Prohibition, enacted with the passing of the 18 th Amendment, heralded an age of sobriety. Or at least, that was the plan. As we know, the 1920’s was a time of great upheaval, not the least of which was in the area of alcohol. The country went “dry” in 1920 and would not see legal liquor again until 1933. But that didn’t stop most people from imbibing. In fact, it stopped almost no one at all. Illegal bars-known as “speakeasies”-sprouted up around the country, especially in cities. Every kind of alcoholic drink one could thirst for was smuggled en masse from other, less inhibited countries, like those in Europe. Law enforcement officials turned a blind eye. Even the president served alcohol at the White House! But the Prohibition was not just a battle between liquor-lovers and temperance advocates, even though it may seem that way on the surface. It spurred deep changes in American society and culture-changes we are still feeling today. Not all these changes were for the better. There is a darker side to the Prohibition than the romanticized images we conjure, of pleasantly smoky speakeasies, flappers in glittering gowns, and hard-livin’, fast-talkin’ gangsters. The Prohibition fueled the very activities it was intended to eliminate: crime and drunkenness.
The goals of the Prohibition were threefold: annihilate drunkenness, reduce booze-fueled crimes, and purify America. Or, as Billy Sunday put it:
The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent. (Organized Crime and Prohibition )
The first goal was one that temperance advocates had long dreamed would come to pass: an America free of drunkards. One prominent organization, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, frequently visited bars and saloons, asking the men there to abstain from drinking. Other temperance advocates weren’t so mild in their methods. Carry Nation, one of America’s most prominent (and infamous) temperance supporters, visited bars bearing not Bible verses but a sledgehammer. She would lecture the men on the evils of drinking, then smash the bar to pieces. Reducing crime was another goal of the temperance movement, and it was directly related to eliminating drinking. If there was no alcohol, people wouldn’t be inclined to commit crimes when their judgment was impaired, or do illegal things to get alcohol. The third goal-purify America-was an ideological goal, but it tied in with the first two. The 1920’s was a time of cultural upheaval. Women were, for the first time, asserting their freedoms. They demanded the right to vote. They drank and smoke in public. They wore heavy makeup, something that had previously been associated only with prostitutes. This was troubling to traditional Americans, who prized long-held values like modesty and strict obedience of both God and one’s elders. Confused, they looked for an answer, a reason for all this-and found it in the specter of alcohol. Thus, they took a drastic measure: enact the Prohibition. Little did they know just how futile Prohibition would be.
Popular sentiment would have us believe that the drinking rates went down during Prohibition. This was not the case. Drinking rates did go down for the first few years, but after 1925, they were higher than ever before. Part of this was because of how profitable the business of alcohol now was. With the big companies out of the way, small breweries and even normal citizens had a huge market available to them, ready for exploitation. The Prohibition era saw the rise of the “speakeasy,” a term for an illegal bar. These bars were notorious for being exclusive and hard to find. They were hidden anywhere-basements, attics, on deserted side-streets, even in restaurants (behind a hidden door). Because of the secretive nature of speakeasies, people (especially young people) were drawn to them not so much for the alcohol, but for the thrill. This and the rise in home breweries introduced more young people to alcohol than ever before. Home breweries meant that women, children, and younger men were constantly in contact with alcohol-making it, finding buyers, selling it. Drinking among women and children rose during Prohibition as a result. Another interesting note is that, since alcohol made illegally was not regulated, it was often harmful, even poisonous, and alcohol-related deaths spiked. But more complexly, the rise in drinking can also be attributed to the attitudes of rebellion that were making their way into mainstream society. Men and women-especially young men and women-experimented with new ways of living and different ways of thinking. Alcohol was one of those experiments. And more than that, drinking was cool. It was wrong, it was fun, and it was inescapable-alcohol was on everyone’s lips and mind during Prohibition.
The other most prominent goal of Prohibition was reducing crime. Here too, it failed-and miserably. When the country dried up, people became desperate. Their pastime and, for some, their business had vanished with a single stroke of a lawmaker’s pen, but they weren’t going to go down without a fight. Stepping into the void were crime bosses and gangsters, who sold liquor and beer on the sly to thirsty customers. One of these men was Al Capone. “I am like any other man,” he once said. “All I do is supply a demand.” (Al Capone Quotes) With a combination of political savvy and coldblooded murders, he rose to the top of the crime world. His bootlegging empire was notorious and widespread. And he was hardly the only gangster, but he is the best-known example. The fact that violent crime rose during Prohibition was due largely to these crime gangs. When pressured, they resorted to violent measures to protect their profits and eliminate the competition. Whole communities came under the iron grip of the mob. Shopkeepers would be bribed to sell the alcohol supplied by a certain gang; if he or she had the audacity to back out, they’d be threatened with violence, or even have their shops destroyed. And the worst part? The gangs often paid off the police, so citizens had nowhere to turn when the gangs turned against them. This indifference to Prohibition laws was widespread among government officials, and not just police officers. Crime gangs did bribe them, of course, but the simple fact was that legislators and policemen and even the president-they were all human beings, and thus fallible. Numerous accounts exist of cocktails being served in the halls of law after long sessions debating the finer points of Prohibition. Even President Harding was no exception. Alice Roosevelt Longworth was appalled by what she saw in the White House:
Though violation of the Eighteenth Amendment was a matter of course in Washington, it was rather shocking to see the way President Harding disregarded the Constitution he was sworn to uphold…One evening…a friend of the Hardings asked me if I would like to go up to the study…No rumor could have exceeded the reality;…trays with bottles containing every imaginable whiskey stood about… (Cayton et al. 467)
Looking back, we can easily see that Prohibition was a failure. But it impacted us in ways we are still feeling. It did not purify American culture, as was intended. It irrevocably poisoned it. Drinking rates shot up dramatically, the federal prison population increased 366% (Organized Crime and Prohibition), and a young generation learned how much fun it was to be rebellious. Of course, we could also say that the spirit of rebellion was a positive outcome of the Prohibition; freethinking and nonconformity are two of the hallmarks of our society. But when these ideals were applied in such a lamentable way, as they were during Prohibition, they became not blessing, but curse.
Cayton, Andrew R. L., Elisabeth Israels. Perry, Linda Reed, and Allan M. Winkler. America: Pathways to the Present . Needham, Mass.: Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.
“Al Capone Quotes.” Famous Quotes and Quotations at BrainyQuote. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alcapone382182.html>.
Blocker, Jack S. “Did Prohibition Really Work? Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Innovation.” American Journal of Public Health 96 (2006). PubMed Central. Web. 8 Feb. 2010.
“Did Alcohol Use Decrease During Alcohol Prohibition?” DRCNet Online Library of Drug Policy. Web. 08 Feb. 2010. http://www.druglibrary.org/prohibitionresults1.htm>.
“Organized Crime and Prohibition.” University at Albany – SUNY. Web. 08 Feb. 2010. http://www.albany.edu/~wm731882/organized_crime1_final.html>.