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Prohibition outlawed alcohol for 13 years, splitting the nation
morally and politically while empowering organized crime.
Summarize the implementation and effects of Prohibition
Ratified by the Eighteenth Amendment
in 1920, Prohibition sparked
debate between those who argued the sale of alcohol to be both immoral and
unhealthy, and those who saw the ban as an intrusion of rural Protestant ideals
on mainstream, everyday life.
Enforcing Prohibition proved
difficult due to the lack of coordination between federal and
state law enforcement and the relative ease of crossing America’s northern and
southern borders undetected.
The institution of Prohibition
led to the rise of criminal organizations behind the illegal import and
sale of alcohol, most notably the American
The popularity of Jazz music
grew rapidly during Prohibition as a result of the popularity of the music in
Understanding the unpopularity of
Prohibition, as well as the opportunity for greater tax revenue, Democrats
called for the alcohol ban to be overturned, resulting in its repeal in the
Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.
"Al" Capone (1899 –1947) was an American gangster who led a
Prohibition-era crime syndicate. The Chicago Outfit, which subsequently became
known as the Capones or Capone Gang, controlled smuggling, bootleg liquor
sales, prostitution, and other illegal activities in Chicago from the early
1920s to 1931.
was a national ban on the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol that lasted
from 1920–1933. A hotly contested issue, the "Dries" who supported Prohibition
proclaimed it to be a victory for public morals and health, while "Wets"
criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural, Protestant ideals
upon a central facet of urban, immigrant and Catholic life, as well as a
loss of large amounts of tax revenue. Effective enforcement of the ban proved
to be difficult, however, and led to widespread flouting of the law, as well as
a massive escalation of organized crime.
On October 28, 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning
alcohol was implemented through the Volstead Act, which went into effect on
January 17, 1920. A total of 1,520 Prohibition agents from three separate
federal agencies – the Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, the Treasury
Department/Internal Revenue Service Bureau of Prohibition, and the Department of
Justice Bureau of Prohibition – were tasked with enforcing the new law. This
effort lacked centralized authority, however, and many attempts to impose Prohibition
were inhibited by the lack of transparency between federal and state
authorities. The matter of geography presented further complications in that the
valleys, mountains, lakes and swamps, as well as the extensive seaways, ports
and massive borders running along Canada and Mexico, made it exceedingly
difficult to stop bootleggers intent on avoiding detection.
the commercial manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol was illegal, Section
29 of the Volstead Act allowed private citizens to make wine and cider from
fruit, but not beer, in their homes. Up to 200 gallons per year could be
produced, with some vineyards growing grapes for purported home use. In
addition to this loophole, the wording of the act did not specifically prohibit
the consumption of alcohol. In anticipation of the ban, many people stockpiled
wines and liquors during the latter part of 1919 before alcohol sales became illegal
in January 1920. As Prohibition continued, people began to perceive it as
illustrative of class distinctions, since it unfairly favored social elites. Working class people were
enraged that their employers could dip into a cache of private stock while they
were unable to afford similar indulgences.
rift between the Dries and the Wets over alcohol consumption and sales largely
hinged on the long-running, historical debate over whether drinking was morally
acceptable in light of the anti-social behavior that overindulgence could cause.
Ironically, this dispute over ethics during the "Roaring Twenties" led
to a sudden groundswell of criminal activity, with those who opposed legal alcohol
sales unintentionally enabling the growth of vast criminal organizations that
controlled the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol and a number of related
activities including gambling and prostitution. Powerful gangs corrupted law
enforcement agencies, leading to the blanket criminal activity of racketeering,
which includes bribery, extortion, loan sharking, and money laundering. Illicit
alcoholic beverage industries earned an average of $3 billion per year in
illegal income, none of which was taxed, and effectively transformed cities
into battlegrounds between opposing bootlegging gangs.
the largest city in Illinois and of one America’s true metropolises along with
New York and Los Angeles, became a haven for Prohibition dodgers. Many of
Chicago's most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and his archenemy, Bugs Moran,
made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the
decade, Capone controlled all 10,000 Chicago speakeasies, illegal nightclubs
where alcohol was sold, and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Numerous other crimes,
including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activity in
Chicago and other cities in violation of Prohibition.
bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages,
the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. Bootleggers
combated this by hiring chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make
it drinkable. In response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to
add even more deadly poisons to industrial alcohols, including Sterno (or
"canned heat") and the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. As many as
10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.
had a large effect on music in the United States, specifically Jazz.
Speakeasies became far more popular during the Prohibition era, partially
influencing the mass migration of Jazz musicians from New
Orleans to major northern cities like Chicago and New York. This movement led to a wider
dispersal of Jazz, as different styles developed in different cities. Because
of its popularity in speakeasies and its advancement due to the emergence of more
advanced recording devices, Jazz became very popular in a short amount of time.
was also at the forefront of the minimal integration efforts of the time, as it
united mostly black musicians with mostly white crowds. As the saloon began to
die out, public drinking lost much of its macho association, resulting in an
increased social acceptance of women drinking in the semi-public environment of
a speakeasy, also known as a blind pig or a blind tiger. This new norm
established women as a notable new target demographic for alcohol marketers,
who sought to expand their clientele.
Repeal of Prohibition
18th Amendment had outlawed "intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes"
but did not set a limit on alcohol content, which the Volstead Act did by establishing
a limit of .5% alcohol per unit. The beer that could be legally consumed was essentially
a very weak mixture. On March 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed
an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the
manufacture and sale of light wine and "3.2 beer", referring to 3.2%
alcohol content. Upon signing the amendment, Roosevelt made his famous remark:
"I think this would be a good time for a beer."
December 5, 1933, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the
Eighteenth Amendment. As Prohibition ended, some of its supporters, including industrialist
and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, openly admitted its failure. In a positive
epilogue, however, the overall consumption of alcohol dropped and remained
below pre-Prohibition levels long after the Eighteenth Amendment ceased to be