Research Rabbithole: Prohibition

Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.

Will Rogers

In January of 1919, the United States Congress amended the Constitution for the eighteenth time. They declared alcohol illegal in the entire country, thus starting the period known as Prohibition. Technically, the U.S. was an entirely dry nation until the amendment was repealed (through the twenty-first amendment) in 1933.

Prohibition was an attempt to curb drunkenness and the troubles that came with it – men drinking away money needed for food for their families, domestic abuse, criminal behavior, etc. Drinking was generally seen as something men did with time and money that were much better spent on other things. It was one of the first major causes that women took up en masse in the country and temperance rallies were often tied to women’s suffrage groups. It doesn’t seem likely that it was a coincidence that Prohibition and women’s suffrage were both added to the constitution within six months of each other.

People expected that Prohibition would increase sales of clothing and entertainment (tickets to moving pictures and fairs, for example) and would decrease health complications from too much alcohol and incarceration rates. Women hoped that rates of domestic abuse would go down and that more money would make it home for paying rent, filling cupboards with food, and dressing children.

Unfortunately, for the most part, it didn’t have the effects expected. Demand for illegal alcohol skyrocketed, which increased the number of bootleggers. Without any regulation to set standards, the quality of alcohol became variable and health issues from tainted alcohol skyrocketed. As many as 1000 people died per year from tainted alcohol. Sales of clothing and entertainment also didn’t go up and rates of drunkenness and poverty don’t seem especially affected.

One major effect of the demand for illegal alcohol was that there was a lot of people more willing to break the law, even among law enforcement. Police, courts, and prisons found themselves overwhelmed by people breaking the law by making, selling, and drinking alcohol. Justice resources were completely taxed. This may have been part of what pressured law enforcement officers to look away or accept bribes, and sometimes even to assist with the illegal activities, all of which undermined people’s faith in them and created a public image of the corrupt police officer and crooked judge.

Another unexpected consequence of Prohibition was that it brought women more fully into drinking, which had previously been largely a mens-only pastime. Saloons and bars had been primarily only open to men (and occasionally prostitutes), but with public saloons having to close or adapt, nearly every space where alcohol was found were open to women. Speakeasies let in women as well as men and with drinking at home becoming more common, alcohol became as much the purview of women as of men. This changed a lot because politics, economics, and business were often discussed primarily by men sitting together drinking. Invading those spaces now gave women access to those spheres, previously largely closed to them, as well as to drinking.

Prohibition was pretty widely considered a failed experiment and in 1933, it was reversed with the twenty-first amendment. It is still the only amendment to have ever been reversed.

This research rabbithole was inspired by Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, which was written in 1922 and thus spends time discussing how to host a perfect dinner or wedding breakfast when your wine cellar has run out and champaign is not to be had. Interestingly, Emily Post never seems to entertain the idea that anyone would not drink alcohol at a fine dinner or party if they had any access to it, which further reinforces the other research I did saying that very few people seem to have been really keen on following this law!

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