Prohibition (North America)

Prohibition (North America)
Prohibition (North America)

A century of anti-alcohol agitation paid off in the early 20th century when the United States and most Canadian provinces passed laws against the sale and use of alcoholic beverages ranging from weak beer to high-proof whiskey.

Enacted in the aftermath of World War I, the United States' "noble experiment" in nationwide alcohol prohibition proved highly controversial and was repealed in 1933. As in the United States, Canadian restrictions on liquor intensified during World War I, but most were revised or repealed by 1930.

Advocates of Prohibition both responded to and benefited from the social turmoil of late 19thand early 20th-century America. As immigrants, many of them Jewish and Roman Catholic, flooded into rapidly expanding cities, the anti-immigrant, anti-urban, and anti-saloon tendencies of Protestant, small-town America and Canada intensified. Business titans like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Ford supported Prohibition in the interest of the industries's need for sober machine operators.


One effective tool used by Prohibition supporters was local option, allowing towns, counties, or entire states to limit or eliminate the consumption of alcohol. By 1915, more than half of all Americans were already living under Prohibition statutes; 18 states were entirely "dry," as were parts of many others, predominantly in the South, Midwest, and West.

Prohibitionists used World War I to crusade against breweries, many owned by German Americans. They cited the need to divert grain supplies from making beer to baking bread for troops fighting in Europe. Congress approved the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor in December 1917; it became law on January 29, 1920.

The federal Volstead Act provided guidelines for enforcement. It defined "intoxicating liquors" as containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol; alcohol for industrial, religious, and medicinal use was allowed, as were grape beverages like Vine-Glo that were prepared at home.

From the beginning, enforcement proved difficult. There were many loopholes and too few federal agents to cover the coastlines. Smugglers were extremely successful at importing booze from Mexico, the Caribbean, and, ironically, Canada, where Prohibition restrictions were looser, and almost nonexistent in Quebec.

Ships filled with liquor anchored outside the three mile international limit and awaited speedy bootlegging rum runners who returned to the mainland with an illegal cargo bound for "speakeasies" and "blind pigs" catering to women as well as men.

President Warren G. Harding kept liquor in the White House. Other Americans who relished a drink brewed moonshine or bathtub gin; ill-tasting concoctions were mixed with fruity juices to create cocktails. Tainted alcohol, intended for industrial use or "spiked" with derivatives like nerve gas, caused blindness, paralysis, or death.

Despite Prohibition's mounting problems, in the 1928 presidential election, which pitted "dry" Republican Herbert Hoover against "wet" New York Democrat Alfred E. Smith, the U.S. dry heartland voted overwhelmingly for Hoover.

Historians argue about the actual impact of Prohibition on drinking habits and law enforcement. In cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago, where the dry crusade had never taken hold, illegal drinking probably exceeded pre-Prohibition levels.

But there is compelling evidence that overall arrests for drunkenness and hospitalizations for alcoholism declined in the 1920s. In Canada, too, although illegal alcohol production soared, there were fewer reports of public intoxication and associated criminal behavior.

Critics of Prohibition certainly had much to complain about, including the proliferation of gangsters like Al Capone and the Purple Gang, along with increased governmental corruption and general disrespect for laws. Criminalizing brewing and distilling, a huge formerly legal industry, meant loss of tax revenues and jobs.

In Michigan, the first state to ratify Prohibition, German-American beer maker Julius Stroh kept his workers employed making ice cream in what had been his brewery. Civil libertarians decried Prohibition's encroachment on states' rights and individual freedoms. By the early 1930s many formerly dry business leaders were opposing Prohibition's heavy-handed and unsuccessful focus on law enforcement.

Franklin D. Roosevelt made repeal of Prohibition a campaign issue in the 1932 election. By April 1933 the newly elected president had persuaded Congress to quickly allow beer with 3.2 percent alcohol, while Congress initiated the Twenty-first Amendment repealing the Eighteenth.

By December Prohibition was no more. Enforcement of liquor policies and restrictions was mostly returned to the states. For a while some continued Prohibition as a statewide policy; today jurisdiction tends to be at the local level, and dry counties still exist.