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Prohibition: A “Noble Experiment” Gone Wrong


When the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, temperance advocates across the nation rejoiced. The legislation represented the culmination of decades of activism, and its supporters believed that Prohibition would have far-reaching benefits for the country, from an improved economy to better collective moral character. But Prohibition, often called the “noble experiment,” actually had deleterious effects, promoting organized crime and depressing a fragile economy.

Roots of the Temperance Movement

The temperance movement actually began much earlier than most people realize, in the late eighteenth century. At the time, most people had a rather laissez-faire attitude toward alcohol, and it was common for people to drink alcoholic beverages like cider throughout the day. But in 1784 Benjamin Rush published An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, in which he blamed alcohol for various physical and psychological problems. Five years later, a coalition of about 200 Connecticut farmers would respond to Rush’s treatise by forming a temperance association. They banned making whiskey from corn. By 1800, Virginia had a similar temperance association, and New York followed in 1808.

Drunkards Progress-Nathaniel Currier

“The Drunkard’s Progress” (1846) by Nathaniel Currier

At this point, most members supported moderation rather than abstinence. But group leaders soon began using their influence to address other issues, such as observation of the Sabbath. This lack of focus led to considerable in-fighting, and by the early 1820’s the movement had stalled out almost completely. Meanwhile, many states, counties, and cities had been established as dry; there was considerable, though disorganized, support for temperance all over the country. When the American Temperance Society was finally founded in 1826, the movement again blossomed; within twelve years, the group had more than 1 million members, organized into over 8,000 local groups. This time, however, the movement was split into moderates (who advocated moderate drinking) and radicals (who advocated complete prohibition of alcohol). By the 1830’s, the radicals had become much more vocal and dominated the movement.

Gospel Temperance Meeting

Gospel Temperance Meeting (Cleveland Women’s Christian Temperance Union)

Despite its impressive progress over the next few decades, the temperance movement was brought to a grinding halt by the Civil War. The war proved a huge financial burden for both the North and the South–both sides turned to brewers and distillers to finance the conflict, and drinking became a matter of patriotism. Furthermore, the issue of slavery took precedence over prohibition. The temperance movement all but died during the Civil War.

Resurgence after Reconstruction

Prohibition from the Front Porch

Prohibition from the Front Porch (1897)

As the Reconstruction drew to a close in the 1870’s, prohibitionists again found opportunity to reassert their position. This time, the movement actually gained more momentum in the South because it reinforced “Southern” values. Southerns often supported prohibition because it reinforced traditional gender roles and played to their belief in racial hierarchy. And across the country, women came to support prohibition because of the high correlation between drinking and abuse of spouses and children. In 1873, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union established the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. Around the same time, temperance leagues started installing water fountains. People would drink alcohol because they didn’t have access to clean water, so the public fountains provided a safe alternative.

Frederick Head Nominee for Congress

Frederick Head Nominee for Congress

Prohibitionism soon had its own political party, and politicians at all levels of government campaigned and ran on the Prohibition Party ticket. One such candidate was Frederick Head, who ran for Congress in both 1914 and 1916. He argued, “There are questions of importance to be settled in Congress in the near future, but in its financial, social, economic, and moral aspect, the liquor question outranks all others and no man can vote freely on this question who can be terrorized by the liquor traffic with the threat of defeat himself and his party unless he obeys the dictates of the liquor power.” Alas, Head’s district was located in the heart of wine country, and he was defeated by the Bull Moose party candidate in both elections.

Supporters of the movement also found numerous creative, non-political ways to promote their cause. These included creating popular songs, such as those found in The Temperance Song Banner (1907), which includes such titles as “A Dream of Heaven and Mother” and “No Hope for the Drunkard.” The temperance theater movement also emerged and gained popularity all over the country. These plays invariably featured a main character who destroys his life through drinking and picks up the pieces only after renouncing drink altogether.

Not all efforts were so subtle, however. Carrie Nation promoted the use of vandalism to promote prohibition. The nearly six-foot-tall woman carried a hatchet around, and she was known to wreak havoc on taverns and saloons. Nation’s name had been spelled “Carry” in the family Bible, and she adopted the name “Carry A. Nation” as both moniker and slogan, even registering the name for a trademark in Kansas.

It was the Anti-Saloon League that finally persuaded the federal government to make prohibition national policy. The league galvanized private citizens and convinced manufacturers or tea, cola, and other beverages that a ban on alcohol would increase their sales. And in the face of World War I, proponents believed that the United States should conserve its grain for food stores and remove the temptation of alcohol for new recruits. Anti-German sentiments also left few people feeling sympathetic for beer brewers. Prohibitionists rejoiced that the ravages of alcohol would loosen its hold on American society, presumably reducing crime, stimulating productivity, decreasing domestic violence, and promulgating countless other benefits.

The Realities of Prohibition

Unfortunately for its advocates, the 18th Amendment did not actually prohibit the consumption of alcohol, but only its manufacture, sale, and distribution. And the law proved difficult to enforce, even after the ratification of the Volstead Act. People certainly didn’t stop drinking, but they did begin drinking bootlegged liquor that often contained impurities. Approximately 1,000 people died from drinking tainted liquor during each year of Prohibition. And countless others suffered permanent health problems.

One form of alcohol that became even more popular during Prohibition was actually wine. The Volstead Act allowed farmers to make wine “on the legal fiction that it was a non-intoxicating fruit juice for home consumption.” Farmers took full advantage of this loophole, producing liquid and semi-solid grape concentrate, which they marketed as “wine bricks” or “wine blocks.” Farmers sold the blocks with a “warning” that the product could be turned into wine if it were dissolved in water and fermented. The demand for these products was immense; during the years of Prohibition, California grape growers increased their land under cultivation by a full 700%.

More importantly, the bootlegging resulted in a steady increase in gang-related crimes–which grew more violent as time went by. Legendary gangster Al Capone made about $60 million a year during Prohibition, and people at all levels of government eventually accepted bribes and other incentives to “look the other way” and allow liquor gangs to continue operations and distribution. And as the economy suffered, honest citizens increasingly turned to bootlegging to make a living. Thus Prohibition essentially made criminals of countless honest citizens.

But the greatest detractor for Prohibition was that its promised financial benefits never materialized. Restaurant owners lost business as they could not replace liquor sales. Legitimate bars went out of business altogether as speakeasies proliferated. Tea and cola manufacturers didn’t see increased sales. Indeed, with the elimination of alcohol, sales of all goods and services plummeted. It wasn’t only private citizens and businesses that were losing out; the federal government missed out on approximately $11 billion in excise tax revenue–and spent a fortune enforcing Prohibition laws. The stock market crash and subsequent plunge into the Great Depression didn’t stimulate conciliatory feelings about Prohibition, either. Politicians began calling for the repeal of Prohibition, not only to cut down on crime, but also so that farmers could sell their crops to breweries and distilleries.

The Democrats’ Anti-Prohibition Platform

Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the repeal of Prohibition part of his presidential platform; indeed it was part of the New Deal for financial recovery. The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was ratified during FDR’s first term, and he supposedly celebrated with a dirty martini. Most states did away with their own Prohibition that same year, though a few states held out. There are still a handful of dry counties and cities throughout the country, and “blue laws” still prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays in many more conservative parts of the country.

One comment on “Prohibition: A “Noble Experiment” Gone Wrong

  1. Pingback: A Quick History of Cocktails | lizzyoungbookseller

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This entry was posted on August 28, 2013 by in History, Wine, Beer, and Cocktails and tagged , , , , .
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