by Ray Setterfield, Today in History.
January 16, 1920 — The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution came into effect on this day, making the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor illegal.
It was the start of a 13-year era known as Prohibition that led to gangsterism, “speakeasies”, and widespread flouting of the law.
Speakeasies were establishments where people could buy an illicit drink. It is widely believed the term dates back to the 1880s when a woman named Kate Hester ran an unlicensed bar in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and would tell boisterous customers they should “speak easy” to avoid unwelcome attention from the authorities.
Another word that came to prominence during the Prohibition years was “bootlegging”, meaning the illegal transportation of liquor. This is also said to date back to the 1880s and referred to the practice of men hiding a flask of liquor in their boot top when trading with Native Americans.
Prohibition came about because a burgeoning Temperance movement, which had a branch in almost every state, blamed alcohol for many of society’s ills, especially crime and murder.
Members of the movement also argued that prohibition would stop husbands spending their income on alcohol and it would prevent accidents in the workplace caused by drunken workers. A better world awaited.
After the 18th Amendment set the ball rolling, the Volstead Act, officially known as the National Prohibition Act, clarified the law.
It stated that “beer, wine, or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquors” referred to any beverage that was more than 0.5 per cent alcohol by volume. The Act also stated that owning any item designed to manufacture alcohol was illegal and set fines of up to $2,000 and prison sentences of up to five years for violating Prohibition.
The Act did not prohibit drinking alcohol but outlawed its manufacture, sale, and transportation. People were allowed to drink intoxicating liquor in their own home or in the home of a friend when they were a guest. But they were not allowed to carry a hip flask or give or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Act on constitutional and ethical grounds but his veto was overridden by Congress.
Noting the high demand for alcohol, gangsters such as Al Capone of Chicago quickly moved to take advantage of the situation. They hired men who came to be known as rumrunners to smuggle in rum from the Caribbean while others brought in whiskey and other alcohol from Canada. Speakeasies operated by Capone and other gangsters flourished while newly hired Prohibition Bureau agents, as well as police, judges and politicians received substantial bribes to “look the other way”.
As gangland territorial wars flared bringing murder and mayhem onto the streets, and resentment against Prohibition grew, demands for the law to be repealed became more vocal. It was clear, critics, said, that the perfect world promised by the Temperance movement had not materialised.
The Stock Market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression were powerful factors in the fight against Prohibition. Put simply, people needed jobs and the government needed money. Convincing arguments were put forward that the abolition of Prohibition would create many new jobs as well as boosting revenue for the government through sales taxes.
On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. It repealed the 18th Amendment, making the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol legal again. It was the first and only time in US history that an Amendment to the Constitution has been repealed. And it meant that Prohibition was officially at an end. Many drank to that.
About the Author
Ray is a retired journalist who has worked on newspapers in the UK for 40 years, starting as a junior reporter on Berrow’s Worcester Journal – the oldest surviving newspaper in the world. During his career he has been a “Fleet Street” sub-editor on both the Daily Telegraph and The Times.
Passionate about Shakespeare, he thinks nothing of queueing for an hour or two to win a prized place leaning on the stage with other “groundlings” in the reconstructed Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank.
Ray also finds photography and social history absorbing and it was this interest that led him to explore and eventually write for On This Day. His feature articles shine light on some of history’s more obscure and interesting events.