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This Month in Business History

Prohibition Begins

Harris & Ewing, photographer. This is the new insignia plate the Bureau of Prohibition has adopted for use by prohibition agents in stopping suspected automobiles. In the photograph, from left to right, are; Prohibition Administrator Ames Woodcock, H.M. Lucious, secretary of the Automobile Club of Maryland, and Ernest M.Smith, vice- president of the A.A.A.. 1930. Harris & Ewing photograph collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The U.S. has always had an uneasy relationship with alcohol and attempts to curb alcohol started long before the 18th Amendment. In 1826 the first of the temperance societies, American Temperance Society (ATS), formed. While it had some success, it wasn’t until the proliferation of saloons after the Civil War that the temperance movement gained more traction. In 1873 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded and the temperance movement got its most forceful voice. The histories of the temperance movement and the women’s movement were often linked, which explains why the WCTU originally proposed the ban of alcohol as a method for preventing abuse from alcoholic husbands. The WCTU spent many years building the movement though education and local and state laws, and in 1881 had a big success – Kansas included a ban on alcohol in their state constitution. It is at this time that Carrie Nation came to prominence by attacking saloons with a hatchet. However, saloons still maintained their popularity though that popularity was on the decline during the Progressive Era (1890–1920) when the hostility toward saloons became widespread. The push for prohibition gained momentum, often with women and Protestant congregations leading the way.

World War I came and with it, a temporary prohibition on alcohol production. There was also a pronounced anti-German sentiment pushed by the Anti-Saloon League and since many brewers were German and often the loudest opponents of prohibition, this temporary situation dealt a serious blow to the anti-Prohibition forces. The support for a ban on alcohol grew. On December 18, 1917 a constitutional amendment to prohibit alcohol was proposed in the Senate, and in October 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act (National Prohibition Act), which was the enabling legislation that set down the rules for enforcing the ban on alcohol and defined the types of alcoholic beverages to be prohibited. The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919 and the country went dry at midnight on January 17, 1920.

Prior to Prohibition various types of alcohol were produced all over the country. The chart above, which originally ran in my A Chart is Worth a Thousand Words post, shows how widespread production of alcohol was in the U.S., as well as the variety that was produced. (You can see vestiges of the way things were – California was and is, the biggest wine area in the U.S. and Kentucky and Tennessee are where to go for bourbon and whiskey.) Of course alcohol didn’t entirely go away with Prohibition. The wealthy, including many politicians, bought out the inventories of the retailers and wholesalers, and of course there were the bootleggers who also helped keep the supply flowing.

Eventually Prohibition – and the violence surrounding it – wore out its welcome. By 1930 the anti-Prohibition forces had strengthened their hand in Congress and the need for tax revenues at the federal level during the Depression hastened Prohibition’s demise. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen–Harrison Act, an amendment to the Volstead Act, on March 22, 1933, allowing for the production of some beer and wine and on December 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was ratified. Since many places still retained enough knowledge and people that worked in the industry prior to Prohibition, they were able to pick up production relatively easily in 1934, although that was not the case everywhere. New federal rules and regulations were a big barrier to re-entry as were the still simmering anti-alcohol sentiments evidenced in various restrictions that were in place in many communities. The years after Prohibition saw production become less geographically diverse than it had been prior to prohibition.

Trade literature and publications like Mida’s Criterion, Bonfort’s Wine & Spirit Circular, Biles’ Whiskey Price List, Brewers’ Almanac, Modern Brewery Age, and the Year Book of the United States Brewers’ Association would be interesting resources to look at Prohibition as events unfolded.

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Print Resources

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Library of Congress Digital Resources

The following resources created or digitized by the Library of Congress  can be used to find out more about the people and events of the day.

Internet Resources

These freely available online resources provide additional information on the topic.

Search the Library's Catalog

Choose the topics you wish to browse from the selected subject headings below. Each heading will link directly to the Library of Congress Online Catalog and automatically execute a search allowing you to browse related subject headings. Please be aware that during periods of heavy use you may encounter delays in using the catalog. For assistance in locating other subject headings which relate to this subject, please Ask A Librarian.

Organizations and Agencies

There were many temperance societies, associations, and government agencies that published material but we cannot include all of them - here are a few. The below searches for for searching by subject which should be a good start, but it may not full reveal all of the related material but you can also search the organizations by author as well to find those things that they published.

Industry

These are just a few of the subject headings related to the industry.  There are subject headings for specific forms of alcohol and they can be found on individual pages on our Alcoholic Beverage Industry guide.