40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition

Khalid Elhassan - December 2, 2019

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
The Clansman. Wikimedia

14. Gaining Southern Support For Prohibition Through Racism

After Reconstruction, temperance advocates began making inroads in the South by appealing to anti-black racism. Southerners were obsessed with the specter of black men raping their women, so the Dries linked supposedly out-of-control randy blacks to alcohol. In The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, and The Leopard’s Spots, popular novels upon which D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was based, negroes with “eyes bloodshot with whiskey” invade the homes of whites, to rape and plunder.

As an official publication of the Methodist Church put it: “Under slavery, the Negroes were protected from alcohol … consequently they developed no high degree of ability to resist its evil effect“. A Dry congressman from Arkansas even argued that banning alcohol would result in fewer lynchings because fewer blacks would commit crimes if they had no access to liquor.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
A black family leaving the South. Encyclopedia Britannica

13. Alcohol Manufacturers Became Champions of Black Voting Rights

The suppression of the black vote proved highly effective for the cause of prohibition. In southern state after southern state, blacks were disenfranchised, and once the ballot was ripped out of their hands, enacting local or statewide prohibition was a cinch. An Alabama Baptist publication gleefully predicted an upcoming temperance victory thus: “The stronghold of the whiskey power in the state has been eliminated by the disenfranchisement of the Negro“.

Just as Dries sought to suppress and disenfranchise blacks because they tended to vote Wet, Wets – especially the brewers and distillers – sought to defend black voting rights. Alcohol manufacturers persistently fought against poll taxes that disenfranchised blacks, and when that failed, they sent field agents into southern states to secure black votes. Their standard kit included a photo of Abraham Lincoln, some Wet propaganda, a power of attorney form, and cash to pay a black voter’s poll tax.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
A Black Cock Vigor Gin ad. Worthpoint

12. Antisemitism and Prohibition

Alcohol manufacturer’s support of black voting rights infuriated southern whites. Their ire against the booze industry was further aroused by anti-Semitism: distilling had become a largely Jewish industry. Dry politicians made a habit of listing the names of leading distillers, such as Hirschbaum, Steinberg, and Schaumberg, to make the point that they were not attacking an “American” industry, but a “foreign” one that was exploiting and debauching America’s blacks.

The press got in on the act, such as McClure magazine referring in 1909 to the: “unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade of this country“. Collier’s did an expose about the cheap liquor popular in southern black dives, commonly known as “nigger gin” and manufactured by Jewish distiller Lee Levy. It came in a variety of brand names, such as Black Cock Vigor Gin, sold in bottles featuring illustrations of nearly nude white women.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
Anti Saloon League propaganda. Reddit

11. Turning Out the Dry Vote With Race Hate in the North

In the North, the saloons were seen by reformers as an integral part of corrupt urban political machines that were increasingly dominated by immigrants, and that was becoming increasingly powerful. Doing away with the saloons was seen as one way to do away with those political machines. Temperance and prohibition advocates were not above appealing to racism, or to rallying support for the Dry cause by whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria.

For example, women’s suffrage and prohibition advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton decried the prospect of “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence … making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble“.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
The Brewers Association’s money maker. Pintrest

10. Alcohol Manufacturers’ Last-Ditch Effort to Avoid Prohibition

As the incoming tide of nationwide prohibition drew ever closer, alcohol manufacturers made desperate attempts to try and improve their public images. In so doing, brewers and distillers resorted to pointing the finger of blame for alcohol’s evils at each other. The distillers, for whom saloons were not an essential outlet for their liquors, blamed the brewers for the ills of saloons.

The brewers in turn blamed “demon rum” and other distilled spirits while trying to depict themselves as honorable providers of healthy beverages. They even tried to depict beer as being as wholesome as mother’s milk, as occurred when Michigan prepared to vote statewide prohibition. One advertisement during that period depicted a mother cradling a baby in her left arm, while holding a frothing beer stein in her right hand, with the caption: “Lager’s amber fluid mild – Gives health and strength to wife and child“.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
Doughboys. Pintrest

9. Using WWI to Oppose and Support Prohibition

When America joined World War I in 1917, Congress passed a series of War Acts that increased liquor taxes in order to finance the war effort. Making a virtue out of necessity, alcohol manufacturers began depicting the purchase of alcoholic beverages as a patriotic act that contributed to the war effort.

The Dries also used war and patriotic rhetoric to advance their argument for prohibition. A passionately Dry Yale economist conducted a study on the waste of food resources during the national emergency. It concluded that the amount of barley used in American breweries could instead yield 11 million loaves of bread each day – bread that could feed America’s soldiers and those of her allies. Dry advocate William Jennings Bryan wondered: “How can we justify the making of any part of our breadstuffs into intoxicating liquor, when men are crying out for bread?

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
Anti German sentiment during WWI turned people against German brewers, helping lead to Prohibition. WTTW

8. Harnessing Wartime Anti-German Passions to the Cause of Prohibition

America’s entry into WWI was accompanied by a wave of anti-German hysteria. Nine decades before French fries became freedom fries, sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage. German books were burned in public. Cincinnati’s Berlin Street was renamed Woodrow Street, in homage to the president. Playing Beethoven was banned in Boston. Iowa’s governor declared that speaking German in public or over the telephone was illegal. Red Cross leaders (falsely) claimed that German-Americans had penetrated their organization, and were putting ground glass in bandages intended for American soldiers.

Prohibition advocates did not hesitate to take advantage of the aroused passions. As one pro prohibition politician told journalists: “We have German enemies across the water. We have German enemies in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller“.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
WWI recruitment poster. Wikimedia

7. Linking Brewers to Treason

With American soldiers streaming into France, Dries ramped up the efforts to depict prohibitionists as patriotic, and their opponents as traitors. Their task was made easier by congressional hearings about the German-American Alliance (GAA), a civic organization established in 1901 to promote unity among Americans with a German heritage. It was supported by generous donations from German-American brewers.

Subpoenaed documents demonstrated that the United States Brewers Association had funded the GAA, gained control of foreign language newspapers, and published editorials that not only attacked Prohibition but also argued in 1915 against war preparedness. The fact that America had been neutral in 1915 was neither here nor there: prohibition advocates ensured that the brewers’ stance was depicted in the most sinister light, as having been intended to deliberately weaken America at the behest of the Kaiser.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
The Eighteenth Amendment. National Archives

6. Amending the Constitution

Since 1876, a congressional resolution for a Prohibition amendment was introduced in every Congress, but none ever made it out of committee. The growing political clout of the Anti Saloon League changed that pattern. In 1906, the ASL launched a campaign to ban the sale of booze at the state level.

Within a decade, 23 out of 48 states had enacted laws against saloons, and some had even banned the manufacture of alcohol in the first place. Sensing a political tailwind behind their back, and the opening of a window of opportunity before them, the ASL shifted gears and set its eyes on nationwide Prohibition. On December 18th, 1917, Congress approved the submission to the states of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of liquor.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
The spread of prohibition at the state and local level. Pintrest

5. Prohibition Benefited From The Rural-Urban Divide

On January 8th, 1918, Mississippi’s legislature voted in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment, making The Magnolia State the first to ratify Prohibition. Ratification by a total of 36 out of America’s then 48 states were needed for national Prohibition to go into effect, but geography and demography made the prohibitionists’ task relatively easy.

Generally speaking, America’s cities were overwhelmingly against Prohibition, while the countryside was for it. However, most of the country’s big cities – and most of the population for that matter – were concentrated in relatively few states. That made it possible for Prohibition’s advocates to completely write off America’s twelve most urbanized states – Pennsylvania, New Jerseys, and even Connecticut – and still achieve ratification with victories in the less populous and more rural states. It was an early twentieth-century version of Red America losing a popular vote to Blue America, and still winning an election.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
Manhattan’s Lower East Side, circa 1900. Wikimedia

4. Unequal Representation Ensured the Passage of Prohibition

Prohibition was also helped by the era’s shockingly unequal apportionment of legislatures. Today, we take “one person, one vote” as a given. That had not always been the case, and it certainly was not so in the early twentieth century when Prohibition was ratified. Back then, rural citizens were routinely overrepresented in state legislatures, while urban citizens were underrepresented.

In New York, for example, an urban legislator might represent seven times as many people as the rural legislator seated next to him. It meant that the vote of a single Upstate citizen – most likely protestant, prohibitionist, and Republican – was equivalent to the vote of seven Irish-American anti-prohibition Democrats from Manhattan. The figures were even more skewed in New Jersey, where each county got a state senator, regardless of population: Dry rural Cape May County, population 19,000, had the same representation as Wet urban Essex County, population 652,000.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
Anti Saloon League propaganda. American Library Association

3. The Minority Wins

Prohibitionists and their leading organization, the Anti Saloon League, had long understood and accepted that they were a minority. They sought to avoid referendums because they knew that if voters were given the option of a straight up or down vote on Prohibition, Prohibition would lose. Instead, prohibitionists concentrated on capturing legislators, by leveraging their committed and disciplined Dry followers into disciplined block voting that could swing elections.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates that than Mississippi, the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. When submitted directly to voters, a prohibition amendment to the state constitution was rejected by a majority of Wet voters, 53% to 47%. Just two months later, however, Mississippi’s legislatures approved the Eighteenth Amendment, 75% to 25%.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
Ratification map chart. Distillery Trail

2. Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment

As Prohibition’s advocates had predicted, the lower population and more rural states were the quickest to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. The exceptions were Connecticut and Rhode Island, both of which had a majority Catholic population, and both of which refused to ratify.

Their votes were neither missed nor needed, as the prohibitionists ran up the score in the legislatures of other small and rural states. On January 16th, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, when its lower house voted in favor 98-0. It was official, and Prohibition was automatically scheduled to go into effect a year later.

40 Historical Markers on the Road to Prohibition
Prohibition agents destroying barrels of booze. Wikimedia

1. Prohibition Did Not Prohibit the Drinking of Alcohol

The Eighteenth Amendment did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol, only its manufacture, sale, and transportation. It was quite legal for people to drink up in their own homes, and in the year’s grace period between the ratification of Prohibition and it is going into effect, Americans rushed to stockpile as much booze as they could, in anticipation of the dry days to come.

For the wealthy, Prohibition was not much of an inconvenience. They had the means to purchase more liquor and wine than they could consume in a lifetime, and they had the cellar space in their various residences in which to store their alcohol. For average Americans of average means, it was a different story. Satisfying their demand for booze, the Eighteenth Amendment be damned, made the thirteen years of Prohibition one of the most fascinating eras of American history – but that is a story for another day.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David – Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview (1981)

Behr, Edward – Prohibition: Thirteen Yeas That Changed America (1996)

Burns, Eric – The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (2003)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Anti Saloon League

Encyclopedia Britannica – Prohibition

Encyclopedia Britannica – Temperance Movement

Foster, Gaines M. – Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality (2002)

Kobler, John – Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (1973)

Murdoch, Catherine Gilbert – Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870 – 1940 (1998)

New York Times, January 19th, 2019 – How the Klan Fueled Prohibition

Ohio History Central – Temperance Movement

Orkent, Daniel – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010)

PBS – Prohibition: Anti Saloon League

Sismondo, Christine – America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (2011)

Smithsonian Magazine, December 27th, 2017 – Three Things to Know About Radical Prohibitionist Carrie A. Nation

Walsh, Victor A., Journal of American Ethnic History vol. 10 no. 1-2 (Fall 1990 – Winter 1991) – Drowning the Shamrock: Drink, Teetotalism and the Irish Catholics of Gilded Age Pittsburgh

Wikipedia – Prohibition in the United States

Smithsonian Magazine – The Modern Craft Cocktail Movement Got Its Start During Prohibition

Paste Magazine – The 1800s: When Americans Drank Whiskey Like it was Water

History – 7 Things You Might Not Know About the Women’s Suffrage Movement

BBC – Prohibition: US Activists Fight for Temperance 100 Years On

Bill of Rights Institution – Was Prohibition a Success or a Failure?

Constitution Daily – Five Interesting Facts About Prohibition’s End In 1933

Vine Pair – For Some States, Prohibition Didn’t End When the 21st Amendment Passed