Did you know that last Monday was the 83rd anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition? Since this is the time of year that the beer, wine and liquor companies all go into overdrive with their advertising campaigns before the holidays, I find the timing interesting. I don’t drink alcoholic beverages very often, but I do enjoy a social drink occasionally. While I won’t touch beer or bourbon, I enjoy champagne, gin and tonic, the (very) British warm mulled wine and American Christmas egg nog with a touch of spiced rum!
As a Brit by birth and now a naturalized American citizen, I do find the American attitude toward alcohol very different to the European approach. For example, in the UK it is legal to drink at 18 years of age, liquor is for sale in grocery stores alongside beer and wine any day of the week, and there is no such thing as a dry county. I am therefore fascinated by the great American experiment to outlaw alcohol during the Prohibition era from 1920 through 1933. Essentially this was an attempt to legislate morality. It took a Constitutional amendment to enact it, and another one to repeal it. History shows us that this attempt to decrease the "evils" of alcohol actually created more, as well as new types of crime.
While colonial America had been settled by Europeans who were frequently puritanical and abhorred the evils of alcohol, temperance movements did not really take off until the late 19th century. However, it was WWI that provided the first opportunity for the anti-alcohol movement to gather enough support to enact a national ban. Anti-alcohol sentiment in Congress led to legislation known as the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917, which regulated food, fuel and other commodities that might be needed for the war effort. It was argued that the grains needed to distill alcohol were needed for food production because of war-time shortages. This effectively shut down the country's breweries and distilleries temporarily.
Later that year, a permanent ban on the sale, transportation, importing and exporting of alcoholic beverages was enacted by passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It took over one year for the Amendment to be ratified by the states. Prior to the national ban, 26 of the then-48 states had passed their own prohibition laws. Proponents of the so-called "noble experiment" claimed that the nation's health would improve dramatically without alcohol, and that crime would drop. It was also claimed that the dairy industry would be stimulated, juvenile delinquency would drop, worker productivity would soar, and overall economic prosperity and social stability would be the end result. Finally, the 18th Amendment took effect on Jan. 17, 1920.
By the time this amendment was repealed in 1933, it was obvious that the measure was a total failure. Instead of promoting the nation's health, hygiene and economy, the opposite was true. Illegal manufacture of alcohol filled part of the void, and many of those illegal products were dangerous or much higher in alcohol content than the beer, wines and spirits they replaced. Crime also increased around the production (bootlegging) and sales (through speakeasies) of alcohol. Criminal activity became organized and led to the rise of powerful crime syndicates that relied on murder and corruption. The most notorious example was the Chicago gangster Al Capone, who earned a staggering $60 million annually from bootleg operations and speakeasies. This led to waning support for Prohibition by the end of the 1920s.
Drug use also increased, with drugs taking the place of alcohol. Worker productivity did not increase. Jails filled with people convicted of relatively minor infractions of the alcohol ban. Enforcement of the ban cost millions of dollars.
When alcohol was legalized, crime reduced and many new jobs were created as the liquor industry expanded. This was especially important in the Depression years that began with the stock exchange collapsing in 1929 and extended to the mid-1930s. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated the incumbent President Herbert Hoover, who once called Prohibition "the great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose." Some say FDR, who led the repeal of Prohibition, celebrated with a dirty martini, his preferred drink. You can read a lot more about prohibition at www.history.com
I will leave you with a quote by an American writer I enjoy who, like my husband, has spent years living in England. Bill Bryson sums up the whole Prohibition era: “There'd never been a more advantageous time to be a criminal in America than during the 13 years of Prohibition. At a stroke, the American government closed down the fifth largest industry in the United States — alcohol production — and just handed it to criminals. A pretty remarkable thing to do”.
God bless America and cheers!