Prohibition was the law of the land in the United States for just about 13 years, yet that period — from 1920 through 1933 — has become iconic in the American psyche.
Images of speakeasies, bootleggers, gangsters, G-Men, and smashed barrels of alcohol have been featured in countless movies, television shows, and other forms of entertainment in the last 80-plus years. How accurate are those images, though? Was prohibition even close to the popular images we have of it?
Pour yourself a drink and take a trip back to the Roaring Twenties with us as we look at the real story of how prohibition in America happened, what life was like during it, and why it was repealed so quickly.
1. Early Origins
Perhaps due to America’s puritanical roots, the concept of eliminating alcohol has been promoted by some since before the American Revolution.
Dating back to the 1600s, there were pushes for sin taxes and other legal ways to try and reduce alcohol consumption.
2. Temperance Movement
Calls for prohibition in the United States solidified in the late 1800s with the formation of the Anti-Saloon League.
The group brought those with anti-alcohol feelings together, and they came from numerous walks of life and ideologies, including, “doctors, pastors, and eugenicists; Klansmen and liberal internationalists; business leaders and labor radicals; conservative evangelicals and liberal theologians.”
3. Protests Grow
The ASL, and overall temperance movement continued gaining momentum throughout the early years of the 20th century. In response, beer manufacturers mobilized “wet” supporters from the Catholic and German Lutheran communities.
However, upon Americ involvement in Worl War I, the temperance forces stirred anti-German sentiment, which neutered much of the beer manufacturers’ support.
4. Dry Country
The temperance movement, bolstered by the aforementioned anti-German sentiment, was able to successfully win several major victories against the alcohol industry.
The movement culminated with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.”
The government also passed the Volstead Act, legislation which spelled out how they could legally enforce the Eighteenth Amendment.
5. Alcohol Was Still Flowing
Despite the fact that the manufacture and sale of alcohol were prohibited nationwide, most of the country did not make possession of alcohol a crime.
Taking advantage of that fact, many rich and well-off Americans stockpiled as much beer and alcohol as they could prior to the ban going into effect.
In addition, others took advantage of a loophole in the law that allowed them to produce a certain amount of wine or cider for private use.
6. Criminals Take Over
Within months of prohibition becoming law, bootlegging sprang up all around the United States to fill the void left by legal alcohol manufacturers.
These operations ran the gamut, from single-person bootleggers to large-scale organized crime syndicates.
Criminals such as Al Capone became larger than life figures in the American psyche. The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre (pictured above) in 1929, perpetrated by Capone’s men against a rival gang in Chicago, became one of the defining events of the era.
7. Origin of the Speakeasy
With hoarded and bootlegged alcohol available, Americans needed desired places to drink that mimicked the bars that proliferated prior to prohibition.
This need was met by speakeasies. These “secret” bars — which got their name from the fact that customers would “speakeasy” about them so as not to tip off their location to the authorities — became wildly popular among those defying prohibition.
8. “Blind Pig”
Many speakeasies were operated as “blind pig” businesses, meaning that they would exhibit a rare animal — such as a rare blind pig — and “charge admission” to see the animal.
Once inside, patrons would be given “complimentary” drinks as a way of circumventing the law.