There have been many attempts to deal with the problem of alcoholism in America since the 1800s. These were called temperance movements, an antiquated phrase meaning moderation in one's indulgence in the so-called vices. Most temperance movements in history have been initiated by religious folks who felt that only a spiritual conversion could combat the deleterious effects of “demon rum.” And there were many who wanted to ban all alcoholic beverages from the American landscape.
Temperance firebrand Carrie Nation was one early leader of the movement against alcohol. Standing six feet tall, Nation led militant crusades against the scourge of alcohol and the damage it caused families and society as a whole when it was abused. She regularly brandished a hatchet to personally smash casks and kegs of whiskey and beer and go after barkeeps who served alcohol.
In the late nineteenth century, the temperance movement in America became increasingly popular and influential. It was sometimes called the “Women's War,” since most of its members were women who were fed up with their drunken fathers, husbands, and sons. The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) gained popularity in many states. The ASL endorsed candidates and tried to influence state and local governments, and its dream was to have an impact at the national level.
The movement was gaining momentum, and twenty-three states had prohibition laws by 1916. There was enough support for an amendment to the Constitution. An amendment requires two-thirds of the states to vote in favor of it, and in 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, outlawing the manufacture, sale, or exportation of alcohol by anyone in the United States.
It became the law of the land in 1920. It was called Prohibition for short, and it lasted until the early 1930s. Ironically, the 1920s was, for many Americans, one big party that preceded the Great Depression of the 1930s. The booze never stopped flowing during Prohibition, thanks to the friendly neighborhood Mafia.
Bootlegging was not exclusively an enterprise of the Mafia. Many immigrant families, who saw nothing immoral about drinking alcohol, made their own wine and beer for their personal consumption. In the American South and Midwest, rural stills made moonshine, a practice that continues to this day.
Getting Around It
The National Prohibition Act was passed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment. It was also known as the Volstead Act, named for the congressman who introduced the law. There were some exceptions to the rule. Alcohol could be used for medicinal purposes, and priests could perform Mass with sacramental wine. It was generally accepted that it would be difficult to enforce, and that law enforcement officials were not necessarily going to aggressively enforce the law. Many of them liked to drink and were not eager to deny themselves the pleasure.
The demand for alcohol was there, and someone who could supply the demand was more than welcome. At first it was the Irish saloon owners who had brothers and cousins on “the force.” But soon the Italian and the Jewish mobsters muscled in on their turf. Prohibition was counterproductive. It spurred the increase of organized crime.