Prohibition, America’s 13-year experiment with banning liquor, has been called the “War on Alcohol.” It could just as well be called the war on America’s working class.
In the first decades of the 20th century, America was experiencing a new flood of immigrants from Europe. Industrialization concentrated these new Americans in its cities. Labor unions were growing and making themselves heard. Socialist, Marxist and anarchist ideologies were finding followers among the immigrants and workers. The folks that filled the tenements in our cities and production floors of our factories were no longer all Protestant, no longer all white and no longer all English speakers. And for many of the more comfortable classes, this was a cause for alarm.
One of the primary forces behind the drive for Prohibition was the Women’s Christian Temperance Society. They were upper and middle-class women. Many of their leaders became known as heroes in the fight for women’s suffrage. But, as their name suggests, Prohibition was their primary goal and the saloon was their target. Their motives were indeed benign, improve family life, protect women from drunken husbands, children from inebriated fathers, free the workers from the evils of alcoholism, etc. But unmistakably this was a group of the privileged seeking to impose a way of life on the not so fortunate. They weren’t looking to cut off the flow of liquor in their husband’s posh clubs, just to shutdown the saloons.
They were joined by businessmen, industrialists, the hierarchy of the Protestant Churches and the descendants of the Southern landed gentry. The Anti-Saloon League, a Protestant church-based Ohio organization that became a driving force in bringing about Prohibition, didn’t get all their money by passing around the collection plate. John D. Rockefeller kicked in $350,000. Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie backed them as well.
There was no national referendum on banning alcohol and there is significant doubt as to whether any such referendum would have ever passed. But in terms of electing “dry” vs. “wet” public officials the odds were stacked against the largely disenfranchised immigrant and black populations. At the same time, women’s suffrage was viewed by some Prohibition backers, including the KKK, as a way to ring up more votes on the dry side.
Once the Prohibition amendment was ratified and became part of the Constitution it became even more apparent who this was aimed at. Congress passed the Volstead Act which established the rules and enforcement process for Prohibition (a piece of legislation substantially written by the Anti-Saloon League). If you were among the well-heeled, there was a pretty significant loophole right out of the gate. One of the provisions of the Act was that Americans could consume alcoholic beverages that they had purchased for personal consumption prior to Prohibition going into effect. Congress completed its override of President Woodrow Wilson’s veto in October of 1919, but the act didn’t go into effect until January of 1920. In his book Last Call, author David Okrent tells some stories of what happened in the interim. Charlotte Hennessy, a silent film actress and mother of the more celebrated actress Mary Pickford, bought up the entire inventory of a liquor store and had it transferred to her basement. In Arizona, department store magnate Baron M. Goldwater, the father of Barry Goldwater, bought the bar and the brass rail from his favorite saloon and installed it in his basement where his son made beer.
The experience for working class Americans, immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities was very different. In the words of War on Alcohol author Lisa McGirr, “An unprecedented campaign of selective enforcement lurked beneath the surface glamour of the roaring 20’s that left the urbane elite sipping cocktails in swank, protected nightclubs…while Mexicans, poor European immigrants, African-Americans, poor whites in the south and the unlucky experienced the full brunt of Prohibition enforcements deadly reality.”
With no regulation, with the legitimate alcohol producers driven out of business, and with prices for black market beer and alcohol soaring, working class Americans often turned to dubiously produced moonshine, wood alcohol or other forms of industrial alcohol. Poisonous alcohol resulted in deaths, paralysis and blindness. The government itself played a role in this (The Chemist’s War). Frustrated by their inability to stop Americans from drinking the U.S. Treasury department ordered an increased use of methyl alcohol in the denaturing process used in producing industrial alcohol. The idea was that the added toxicity and befouled taste would keep people from drinking it. The impact was immediate. Some 700 deaths were reported as a result of poisoned alcohol in New York City alone that year.
Working class neighborhoods became crime scenes and were the site of gang violence. But it wasn’t the celebrated gangsters of the era that were showing up on court dockets. It was more likely to be a working class housewife busted for selling some homemade wine to her neighbors. In Illinois, Italian-American homes were raided by Ku Klux Klansmen who were deputized in one Illinois county to help with the enforcement effort. And on the Mexican border some prohibition agents acted more like wild west gunslingers.
The Volstead Act created new categories of crime and as a result U.S. prisons were filled to overcapacity with the addition of people who committed these new crimes. During the course of Prohibition, the number of inmates in federal prisons increased more than 350 percent. Some federal prisons were housing twice as many inmates as their maximum capacity. This foreshadows what would happen later in the century as American prisons were filled with non-violent drug violators, many of whom are held without being convicted of any crime because they are two poor to afford bail. And, as was the case in the 1920’s, it is minority groups that are vastly over-represented in the incarceration state. The NAACP reported that African-Americans and Hispanics made up 56 percent of the inmates in the U.S. in 2015, but only 32 percent of the overall population.
But there is one thing that both the rich and the poor had in common. They drank their way through the 13 years of Prohibition. In next week’s post I’ll look at how Americans resisted the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.
The War on Alcohol, Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, Lisa McGirr, 2017.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent, 2010
Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America, Edward Samuel Behr, 1996.