How Prohibition Works

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Editor Candace Gibson joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: Jane. It's funny when someone tells you that you can't do something it makes you want to do it even more.

Jane McGrath: Totally.

Candace Gibson: One of my favorite movies, maybe not currently but when I was a kid was Polly-Anna.

Jane McGrath: Um-hum.

Candace Gibson: Have you ever seen Polly-Anna?

Jane McGrath: I haven't. It's Hallie Mills, right?

Candace Gibson: Yes.

Jane McGrath: Okay. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: And, you know, toward the end of the movie she wants to go to the carnival and her aunt says that she can't go so she climbs out the window and she makes it to the carnival just fine, you know, she's virtually unscathed but it's the coming home when she gets in trouble and she ends up plummeting to the ground and becoming paralyzed. I'm, like, well, you know, that's just too bad because if her aunt had let her go in the first place, that wouldn't have happened -

Jane McGrath: Oh, that's an interesting argument. Yeah, that's true and that's sort of what happened with the prohibition I guess you could you could say.

Candace Gibson: Indeed.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And what we're talking about is the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s in the U.S. and it was called at the time the Nobel Experiment which I find really interesting that it was called that because it sort of had the idea that - obviously, it's noble, it's an important thing of morality-wise but also that it might not work. It's just an experiment and we're not sure what's going to happen and it actually - it kind of failed.

Candace Gibson: It did and it's so funny, that term noble. I think that that really brings out the question of morality and ethics in terms of alcohol and even today, I may be out of line saying this, but I feel like in America it's a really hot debate about whether or not drinking is wrong or right or how old should you be when you drink, how much should you drink, should families introduce their children to alcohol at a younger age. I feel like in other countries or other places where there isn't a drinking age or it's not as old as ours -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, Europe in particular where they let them drink at, like, 13, you know.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, it's like it's gradually is introduced into your life and it's part of the culture and it's not this taboo issue.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's an interesting difference. And, even today, in America we have plenty of towns and counties that are dry - so called dry in that they don't sell alcohol at all.

Candace Gibson: And I would argue that prohibition forever affected the American point of view about alcohol.

Jane McGrath: You think so?

Candace Gibson: Even though it was repelled, I think we s till look on it as, you know, an object that is taboo.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, yeah, and it's interesting - I mean, it had its roots before the 20th Century. It's interesting to look back - as far back as 1846, Maine actually as a state was the first state to pass a statewide prohibition law and so they sort of set a precedent that gained some fever.

Candace Gibson: And, before that, in 1838, there was a law in Massachusetts passed that only allowed people to buy alcohol in really large quantities and the idea behind that was that the poor people couldn't get to it and that's what's so funny about prohibition are these ideas that people held about alcohol. The idea that only Irish and German immigrants were the ones who abused it or the idea that it was evil or that if you drink it it would lead to insanity or abuse or poverty. And even Henry Ford was one of the more famous advocates of prohibition and he had the idea that it decreased worker productivity. And I know even today there are people who suggest that when you're buying a car you should ask to see the manufacturing report and if that particular car was manufactured on a Monday or a Friday, don't get it because people are either getting drunk for the weekend or they're hung-over from the weekend.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I've heard that, yeah.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, or even people who say they won't eat out in restaurants the day after a holiday because the people are hung-over. It's just so funny to me. But, anyway, back to the point so we have this idea that alcohol is bad and we're coming off of World War I and we're seeing a larger influx of immigrants to the United States.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and to your point, World War I is where we get a lot of the anti-German sentiment; at least it came to a boiling point at that point. Obviously, the United States was fighting against Germany in the war and so non-Germans in the United States would look on Germans as sort of, like, they're suspicious, are you favoring Germany in this war and etcetera. And, so, Germans obviously were also associated with beers. I mean, you look at the name of beers and it's, like, Budweiser and all different names. It's all German basically. So many beers are German.

Candace Gibson: And in the United States at this time, a lot of the breweries were actually owned by Germans.

Jane McGrath: Sure.

Candace Gibson: Anheuser Bush for instance. That was a German-run brewery.

Jane McGrath: So, it was this idea some historians say that prohibition was a result of this idea of WAS, white, Anglo-Saxon, protestants, wanting to suppress people who are not like them.

Candace Gibson: So, whatever the cause, if we look at a rough timeline of how prohibition came into existence, we see that there were a lot of local and state-level laws passed first outlawing alcohol. Maine went dry, like Jane said, in 1846 and rural areas went dry in the west and the south but urban areas were a little bit more resistant.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's interesting. It's also interesting that this was often associated with women's movements throughout the 19th Century. Women were a strong force along with the progressive movement, obviously, of giving women the right to vote. There was also this corresponding idea of prohibition.

Candace Gibson: Right. In 1873, the Women's Christian Temperance Union formed and they were famous in Ohio, especially, of going to saloons and praying on the saloon floor, you know, they wanted men to abstain because they were the people that the nation turned to be lawmakers and leaders and women didn't have a voice at this time, like you were saying. And, so, if men were drunk and they weren't able to carry out those duties, who would the nation look to? And one really famous female probably-temperance figure was Carrie Nation and she was famous for her hatchet and walking around. Sort of wielding a hatchet to discourage people from going into saloons and her husband was an alcoholic and so she witnessed first-hand the so-called dangers of alcohol. And in 1869, a couple years prior to this union really taking off, the Prohibition Party actually formed alongside the republicans and the democrats because people felt like they weren't getting a voice. Their voice wasn't being heard by the republicans or democrats.

Jane McGrath: Yeah and we can think about this, like, the third-party system and the idea that it will come up over a certain idea in particular and hopefully one of the parties, republican or democrat, will adopt it and they weren't doing anything at the time and that's why the prohibition movement got fed up with it and formed their own party.

Candace Gibson: And they pointed out that there was a link between alcohol abuse an d child abuse and crime and violence in the cities. And, so, finally by 1919, 65 percent of the United States had banned alcohol at the local level.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and by 1919, the congress actually passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which gave the government the power basically to enforce prohibition among the entire country, all of the states.

Candace Gibson: And the funny thing about prohibition is this. The 18th Amendment outlawed the sale, the manufacture and the importation of alcohol but it never outlawed drinking it or possessing. So, if you already had a lot of alcohol in your storehouse, you could keep it. You know, if you had a flask and you had somewhere to fill it, you could do that. You could bring it around with you. You just couldn't import it and you couldn't sell it.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and I guess sort of the idea behind that is to enforce the drink, like, to enforce the - prohibiting the drinking of it would be too difficult I guess. Obviously if someone's wine seller is stocked, you can't go into their house and destroy their property. That would be going too far. [Inaudible].

Candace Gibson: And there wasn't enough manpower to do that either. And that's what was so tricky about prohibition and the 13 years that it lasted is that it was so hard to enforce and the Volstead Act followed the 18th Amendment and this was what was outlining the different enforcement policies that the government had in terms of prohibition. So, it discussed the penalties to drinking, the exceptions like if you were using it for religious purposes, that was okay and also it defined the legal limits of the alcohol content for beverages.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it set it at about 0.5 percent alcohol was over the legal limit. And to give you a point of reference, I think like an average a week beer basically is 4 percent. So, that's a pretty low limit right there.

Candace Gibson: So, you could drink I guess. It's just that whatever you were drinking wasn't going to get you drink. Right, a stretch of the imagination!

Jane McGrath: That's true. And what's interesting about the Volstead Amendment, I didn't know this until I started researching for this podcast was that Woodrow Wilson actually vetoed it and it was interesting to me because I know Wilson, in history, is sort of a progressive. He was one of the most progressive presidents in the United States and prohibition was a progressive movement but apparently some historians say that Wilson found it unnecessarily authoritarian basically. And you can make that case because the idea of enforcing the Volstead Act became a huge headache and obviously it showed how authoritarian the law really was.

Candace Gibson: And it was progressing the nation in a strange direction. And, today, I don't know if there are still people who advocate prohibition or at least there are people who probably do promote temperance but prohibition lead to some really nasty stuff and, again, like we were saying at the beginning of the podcast, if someone tells you can't do something, you're going to find a way around it and usually the way around it is going to lead to breaking some other rules. And organized crime took off exponentially. I can't even begin to describe how bad it got, you know, you look at someone like Al Capone and the speakeasies you said he ran and all the gangs that resulted from this and all the bootlegging and even European rum flats like people would ride out to the different bodies of water around the U.S. and meet European ships that had rum waiting for them and they would bring them back.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and speaking of speakeasies, obviously those were illegal bars during the prohibition, they actually surged and if you look at the numbers, there were more speakeasies during prohibition than there were legal bars before prohibition and that just boggles me.

Candace Gibson: Isn't that crazy?

Jane McGrath: Yes.

Candace Gibson: It is and so you look at all this crime that came about as a result of prohibition and when the depression onset, people started getting really ticked off because the money that came from the legal taxation of alcohol could've been supporting the country's economy and instead, this money was going to gangsters like Al Capone who were making a mint off something that was illegal.

Jane McGrath: And it's interesting to look at the money aspect of this. I actually had researched the IRS for an article I was doing and the IRS was actually charged with, basically, enforcing prohibition and I was really interested to learn this because you would never think that but it was the idea of there was revenue passing hands and it was not being taxed. And that was the main way that we could track down or the government could track down illegal transactions was the idea of money being around and it - there's no proof of taxation and so that was the way that obviously Al Capone was caught.

Candace Gibson: Right. Exactly. After all the murders that he oversaw and all the gang activity, it was on tax fraud essentially or tax evasion that he was canned, essentially.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and sorry, it's interesting that also the dangerous things that came as a result of prohibition was that this whole atmosphere of criminal activity actually exposed more people to dangerous drugs. Historians look back and they're, like, oh, these people are hanging around illegal crowds basically, criminal crowds and so it exposed everyone to more dangerous things.And one thing that got me, as well, was the idea that there was still liquor around that needed to be used for industrial purposes during the prohibition and so the government started contaminating this liquor so that people wouldn't drink it and I guess they didn't get the word around enough because it resulted in lots of deaths. I think adulterated liquor caused 50,000 deaths.

Candace Gibson: Isn't that wild?

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: And what's more, people trying to manufacture their own liquor or sometimes it would be made really, really made dangerously and so ingesting it could mean death -

Jane McGrath: Bathtub gin obviously.

Candace Gibson: Bathtub gin. Yeah. And that was one of the strange things about prohibition is that for every pro, there was a con so the number of deaths related to cirrhosis of the liver from drinking too much alcohol went down but like you were saying, the number of deaths from drinking contaminated liquor or home-manufactured liquor went up.

Jane McGrath: And, oddly enough, alcoholics, the number of alcoholics went up as well.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, so more alcoholics but pro, less people drinking alcohol. And, so, finally, people could see that prohibition was not working, there was no way to enforce it and so in 1933, the amendment was overturned and so far, it's the only amendment in the constitution to be overturned later again by another constitutional amendment.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And it's interesting also. The amendment that overturned prohibition made sure to make allowances that states could, at the local level, you can ban liquor as much as you want and one historian noted that there's only two ways for an individual, just a single person to violate the constitution; one is to enslave someone; and the other is to bring alcohol through a dry county.

Candace Gibson: Isn't that wild?

Jane McGrath: And that's bizarre to think about it.

Candace Gibson: It's [inaudible] into the spectrum there. And ideas of temperance continued to prevay our national culture especially in places in the south we see that temperance is really strongly advocated and you see that most dry counties are in the south today. And something interesting that I was reading. I love, love, love, love Letitia Baldridge. I think she's a great writer. She was Jackie Kennedy's social secretary during the Kennedy years and in Camelot and she was recounting in one of her memoirs that there was a big formal even that Kennedy was hosting, it was one of the first ones and she was helping to plan it and she didn't think anything of it but she had little stations set up in the ballroom where people could over and mix their drinks. And everyone looked at the Whitehouse and they decried Kennedy as someone promoting revelry and alcoholism. It was just a mess and Kennedy got really mad and he was, like, Latitia, next time you mix the drinks in the back, and I think that today it might not be as big of a deal but, you know, during that time it certainly was because think about it, only a few decades had passed since prohibition had been overturned and people were still learning how to be temperate with alcohol and that's the main thing that people have to do, I think, in our culture. You set your own levels for temperance and there are laws that dictate the legal drinking age and which counties are dry but, you know, it really is a personal choice in the end.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's true and it makes sense now that it's the local level. I wanted to give a shout out to Maryland, my home state, because during prohibition it got the name of free state - a nickname as free state because they weren't - they didn't really like enforcing prohibition and it sort of ticked off the government at the time and Maryland was known as sort of free liquor place.

Candace Gibson: Oh, Lady Jane. My goodness!

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's where I get it from.

Candace Gibson: Well, if you want to learn more about prohibition and temperance and alcohol in general, be sure to check out

Announcer: For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to