The years Prohibition was in effect are some of the most interesting to study in American History. Surprisingly, there is a lot of depth in this subject, from the reason why the 18th Amendment was passed and ratified, to the very weak and almost impossible enforcement, and finally the repeal of the amendment in 1933. There is also the effect that Prohibition had on the Great Depression that still fascinates economists and historians today.
The 18th Amendment was first proposed in December 1917. In January 1920, the amendment was ratified and went into effect. It was a relatively small portion of the population that actively pushed to ban the sale and transportation of alcohol. For example, the most famous group that pushed for a national act of Prohibition was the National Temperance Society. It was founded in 1826, and by 1935 it had around 1.5 million members. The population of the U.S. was around 14 million at the time.
But there was surprisingly strong backing for such an amendment by the 1910s. The sale of alcohol had always been contentious, all the way from the time of independence, right up until the 18th Amendment was passed. The state of Pennsylvania passed harsh taxes on whiskey leading to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791, and taxes thereafter became a very popular way for temperance supporters to tax “sinners” in hopes of making alcohol consumption less prevalent.
By the end of World War II, the temperance movement had reached a peak of support in the United States. With the influx of immigrants after the Civil War (and even before), politicians often frequented saloons and public houses (pubs) to try to garner votes from immigrants. This caused a lot of people in the temperance movement to see saloons as sources of political corruption.
By the late 1920s, and into 1930, Prohibition was seen almost nationwide as a complete and utter failure. The main reason for this is that the U.S., by that time, was too large to enforce such a ban on a substance that had been so common up until the 18th was passed. The use and consumption of alcohol were just too prevalent to ban, and too well-liked by too many people. The country was also deep into the Great Depression, and people cared less and less about temperance, and more about jobs and feeding their families.
Prohibition caused speakeasies to open up all around the country where illegal alcohol was sold. By 1925, New York City alone had nearly 30,000 speakeasy locations, and that is a low estimate. With the size of the country, it was too easy for bootleggers to bring in alcohol or to brew it, then sell it in any number of places. Prohibition ultimately failed and was repealed in 1933.
But along the way, the U.S. government tried to come up with a way to enforce the new amendment. One of those methods was truly horrific and led to at least 10,000 deaths before the repeal in 1933.