Industrial design aided the end of prohibition

The manufacture of bottles, cans, design of labels, and the role of our society all aided to help end the prohibition of alcohol.

Marijuana is currently the first most-used illicit drug. Of the 300 million of us, at least half have tried it at least once. And most of us have seen it at one point or another. It is tolerated yet still illegal.


Prohibition, legal ban on the manufacture and sale of intoxicating drink; by extension, the term also denotes those periods in history when such bans have been in force, as well as the political and social movements advocating them. Such movements (also called temperance movements) have occurred whenever significant numbers of people have believed that the consumption of alcoholic beverages presented a serious threat to the integrity of their most vital institutions, especially the institution of the family. Drunkenness is considered an evil in most of the world’s major religious traditions, and Islam has for centuries forbidden even the moderate use of fermented drink. In the West, however, efforts to ban the consumption of alcohol have been a relatively recent phenomenon. Their origin can be traced to the apparently rapid spread of the technology of distillation and of alcohol abuse in 18th-century Europe, which alarmed those concerned with public health and morals.

The Early Prohibition Movement in the U.S.

In England and the American colonies, governments after 1750 made repeated and futile efforts to discourage the excessive use of distilled spirits. In the U.S., as the annual per capita consumption of alcohol from all spiritous beverages during the 1830s rose to about 15 liters (this is computed as absolute, or 200 proof, spirits and would be the equivalent of 37.5—about 10 gal—of the usually 80 proof whiskey, rum, or gin), many religious and political leaders were beginning to see drunkenness as a national curse. Abraham Lincoln said of this period that intoxicating liquor was “used by everybody, repudiated by nobody” and that it came forth in society “like the Egyptian angel of death, commissioned to slay if not the first, the fairest born in every family.”

Many people believed a close relationship existed between drunkenness and the rising incidence of crime, poverty, and violence, concluding that the only way to protect society from this threat was to abolish the “drunkard-making business.” The first state prohibition law, passed in Maine in 1851, prohibited the manufacture and sale of “spiritous or intoxicating liquors” not intended for medical or mechanical purposes, and 13 of the 31 states had such laws by 1855. By that time the annual per capita consumption of absolute alcohol had fallen to about 4 liters (about 1 gal).

The political crisis that preceded the American Civil War distracted attention from Prohibition. Many of the early state laws were modified, repealed, or ignored, and for years few restraints were placed on manufacturing or selling anything alcoholic. The population increased rapidly after the Civil War, and soon there were more than 100,000 saloons in the country (about 1 for every 400 men, women, and children in 1870); these saloons became increasingly competitive for the drinkers’ wages. Thus, many of them permitted gambling, prostitution, sales to minors, public drunkenness, and violence.

The Anti-Saloon League.

In reaction to this, the extraordinary “Women’s War” broke out across the nation in 1873. Thousands of women marched from church meetings to saloons, where with prayer and song they demanded—with transitory results—that saloonkeepers give up their businesses. By 1900, millions of men and women were beginning to share this hostility toward the saloon and to regard it as the most dangerous social institution then threatening the family. The Anti-Saloon League of America (ASL), organized in Ohio, effectively marshaled such people into political action. State chapters of the ASL endorsed candidates for public office and demanded of their state governments that the people be allowed to vote yes or no on the question of continuing to license the saloons.

By 1916, no less than 23 of the 48 states had adopted antisaloon laws, which in those states closed the saloons and prohibited the manufacture of any alcoholic beverages. Even more significant, the national elections of that year returned a U.S. Congress in which the ASL-supported dry members (those who supported Prohibition) outnumbered the wet members (those who were against Prohibition) by more than two to one. On Dec. 22, 1917, with majorities well in excess of the two-thirds requirement, Congress submitted to the states the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” By January 1919 ratification was complete, with 80 percent of the members of 46 state legislatures recorded in approval.

Prohibition in Other Countries.

At this point in history, most Protestant nations had come to regard drinking as a social evil, and the Prohibition movement was being accelerated by the circumstances of World War I. While rallying British workers to increase their productivity in support of the war effort, Prime Minister David Lloyd George stated that “we are fighting Germany, Austria, and drink; and, as far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is drink.” Soon the British government limited the sale of alcoholic drink to a few early evening hours. In Scotland, the citizens of towns and villages had the right (local option) to vote out drinking establishments after 1920. In Sweden, where the movement had been strong since the 1830s, the government abolished both the profit motive and the competition from the liquor traffic after 1922 by nationalizing it. An even harsher measure there restricted sales to 1 liter (about 1 qt) per family per week. In Norway, voters outlawed the sale of drinks with an alcoholic content of more than 12 percent by referendum in 1919. That same year the Finnish government banned the sale of any drink of more than 2 percent alcohol. Canada was then dry in all provinces.

National Prohibition in the U.S.

To enforce the 18th Amendment, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, usually called the Volstead Act because Congressman Andrew Volstead (1860–1947) of Minnesota introduced it in 1919. This law defined the prohibited “intoxicating liquors” as those with an alcoholic content of more than 0.5 percent, although it made concessions for liquors sold for medicinal, sacramental, and industrial purposes, and for fruit or grape beverages prepared for personal use in homes. Because the Congress and the state legislatures, however, were reluctant to appropriate enough money for more than token enforcement—and because the opportunities for disregarding the law through smuggling, distilling, fermenting, and brewing were legion—Prohibition always represented more of an ideal than a reality. On this basis the Prohibition era began at midnight on Jan. 16, 1920.

The effects of Prohibition.

The era inspired an extensive body of colorful literature, most of it alleging that the period was one of moral decay and social disorder precisely because of “Volsteadism,” which came to mean the intolerable searches, seizures, and shootings by police who, with their token enforcement, seemed to threaten intrusion into the private lives of law-respecting persons. It also alleged that Prohibition distorted the role of alcohol in American life, causing people to drink more rather than less; that it promoted disrespect for the law; that it generated a wave of organized criminal activity, during which the bootlegger (one who sold liquor illegally), the “speakeasy” (an illegal saloon), and the gangster became popular institutions; and that the profits available to criminals from illegal alcohol corrupted almost every level of government. Historians, however, believe that in the beginning of the era, and at least until the middle of the decade, most Americans respected the law, hoped that it would endure, and regarded its passage as directly responsible for the reduced incidence of public drunkenness and of alcohol-related crime, imprisonments, and hospitalizations. Statistics show that Prohibition reduced the annual per capita consumption from 9.8 liters (2.6 gal) of absolute alcohol during the period before state laws were effective (1906–10) to 3.7 liters (0.97 gal) after Prohibition (1934). Moreover, no striking statistical evidence of a crime wave during the 1920s exists, although the crime rate did rise.

Movement toward repeal.

In the late 1920s, however, more and more Americans found the idea of repeal increasingly attractive. The reasons for this were numerous and complex, the government’s failure to enforce the law being only one of them. Most Americans were happy that the old-time saloon had been abolished, but they felt that a new society was emerging in the 1920s—a primarily urban and industrial society of great geographic and social mobility and great ethnic and religious diversities, in which the protection of the family from alcohol was perhaps less socially urgent than the expansion and protection of individual freedom.

This disillusionment with Prohibition occurred in every country that had earlier attempted it. In Canada, the dry laws of 1919 were soon repealed because of economic pressures, not the least of which were the opportunities to sell liquor to citizens of the dry U.S. Provincial laws after repeal did, however, provide for government-owned stores and for local option. In Norway, a referendum in 1926 abolished the earlier restriction, but strict regulation of the times and places liquor could be sold preserved a tight rein on drunkenness. Sweden held to state monopoly and severe rationing. Finland repealed its prohibition law by referendum in 1932.

The End of Prohibition.

In the U.S., a major shift in public opinion occurred during the early years of the Great Depression, when opponents could argue persuasively that Prohibition deprived people of jobs and governments of revenue and generally contributed to economic stagnation. The actual political campaign for repeal was largely the work of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), a nonpartisan organization of wealthy and influential citizens in all states who were “wet” in principle and who feared that through Prohibition the federal government might permanently compromise the tradition of individual freedom. Like the ASL, the AAPA actively endorsed and opposed candidates for state and federal offices. Its goal was that Congress should submit to the states the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which would repeal the 18th, and submit it in such a way as to circumvent the various state legislatures in which, it feared, dry legislators from rural districts, in opposition to majority sentiment, might present a serious challenge to ratification. To avoid this, Congress—for the first time since the Constitution itself was ratified and for much the same reason—called for ratifying conventions in each of the states: Delegates would be elected by the people for the specific purpose of voting yes or no regarding the question of the 21st Amendment. The elections for convention delegates in 1933 produced a repeal vote running almost 73 percent. In a remarkably coordinated effort by the states and the Congress, ratification was complete in December of that year.

Following repeal, liquor control again became a state rather than a federal problem. The annual per capita consumption of absolute alcohol in the country rose after the repeal from 4.2 liters (1.1. gal) in 1935 to 7.6 liters (2.0 gal) in 1975, but most states still retain restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol. N.H.C., NORMAN H. CLARK, M.A., Ph.D.

For further information on this topic, see the Bibliography, section 1159.

I don’t know about back in the day, but we sure fought the good fight against sobriety at the Kohler conference!