Happy Anniversary! One Hundred Years of Prohibition

Why are these men pouring barrels of booze into the gutter? Indeed, why are they smiling about it?


Prohibition went into effect, 17 January 1920.

Short answer… These men were making history.

Longer answer… This January marks the centennial of “Prohibition;” when the 18th Amendment went into effect and America officially went dry.

This publication is called Whiskey & Gunpowder. We cannot allow the anniversary to pass unnoted, right?

Of course not. So, we have some thoughts on banning booze back then. And about what lessons the episode still holds.

Grab a cold one, and read on…

A century ago, 17 January 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect. It prohibited everyone in America from making, selling, buying or transporting alcoholic beverages.

The 18th didn’t make it illegal to drink. The Amendment just made it economically impossible to have a legal alcohol-related business anywhere in the country.

The 18th Amendment was many years in the making, long predating 1920. The 18th required a national-level effort by self-styled “prohibitionists” to convince Congress to amend the Constitution; and then a widespread effort to convince state legislatures to ratify.

Indeed, passing the 18th was an uphill fight. It finally took World War I and government control over grain and alcohol production to move the Amendment over the top.

But this gets ahead of the tale…

First, we must go back in history to understand how deeply rooted were beer, wine and liquor in American tradition. Alcoholic beverages date from the earliest Colonial times.

In early America, life was hard and water for drinking was often bad due to lack of sanitation; enteric diseases, and all that. Plus, consider what extensive use of draft animals does to the water table. Ugh.

Colonial agriculture was mostly subsistence farming. Farmers grew enough for themselves and their families, with typically small surpluses available for sale in towns and cities. But roads were bad in most regions, so transporting grain across any great distance was difficult on the best of days.

Hence, Colonial farmers distilled surplus grain into beer and liquor, or made wine out of fermented fruit. They concentrated – literally – the value of their grain into alcoholic spirits that were easier to transport, and which commanded a higher market value.

Back then, alcoholic beverages were part of pretty much every meal in nearly every early American household; as opposed to so-called “drinking” water that might carry diseases. Beer, wine and spirits were staples of the diet, even with children.

Meanwhile, over time alcoholic beverages became a form of currency in a nation that lacked much in the way of gold, silver or even copper for coins. Indeed, as the proto-United States came into being in 1787 – with the ratification of the Constitution – many people in frontier regions used jugs of whiskey or barrels of beer as currency.

You could pay your bills in whiskey! It settled many a debt…

Liquor-as-currency was central to one of the first national crises of the fledgling United States. That is, in 1792 Congress passed a tax on the capacity of stills. The idea was to raise funds for the new national government.

Instead, the tax raised hell out on the frontier, where farmers turned surplus grain etc. into spirits. The new tax struck at the very heart of their freedom, as well as their pocketbook.

It didn’t help that few frontier settlers had much in the way of coinage with which to pay any federal tax. A rebellion brewed, so to speak… The Whiskey Rebellion; source of the first part of the name of this newsletter.

There’s much to say about the Whiskey Rebellion; but I’ll save it for another time.

For our purposes now was that post-Whiskey Rebellion – from the mid-1790s onwards – the citizenry and new federal government settled into a working tax relationship with alcoholic beverages.

The government levied modest taxes on beer, wine and liquor, and people began to accept that burden as part of economic life. In fact, the federal government raised quite a bit of money from alcohol taxes through the 1800s.

Not everyone believed in the virtues of strong drink, however. Numerous factions opposed alcohol for reasons ranging from religious to medical to sociological.

Heavy drinking was a scourge across society, from poor to rich. Today, we understand why. Alcohol is addictive, and alcoholism is a disease; although no one back then truly understood the medical etiology.

But over time, grass-root opposition to alcohol came about because more and more people noticed more and more drunks hither and yon, wrecking their lives and not working or caring for families.

Absent any government social safety net, private charities stepped in. But in many places these charitable efforts were swamped by the drinking habits of certain elements of humanity. Drinking created more trouble than society could cure, at least with resources at hand.

The first attempt to ban alcoholic consumption was in 1847, in Pittsburg (without an “h” in the name back then), where voters passed a resolution banning the sale of alcohol. Local saloon-keepers took the matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which overturned the law.

Indeed, in the 19th Century America’s saloon-keepers were a powerful lot. They were ubiquitous, because people drank in bars and taverns from sea to sea. And saloon-keepers were numerous, with many employees. Collectively, saloon-keepers had deep pockets with which to pay off politicians, judges, police and whoever else opposed their business.

Looking back, American culture holds colorful imagery of saloons “out West,” at cowboy crossroads and mining towns, replete with bad guys and shootouts. But the more common form of American saloon was bars and taverns, pretty much everywhere across the landscape.

Americans loved their liquor, and liquor certainly shaped many an outcome in America…

For example, during the Civil War Union General Ulysses Grant was supposedly a hard drinker. No less that President Lincoln endorsed Grant and his libations, saying “Find out what brand General Grant drinks, so I can send a barrel to all my other generals.”

On a more tragic note, Ronald Reagan’s father was a falling-down drunk, who often left his family destitute. Some psychologists trace large elements of Ronald Reagan’s personality to his childhood trauma (in the 1910s) of dealing with a clinical alcoholic father.

At this stage, it’s worth noting that the U.S. “Prohibition” movement was led, in no small measure, by a national group called the “Anti Saloon League.”

Close the Saloons

Close ‘em down! Anti-Saloon League.

In other words, one can say that Prohibition – the 18th Amendment – wasn’t so much about simply banning alcohol as ipso facto a “bad thing,” as the deep-seated desire to put those evil saloons out of business.

And on 17 January 1920, the Anti-Saloonists got their wish.

After the 18th Amendment went into effect, alcoholic beverages were outlawed. And to borrow a phrase, only outlaws had booze. Consequences seen and unforeseen soon became manifest.

Governments lost a rich source of tax revenue. Thus began a new approach to raising public moneys. Tax writers and collectors became more creative. The World War I income tax rates crept down into the middle class. Lawmakers created annoying taxes on all manner of things, from telephone calls to electric power.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people in the booze-biz were thrown out of work. No more breweries, distilleries, wineries, warehouses, saloons, etc. Entire businesses and supply chains were ruined.

One interesting side-note is that many U.S. alcohol businesses sold off their equipment; quite a bit of Wisconsin brewing machinery wound up in Japan, along with a cadre of American brew-masters. This helped to create a modern beer industry there.

Across America, libraries removed books about brewing and distilling from shelves. Yes; a form of “book-banning.” This was controversial. Did the 18th Amendment somehow overshadow the 1st Amendment? Still, most libraries kept Encyclopedia Britannica, despite volumes containing numerous articles on brewing, distilling and wine-making.

An underground – meaning illegal – flow of liquor created and reshaped an entirely new criminal element of gangsters across the U.S. Smuggling booze was big businesses in its own right. A new form of lucrative, organized crime arose to meet demands. This all became part of the American culture, and long-outlived Prohibition.

Alcohol-related crime extended into many an otherwise “respectable” American home, too. Many people modified their houses to hide the booze. Many architects built hidden rooms, shelves and cabinets, which you can still see in some older homes.

Meanwhile, the collective desire of many in the U.S. to have a drink led to border-town drinking establishment in places near U.S. territory, such as in Mexico, Canada and Cuba.

Prohibition lasted until 1933, when it was finally repealed. The campaign for repeal was a key part of the platform of then-presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 election. Of course, once elected, FDR brought plenty of other ideas into the White House as well. He changed the legal and social fabric of the country.

There’s irony here. Through 13 years of Prohibition, alcoholic beverages were illegal; yet few Americans truly went thirsty. There was almost always a way to get a drink, by hook or crook. Americans flaunted the law, and enjoyed the feeling…

Simultaneously, Prohibition reshaped American culture; it altered fundamental thinking about when, where and how Americans would obey a law that many considered quite wrong and unjust. Politicians and legal scholars had to consider just how far government should go in pursuit of conformity to laws that were clearly contra mass public sentiment.

In other words, bad laws can transform good people into despicable criminals. We see much the same process today, with many new restrictions on guns; meaning on 2nd Amendment rights.

For example, consider laws that criminalize owning ammunition magazines that can contain more than a certain number of bullets. At the stroke of midnight, some people go from law-abiding to unindicted felons, pending the gestapo-type house-to-house search.

Take it a step further…  Having been labeled a criminal for pursuing a formerly legal activity, many upstanding citizens may fade from civic life, and never come all the way home. They may just ponder silently about how the current form of government isn’t worth it anymore. And therein lies a pre-revolutionary seed.

We learned with Prohibition that bad laws lead to bad results. A century later, quite a few people seem to have learned nothing.

On that note, I rest my case.

Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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