcohol---Down the Drain!

A primary goal of 1920s' Prohibition was the reduction of drinking by workers. Progressives were aided by part of the business community who wanted sober, stable workers in order to increase production. Wine was the only drink of most middle class Americans in the Roaring Twenties. Respectable men took care to avoid saloons which were considered disreputable due to gambling, prostitution, and police corruption. However, many first generation, working class immigrants socialized in saloons of the day and opposed prohibition in general. The Eighteenth Amendment did not prohibit the possession or drinking of alcoholic beverages privately. The possession of liquor purchased before 1920s' Prohibition was legal.




            Apprehension of a Rum Runner

Officers on Ship Overtaking the Boat of a Rum Runner


 Enforcement of 1920s' Prohibition was a formidable task. Bootleggers and rum runners (smugglers crossing a state border) were plentiful. Criminal elements organized because of the large profits in bootlegging. Much of the population had contempt for law enforcement during 1920s' Prohibition. Chicago’s Al Capone and his organization were considered glamorous figures; supposedly, half the city’s police were on their payroll.





Largest Moonshine Still Seized
Largest Moonshine Still Seized during 1920s' Prohibition


During 1920s' Prohibition, moonshine, also known as "hooch" and "white lightning," was illegally produced, especially in the southern states and Appalachia. Moonshine, home produced alcohol or whiskey, used a still for distillation. Producers and smugglers usually worked by "moonshine" to avoid detection. Initially, the Internal Revenue Service enforced 1920s' Prohibition, and agents who destroyed stills were known as "revenuers."




Under 1920s' Prohibition, those with ties to organized crime commonly operated speakeasies. A speakeasy was a liquor establishment where alcoholic beverages were sold and consumed during Prohibition. To order alcohol without drawing attention or raising suspicion, bartenders asked customers to remain quiet and "speak easy." Speakeasies were numerous; some had food, floor shows, and live bands playing 1920s' Jazz while people executed the Charleston Dance. Federal Prohibition agents raided these establishments, arresting both owners and patrons. It was common for police to be bribed by speakeasy operators in order to operate or be given advance notice about raids during 1920s' Prohibition.


Prohibition and The Progressive Movement, 1900-1920, James Timberlake, Harvard University Press, 1963

Profits, Power and Prohibition: Alcohol Reform and the Industrializing of America, 1800-1930, John J. Rumbarger, State University of New York Press, 1989

Al Capone: A Biography, Luciano Iorizzo, Greenwood Press, 2003