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article number 221
article date 03-28-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Will the Prohibition of Alcohol Affect Your 1920’s Life?
by Fredrick Lewis Allen

From the 1931 book, Only Yesterday.

§ 1 – Enter the 18th Amendment

IF IN the year 1919—when the Peace Treaty still hung in the balance, and Woodrow Wilson was chanting the praises of the League, and the Bolshevist bogey stalked across the land, and fathers and mothers were only beginning to worry about the Younger Generation—you had informed the average American citizen that prohibition was destined to furnish the most violently explosive public issue of the nineteen-twenties, he would probably have told you that you were crazy.

If you had been able to sketch for him a picture of conditions as they were actually to be—rum-ships rolling in the sea outside the twelve-mile limit and transferring their cargoes of whisky by night to fast cabin cruisers, beer-running trucks being hijacked on the interurban boulevards by bandits with Thompson sub-machine guns, illicit stills turning out alcohol by the carload, the fashionable dinner party beginning with contraband cocktails as a matter of course, ladies and gentlemen undergoing scrutiny from behind the curtained grill of the speakeasy, and Alphonse Capone, multi-millionaire master of the Chicago bootleggers, driving through the streets in an armor-plated car with bullet-proof windows—the innocent citizen’s jaw would have dropped.

The Eighteenth Amendment had been ratified, to go into effect on January 16, 1920; and the Eighteenth Amendment, he had been assured and he firmly believed, had settled the prohibition issue. You might like it or not, but the country was going dry.


Nothing in recent American history is more extraordinary, as one looks back from the nineteen-thirties, than the ease with which—after generations of uphill fighting by the drys—prohibition was finally written upon the statute-books. The country accepted it not only willingly, but almost absent-mindedly. When the Eighteenth Amendment came before the Senate in 1917, it was passed by a one-sided vote after only thirteen hours of debate, part of which was conducted under the ten-minute rule. When the House of Representatives accepted it a few months later, the debate upon the Amendment as a whole occupied only a single day. The state legislatures ratified it in short order; by January, 1919, some two months after the Armistice, the necessary three-quarters of the states had fallen into line and the Amendment was a part of the Constitution. (All the rest of the states but two subsequently added their ratifications—only Connecticut and Rhode Island remained outside the pale.)

The Volstead Act for the enforcement of the Amendment, drafted after a pattern laid down by the Anti-Saloon League, slipped through with even greater ease and dispatch. Woodrow Wilson momentarily surprised the country by vetoing it, but it was promptly re-passed over his veto. There were scattered protests—a mass-meeting in New York, a parade in Baltimore, a resolution passed by the American Federation of Labor demanding modification in order that the workman might not be deprived of his beer, a noisy demonstration before the Capitol in Washington—but so half-hearted and ineffective were the forces of the opposition and so completely did the country as a whole take for granted the inevitability of a dry régime, that few of the arguments in the press or about the dinner table raised the question whether the law would or would not prove enforceable.


The burning question was what a really dry country would be like, what effect enforced national sobriety would have upon industry, the social order, and the next generation.

How did it happen? Why this overwhelming, this almost casual acceptance of a measure of such huge importance?

As Charles Merz has clearly shown in his excellent history of the first ten years of the prohibition experiment, the forces behind the Amendment were closely organized; the forces opposed to the Amendment were hardly organized at all. Until the United States entered the war, the prospect of national prohibition had seemed remote, and it is always hard to mobilize an unimaginative public against a vague threat. Furthermore, the wet leadership was discredited; for it was furnished by the dispensers of liquor, whose reputation had been unsavory and who had obstinately refused to clean house even in the face of a growing agitation for temperance.

The entrance of the United States into the war gave the dry leaders their great opportunity. The war diverted the attention of those who might have objected to the bone-dry program: with the very existence of the nation at stake, the future status of alcohol seemed a trifling matter. The war accustomed the country to drastic legislation conferring new and wide powers upon the Federal Government. It necessitated the saving of food and thus commended prohibition to the patriotic as a grain-saving measure. It turned public opinion against everything German—and many of the big brewers and distillers were of German origin. The war also brought with it a mood of Spartan idealism of which the Eighteenth Amendment was a natural expression.


Everything was sacrificed to efficiency, production, and health. If a sober soldier was a good soldier and a sober factory hand was a productive factory hand, the argument for prohibition was for the moment unanswerable. Meanwhile the American people were seeing Utopian visions; if it seemed possible to them that the war should end all wars and that victory should bring a new and shining world order, how much easier to imagine that America might enter an endless era of efficient sobriety! And finally, the war made them impatient for immediate results. In 1917 and 1918, whatever was worth doing at all was worth doing at once, regardless of red tape, counter-arguments, comfort, or convenience. The combination of these various forces was irresistible. Fervently and with headlong haste the nation took the short cut to a dry Utopia.

Almost nobody, even after the war had ended, seemed to have any idea that the Amendment would be really difficult to enforce. Certainly the first Prohibition Commissioner, John F. Kramer, displayed no doubts. “This law,” he declared in a burst of somewhat Scriptural rhetoric, “will be obeyed in cities, large and small, and in villages, and where it is not obeyed it will be enforced. . . . The law says that liquor to be used as a beverage must not be manufactured. We shall see that it is not manufactured. Nor sold, nor given away, nor hauled in anything on the surface of the earth or under the earth or in the air.”

The Anti-Saloon League estimated that an appropriation by Congress of five million dollars a year would be ample to secure compliance with the law (including, presumably, the prevention of liquor-hauling “under the earth”). Congress voted not much more than that, heaved a long sigh of relief at having finally disposed of an inconvenient and vexatious issue, and turned to other matters of more pressing importance.

The morning of January 16, 1920, arrived and the era of promised aridity began. Only gradually did the dry leaders, or Congress, or the public at large begin to perceive that the problem with which they had so light-heartedly grappled was a problem of gigantic proportions.


§ 2 – The Problem of Enforcement

Obviously the Surest method of enforcement was to shut off the supply of liquor at its source. But consider what this meant.

The coast lines and land borders of the United States offered an 18,700-mile invitation to smugglers. Thousands of druggists were permitted to sell alcohol on doctors’ prescriptions, and this sale could not be controlled without close and constant inspection. Near-beer was still within the law, and the only way to manufacture near-beer was to brew real beer and then remove the alcohol from it—and it was excessively easy to fail to remove it from the entire product.

The manufacture of industrial alcohol opened up inviting opportunities for diversion which could be prevented only by watchful and intelligent inspection—and after the alcohol left the plant where it was produced, there was no possible way of following it down the line from purchaser to purchaser and making sure that the ingredients which had been thoughtfully added at the behest of the Government to make it undrinkable were not extracted by ingenious chemists.


Illicit distilling could be undertaken almost anywhere, even in the householder’s own cellar; a commercial still could be set up for five hundred dollars which would produce fifty or a hundred highly remunerative gallons a day, and a one-gallon portable still could be bought for only six or seven dollars.

To meet all these potential threats against the Volstead Act, the Government appropriations provided a force of prohibition agents which in 1920 numbered only 1,520 men and as late as 1930 numbered only 2,836; even with the sometimes unenthusiastic aid of the Coast Guard and the Customs Service and the Immigration Service, the force was meager.

Mr. Merz puts it graphically: if the whole army of agents in 1920 had been mustered along the coasts and borders—paying no attention for the moment to medicinal alcohol, breweries, industrial alcohol, or illicit stills—there would have been one man to patrol every twelve miles of beach, harbor, headland, forest, and river-front. The agents’ salaries in 1920 mostly ranged between $1,200 and $2,000; by 1930 they had been munificently raised to range between $2,300 and $2,800. Anybody who believed that men employable at thirty-five or forty or fifty dollars a week would surely have the expert technical knowledge and the diligence to supervise successfully the complicated chemical operations of industrial-alcohol plants or to outwit the craftiest devices of smugglers and bootleggers, and that they would surely have the force of character to resist corruption by men whose pockets were bulging with money, would be ready to believe also in Santa Claus, perpetual motion, and pixies.


Yet even this body of prohibition agents, small and underpaid as it was in view of the size and complexity of its task and the terrific pressure of temptation, might conceivably have choked off the supply of alcohol if it had had the concerted backing of public opinion.

But public opinion was changing. The war was over; by 1920 normalcy was on the way. The dry cause confronted the same emotional let-down which defeated Woodrow Wilson and hastened the Revolution in Manners and Morals. Spartan idealism was collapsing. People were tired of girding up their loins to serve noble causes. They were tired of making the United States a land fit for heroes to live in. They wanted to relax and be themselves. The change of feeling toward prohibition was bewilderingly rapid. Within a few short months it was apparent that the Volstead Act was being smashed right and left and that the formerly inconsiderable body of wet opinion was growing to sizable proportions. The law was on the statute-books, the Prohibition Bureau was busily plying its broom against the tide of alcohol, and the corner saloon had become a memory; but the liquorless millennium had nevertheless been indefinitely postponed.

§ 3 - Plenty of Liquor

The events of the next few years present one of those paradoxes which fascinate the observer of democratic government. Obviously there were large sections of the country in which prohibition was not prohibiting. A rational observer would have supposed that the obvious way out of this situation would be either to double or treble or quadruple the enforcement squad or to change the law. But nothing of the sort was done. The dry leaders, being unwilling to admit that the task of mopping up the United States was bigger than they had expected, did not storm the Capitol to recommend huge increases in the appropriations for enforcement; it was easier to denounce the opponents of the law as Bolshevists and destroyers of civilization and to hope that the tide of opinion would turn again.

Congress was equally unwilling to face the music; there was a comfortable dry majority in both Houses, but it was one thing to be a dry and quite another to insist on enforcement at whatever cost and whatever inconvenience to some of one’s influential constituents. The Executive was as wary of the prohibition issue as of a large stick of dynamite; the contribution of Presidents Harding and Coolidge to the problem—aside from negotiating treaties which increased the three-mile limit to twelve miles, and trying to improve the efficiency of enforcement without calling for too much money from Congress—consisted chiefly of uttering resounding platitudes on the virtues of law observance.


The state governments were supposed to help the Prohibition Bureau, but by 1927 their financial contribution to the cause was about one-eighth of the sum they spent enforcing their own fish and game law. Some legislatures withdrew their aid entirely, and even the driest states were inclined to let Uncle Sam bear the brunt of the Volstead job. Local governments were supposed to war against the speakeasy, but did it with scant relish except where local opinion was insistent.

Nor could the wets, for their part, agree upon any practical program. It seemed almost hopeless to try to repeal or modify the Amendment, and for the time being they contented themselves chiefly with loud and indignant lamentation. The law was not working as it had been intended to, but nobody seemed willing or able to do anything positive about it one way or the other.

Rum-ships plied from Bimini or Belize or St. Pierre, entering American ports under innocent disguises or transferring their cargoes to fast motor-boats which could land in any protected cove. Launches sped across the river at Detroit with good Canadian whisky aboard. Freighters brought in cases of contraband gin mixed among cases of other perfectly legal and properly labeled commodities. Liquor was hidden in freight-cars crossing the Canadian border; whole carfuls of whisky were sometimes smuggled in by judicious manipulation of seals.


These diverse forms of smuggling were conducted with such success that in 1925 General Lincoln C. Andrews, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of enforcement, hazarded the statement that his agents succeeded in intercepting only about 5 per cent of the liquor smuggled into the country; and the value of the liquor which filtered in during the single year 1924 was estimated by the Department of Commerce at $40,000,000! Beer leaked profusely from the breweries; alley breweries unknown to the dry agents flourished and coined money.

The amount of industrial alcohol illegally diverted was variously estimated in the middle years of the decade at from thirteen to fifteen million gallons a year; and even in 1930, after the Government had improved its technic of dealing with this particular source of supply (by careful control of the permit system and otherwise), the Director of Prohibition admitted that the annual diversion still amounted to nine million gallons, and other estimates ran as high as fifteen. (Bear in mind that one gallon of diverted alcohol, watered down and flavored, was enough to furnish three gallons of bogus liquor, bottled with lovely Scotch labels and described by the bootlegger at the leading citizen’s door as “just off the boat.”)

As for illicit distilling, as time went on this proved the most copious of all sources of supply. At the end of the decade it furnished, on the testimony of Doctor Doran of the prohibition staff, perhaps seven or eight times as much alcohol as even the process of diversion. If anything was needed to suggest how ubiquitous was the illicit still in America, the figures for the production of corn sugar provided it. Between 1919 and 1929 the output of this commodity increased six-fold, despite the fact that, as the Wickersham Report put it, the legitimate uses of corn sugar “are few and not easy to ascertain.” Undoubtedly corn whisky was chiefly responsible for the vast increase.


This overwhelming flood of outlaw liquor introduced into the American scene a series of picturesque if unedifying phenomena:

- hip flasks up-tilted above faces both masculine and feminine at the big football games;
- the speakeasy, equipped with a regular old-fashioned bar, serving cocktails made of gin turned out, perhaps, by a gang of Sicilian alky-cookers (seventy-five cents for patrons, free to the police);
- well-born damsels with one foot on the brass rail, tossing off Martinis;
- the keg of grape juice simmering hopefully in the young couple’s bedroom closet, subject to periodical inspection by a young man sent from a “service station”;
- the business executive departing for the trade convention with two bottles of gin in his bag;
- the sales manager serving lavish drinks to the visiting buyer as in former days he had handed out lavish boxes of cigars;
- the hotel bellhop running to Room 417 with another order of ginger ale and cracked ice, provided by the management on the ironical understanding that they were “not to be mixed with spirituous liquors”;
- federal attorneys padlocking nightclubs and speakeasies, only to find them opening shortly at another address under a different name;
- Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, prohibition agents extraordinary, putting on a series of comic-opera disguises to effect miraculous captures of bootleggers;
- General Smedley Butler of the Marines advancing in military formation upon the rum-sellers of Philadelphia, and retiring in disorder after a few strenuous months with the admission that politics made it impossible to dry up the city;
- the Government putting wood alcohol and other poisons into industrial alcohol to prevent its diversion, and the wets thereupon charging the Government with murder;
- Government agents, infuriated by their failure to prevent liquor-running by polite methods, finally shooting to kill—and sometimes picking off an innocent bystander;
- the good ship I’m Alone, of Canadian registry, being pursued by a revenue boat for two and a half days and sunk at a distance of 215 miles from the American coast, to the official dismay of the Canadian Government;
- the federal courts jammed with prohibition cases, jurymen in wet districts refusing to pronounce bootleggers guilty, and the coin of corruption sifting through the hands of all manner of public servants.

Whatever the contribution of the prohibition régime to temperance, at least it produced intemperate propaganda and counter-propaganda. Almost any dry could tell you that prohibition was the basis of American prosperity, as attested by the mounting volume of saving-banks deposits and by what some big manufacturer had said about the men returning to work on Monday morning with clear eyes and steady hands. Or that prohibition had reduced the deaths from alcoholism, emptied the jails, and diverted the workman’s dollar to the purchase of automobiles, radios, and homes.

Almost any wet could tell you that prohibition had nothing to do with prosperity but had caused the crime wave, the increase of immorality and of the divorce rate, and a disrespect for all law which imperiled the very foundations of free government. The wets said the drys fostered Bolshevism by their fanatical zeal for laws which were inevitably flouted; the drys said the wets fostered Bolshevism by their cynical lawbreaking.

Even in matters of supposed fact you could find, if you only read and listened, any sort of ammunition that you wanted. One never saw drunkards on the streets anymore; one saw more drunkards than ever. Drinking in the colleges was hardly a problem now; drinking in the colleges was at its worst. There was a still in every other home in the mining districts of Pennsylvania; drinking in the mining districts of Pennsylvania was a thing of the past. Cases of poverty as a result of drunkenness were only a fraction of what they used to be; the menace of drink in the slums was three times as great as in pre-Volstead days. Bishop A and Doctor B and Governor C were much encouraged by the situation; Bishop X and Doctor Y and Governor Z were appalled by it. And so the battle raged, endlessly and loudly, back and forth.

The mass of statistics dragged to light by professional drys and professional wets and hurled at the public need not detain us here. Many of them were grossly unreliable, and the use of most of them would have furnished an instructor in logic with perfect specimens of the post hoc fallacy. It is perhaps enough to point out a single anomaly—that with the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act in force, there should actually have been constant and vociferous argument throughout the nineteen-twenties over the question whether there was more drinking or less in the United States than before the war. Presumably there was a good deal less except among the prosperous; but the fact that it was not transparently obvious that there was less, showed how signal was the failure of the law to accomplish what almost everyone in 1919 had supposed it would accomplish.


§ 4 - Smith, Hoover, Wickersham

By 1928 the argument over prohibition had reached such intensity that it could no longer be kept out of presidential politics. Governor Smith of New York was accepted as the Democratic nominee despite his un-terrified wetness, and campaigned lustily for two modifications: first, an amendment to the Volstead law giving a “scientific definition of the alcoholic content of an intoxicating beverage” (a rather large order for science), each state being allowed to fix its own standard if this did not exceed the standard fixed by Congress; and second, “an amendment in the Eighteenth Amendment which would give to each individual state itself, only after approval by a referendum popular vote of its people, the right wholly within its borders to import, manufacture, or cause to be manufactured and sell alcoholic beverages, the sale to be made only by the state itself and not for consumption in any public place.”

The Republican candidate, in reply, stepped somewhat definitely off the fence on the dry side. Herbert Hoover’s dry declaration, to be sure, left much unsaid; he called prohibition “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose,” but he did not claim nobility for its results. The omission, however, was hardly noticed by an electorate which regarded indorsement of motives as virtually equivalent to indorsement of performance. Hoover was considered a dry.

The Republican candidate was elected in a landslide, and the drys took cheer. Despite the somewhat equivocal results of various state referenda and straw ballots, they had always claimed that they had a substantial majority in the country as well as in Congress; now they were sure of it. Still the result of the election left room for haunting doubts. Who could tell whether the happy warrior from the East Side had been defeated because he was a wet, or because he was a Roman Catholic, or because he was considered a threat to the indefinite continuance of the delights of Coolidge Prosperity, or because he was a Democrat?


But Herbert Hoover had done more than endorse the motives of the prohibitionists. He had promised a study of the enforcement problem by a governmental commission. Two and a half months after his arrival at the White House, the commission, consisting of eleven members under the chairmanship of George W. Wickersham of New York, was appointed and immersed itself in its prodigious task.

By the time the Wickersham Commission emerged from the sea of fact and theory and contention in which it had been delving, and handed its report to the President, the Post-War Decade was dead and done with. Not until January, 1931, nineteen months after his appointment, did Mr. Wickersham lay the bulky findings of the eleven investigators upon the presidential desk. Yet the report calls for mention here, if only because it represented the findings of a group of intelligent and presumably impartial people with regard to one of the critical problems of the nineteen-twenties.

It was a paradoxical document. In the first place, the complete text revealed very clearly the sorry inability of the enforcement staff to dry up the country. In the second place, each of the eleven commissioners submitted a personal report giving his individual views, and only five of the eleven—a minority—favored further trial for the prohibition experiment without substantial change; four of them favored modification of the Amendment, and two were for outright repeal. But the commission as a whole cast its vote for further trial, contenting itself with suggesting a method of modification if time proved that the experiment was a failure. The confusing effect of the report was neatly satirized in Flaccus’s summary of it in F. P. A.’s column in the New York World:

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
Nevertheless we’re for it.

Yet if the Wickersham report was confusing, this was highly appropriate; for so also was the situation with which it dealt. Although it seemed reasonably clear to an impartial observer that the country had chosen the wrong road in 1917-20, legislating with a sublime disregard for elementary chemistry—which might have taught it how easily alcohol may be manufactured—and for elementary psychology— which might have suggested that common human impulses are not easily suppressed by fiat—it was nevertheless very far from clear how the country could best extricate itself from the morass into which it had so blithely plunged.


How could people who had become gin-drinkers be expected to content themselves with light wines and beers, as some of the modificationists suggested? How could any less drastic system of governmental regulation or governmental sale of liquor operate without continued transgression and corruption, now that a large element had learned how to live with impunity on the fruits of lawbreaking? To what sinister occupations might not the bootlegging gentry turn if outright repeal took their accustomed means of livelihood away from them?

How could any new national policy toward alcohol be successfully put into effect when there was still violent disagreement, even among those who wanted the law changed, as to whether alcohol should be regarded as a curse, as a blessing to be used in moderation, or as a matter of personal rather than public concern? Even if a clear majority of the American people were able to decide to their own satisfaction what was the best way out of the morass, what chance was there of putting through their program when thirteen dry states could block any change in the Amendment? No problem which had ever faced the United States had seemed more nearly insoluble.

Prohibition was repealed with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933.
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