Prohibition - how did it happen?

They do say that if something is enjoyable it is either illegal, immoral or makes you fat. In early 20th century America alcohol was viewed as belonging to all three categories!

How on earth did a civilised country find itself in this predicament? Well, America has always been a very democratic country and since democracy means "rule by the most vocal" it is perhaps not terribly surprising that the Anti-Saloon League finally managed to achieve its aim of banning the second most popular activity in the USA. The society's roots were in Ohio towards the end of the 19th century but it spread from there like a wildfire consuming it's smaller competitors in the process, to become a completely national organisation by 1895, gaining much of it's support from the churches, particularly the evangelists, Methodists, Baptists and other staunchly Protestant church people. The league lobbied all classes of politicians from smalltown minnows right up to the highest levels of government to make the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal and finally after the 18th Amendment was adopted in 1919 America was officially dry. The problem was that the ordinary American had not lost his or her taste for booze, although it is perhaps a little surprising that they didn't lose it when they had to subject their taste buds to some of the awful liquor that the smugglers and illegal manufacturers put in front of them! Bootleg beer was at least fairly palatable when people were desperate for a drink but the most favourite tipple of the 20s was gin; perhaps most of it was not manufactured in a bathtub after all but much of it was cobbled together out of raw grain alcohol (lethal stuff) and it had to be flavoured with all kinds of additives to take away the dreadful taste!

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The prohibition experiment proved to be a dismal failure since drunkenness actually increased and criminal elements made fortunes out of providing the populace with what they wanted, and the amendment was repealed in 1933, bringing the era to an end. Having failed in its purpose the Anti-Saloon League lost most of its credibility and went into decline, finally emerging as a part of the National Temperance League in the early 1950s.


Copyright David Campbell 2009