By the time the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified more than half the states of America were already dry. A complete ban on alcohol seemed the logical next step. In the rough and tumble of frantic expansion, the authorities had been rushing through state laws covering a whole range of socially progressive reforms; women had identified the role of liquor in domestic and child abuse, the police knew alcohol’s contribution to social crime, and industrialists like Henry Ford blamed drink for low productivity and safety issues. World War I had made sobriety look patriotic because so many breweries had German origins, and by the end of the war the various interest groups had forged such an influential popular temperance movement that no politician could ignore it even if he wanted to.
At midnight on January 16 1920 Prohibition politely welcomed the impending criminalization of the majority of American adults, and instigated the biggest and most violent crime wave in the country’s history. The vice that Americans condemned in principle was condoned as part of their social culture. As always, they enshrined morality in legislation but couldn’t reconcile it to individual behavior.
So drinking went openly underground into the ‘speakeasies’, supplied by increasingly well-organized gangs of bootleggers, rum-runners and beer barons who stopped at nothing to fuel the colossal demand for a drink – manufactured or home-made, certified champagne or blindness-inducing ‘mountain dew’. Rich and poor shared in the euphoric glamour of illicit thrills… and the rampant violence of the armed gangs’ ruthless, black economy. Every shot of whiskey embedded corruption deeper, at city, county, state and federal level, rotting the fabric of American society.
When was the Prohibition: Midnight January 161920 to 15.32 December 5 1933
Where was the Prohibition: USA
What was the Prohibition toll: Prohibition created the economic model of modern America: if you want it, take it – if necessary, by force. More than 90 years after its introduction, Prohibition mores, style and language remain fundamental to American (and therefore global) culture, even among those who try to resist all three. Each decade adds a new twist, but fashion, literature and films (like The Terminator or Star Wars) still draw on Prohibition as the Great American behavioral archetype.
You should know: Cleveland, Ohio, was fairly typical, in 1919, before Prohibition, it had 1,200 legal bars. In 1923 it had 3,000 illegal speakeasies and 10,000 stills. Around 30,000 of its citizens sold alcohol in the course of Prohibition and 100,000 made some kind of ‘bathtub gin’ for themselves and friends. The quality was often dangerous (adulterated liquor killed 50,000 Americans in seven years), and it is said that when one potential customer sent a sample of moonshine for laboratory analysis, the chemist’s report read: ‘Your horse has diabetes’.