Prohibition in the United States


3 minutes

If you're of legal drinking age, odds are you may enjoy an alcoholic drink from time to time. The U.S. drinking age is 21 years old. While some U.S. counties (smaller regions of states), known as dry counties, do not allow alcohol sales at all, there was a time in the United States when it was not legal for anyone in the country to drink alcohol. This period started in 1919, when the Federal Government passed an amendment, or a change to the country's constitution, prohibiting everyone from consuming alcohol.

The movement to prohibit alcohol is credited as beginning in the 1840s. The Temperance Movement, as it was called, urged the non-use of alcohol. Religious groups like the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all sought reform to get rid of alcohol consumption under moral grounds. Two major groups, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League, began a concerted effort to rid the country of what they viewed as a scourge that ruined families and made workers less productive. Some of the rhetoric was political as well. After the First World War, groups lobbied to weaken the German-based brewing industry as they saw a strong German economy as a threat.

After being ratified in 1919, the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and possession of alcohol went into effect in January of 1920. The ensuing Volstead Act gave the Federal government the authority to punish anyone found producing illegal liquor or promoting its sale in the United States. The law did not stop drinking like it aimed. Lots of alcohol was smuggled into the United States illegally, much of it passed in from Canada. Home brewing also sprang up. One of the most famous drinks, Bathtub Gin, was sometimes actually brewed in a bathtub or under other similarly strange conditions.

Organized crime filled the demand for alcohol as well. By the mid-1920s gangsters like the infamous Al Capone were making millions of dollars a year peddling illegal alcohol, especially illegal beer.

Illegal bars known as speakeasies sprang up everywhere. Estimates as to the number of speakeasies go from 20,000 to 100,000 nationwide. Crime and corruption increased, but it was the Great Depression that really put the final nail in the coffin for Prohibition.

A wealthy socialite named Pauline Sabine started a repeal movement. Advocates of repeal argued that making alcohol illegal did little to curb the problem of drunkenness and only served to increase organized crime. Finally, in 1933, the United States passed another amendment, the 21st Amendment, to once again allow the sale of alcohol. Eventually, the drinking age was increased from 18 to 21 which some opponents believe has had the negative effect of increasing binge drinking amongst college students, but there are no current plans to return the minimum to 18.  Individual states today still have the ability to control liquor licenses and determine when and how alcohol can be sold within their borders. For example, there are still dry counties in the U.S., and the sale of alcohol is still prohibited entirely or partially on Sundays.

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Ani Kington Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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