On January 16, 1920 the United States embarked on one of its greatest social experiments—the effort to prohibit within its borders the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. A year earlier, the 18th Amendment had been ratified by the states, setting the process in motion; the federal government had followed with enabling legislation, defining alcoholic drinks, establishing an enforcement procedure, and setting penalties for violators. The drive to prohibit the consumption of intoxicating beverages was not an American innovation. Most societies from antiquity shared a common desire to maintain stability and believed that drunkenness led too often to illness, impoverishment and the disintegration of families.
Movements for temperance and prohibition, not necessarily synonymous terms, developed in many western countries, particularly in northern Europe. Public attitudes toward drinking were often much more accepting in the Mediterranean European countries. The First Reform Era in the pre-Civil War United States brought a host of social concerns to public attention. Beginning with an outburst of religious enthusiasm, the movement concentrated most notably on the abolition of slavery, but also on the punitive treatment of the mentally ill, the wretched conditions of prisoners and the growing toll taken by Demon Rum. By the 1830s, thousands of temperance societies, with hundreds of thousands of members, had been formed in the United States. Massachusetts, in 1838, crafted a law requiring the purchase of hard liquor to be made in large quantities; this measure was designed to make it more difficult for the laboring class to afford strong drink.
A more far-reaching law was enacted by Maine in 1846, becoming the first to opt for statewide prohibition. Other towns and localities voted to become “dry,” as did a dozen other states. In succeeding years, most of those laws were either voided by court action or repealed. The stresses and privations of the Civil War later wiped out most of the few remaining gains made by the temperance movement. Following the war, relaxed standards of behavior and the growth of the liquor industry brought a massive increase in drunkenness and revived the social reformers. The political parties were timid; both the Republican and Democratic parties declined to nail prohibition planks onto their platforms. This omission provoked the inception of the Prohibition Party in 1869. That organization, the Woman`s Christian Temperance Union (1874) and lesser-known groups turned prohibition into a political issue. A sharpening of differences in American society gave added momentum to alcohol reform efforts. By the 1890s, a wide gulf separated urban and rural dwellers, as evidenced in differing positions on many economic issues of the day. Rural elements in the West and South viewed the rapidly expanding cities with alarm. The urban centers were the home of easily available alcohol and host of other vices. Immigration of this era was largely from southern and eastern Europe where prohibition movements had made little headway. Further, many of the recently arrived city dwellers were Roman Catholics, making them all the more suspect in the eyes of old line Christian evangelicals. Suspicion of city life reached its height during the era of the muckrakers, whose writings detailed the corruption and depravity of urban America. New organizations, like the Anti-Saloon League (1893), began on the local level to induce towns, cities, and counties to go dry. In 1913, they launched a national drive for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. This effort, however, failed to garner the necessary support in the House of Representatives. Despite that national failure, state legislatures came increasingly under the control of prohibition supporters. During World War I, prohibition advocates buttressed their cause through the Food and Fuel Control Act (1917), which contained a section prohibiting manufacture of distilled liquor, beer, and wine. Support was given to this measure by non-prohibitionists who were convinced that grain production should be devoted to food, not drink, during wartime. Moreover, the 1917 Reed Amendment to the Webb-Kenyon Act made it unlawful to use the mails to send liquor advertisements to persons in dry territory. In December 1917, Congress began the Constitutional amendment process by passing a resolution that would make the entire country dry. Many states did not wait for ratification and 31 adopted statewide laws supporting prohibition. In the end, however, prohibition was a manifest failure. Bootlegging, defined as the unlawful manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages without registration or payment of taxes, became widespread and a staple of organized crime. Home stills sprouted up both in isolated places and the bathtubs of posh homes. Illegal drinking establishments, dubbed "speakeasies," sprang up in many parts of the country, especially large cities. Concealment of alcohol on one`s person became an artform. Methods from hollow canes to hollow books were used. Enforcement of prohibition was an extremely difficult, costly, and often violent proposition for law enforcement from the local to federal level. In 1932, the Republican and Democratic party platforms called for repeal of prohibition, subject to the will of the people. The Congress passed a resolution proposing repeal in 1933, and it was promptly ratified by three-fourths of the states before year’s end. The 21st Amendment remains as the only amendment repealing a previously adopted one.