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The Failed Attempt to Ban Alcohol in the 1920s

FILE - A vast array of fine single malt Scotch bottles are seen in a display case at a bar, in Boston, Massachusetts, Dec. 10, 2019.
FILE - A vast array of fine single malt Scotch bottles are seen in a display case at a bar, in Boston, Massachusetts, Dec. 10, 2019.
The Failed Attempt to Ban Alcohol in the 1920s
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Stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus crisis have forced many bars and nightclubs in the United States to close temporarily.

A century ago, bars across the country were also forcibly closed when the Volstead Act became law. The measure made it a crime for Americans to manufacture, sell or transport alcohol. The period when the Volstead Act was the law of the land is known today as Prohibition.

The push to ban alcohol in the U.S. began in the 1850s. Christian women claimed alcohol was turning men into alcoholics. Drinking leads to violence and poverty and destroys families, they said.

So began the social movements against alcohol and women raiding bars to destroy bottles of whiskey. Their actions grew from being a problem for bar workers into a real political movement.

Daniel Okrent wrote the book “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” He told VOA News that brewers and distillers of alcoholic products campaigned hard to defeat anti-alcoholic politicians. Such politicians were popularly known as “drys.” The brewers and distillers fought back hard, even to the point of interfering with elections.

Drinking did decrease in the United States in the first years of Prohibition. But many Americans quickly began ignoring the law.

Businesses known as speakeasies began to open by the hundreds in large cities. Speakeasies were stores or clubs that secretly sold alcohol.

Bathtubs were used for purposes other than washing up. Some people used them to make alcohol.

Wearing large overcoats and high boots became popular because they could easily hide bottles of alcohol. This gave birth to the term “bootlegger.” People also started using walking sticks because the insides of the sticks could be filled with whiskey.

Anyone caught taking a drink quickly claimed the liquid was for “medicinal purposes.”

Many of the people who owned speakeasies and bought and sold whiskey were deeply involved in organized crime. Al Capone, Bugs Moran and Dutch Schultz became household names and extremely rich. There were far more criminals involved in bootlegging than federal officers who tried to enforce the law.

Okrent said it was not long before Prohibition was not taken seriously.

“Anybody could get a drink any time of the day,” he said. “You could walk in at 10 in the morning to get a drink. A 15-year-old could buy a drink. There was no regulatory environment.”

But H.L. Mencken said getting a drink in the city of Baltimore was “very difficult unless you knew a judge or a cop,” noted Okrent. Mencken was an American journalist and cultural critic from that period.

And foreign visitors to the United States thought of Prohibition as unreasonable.

“Winston Churchill — and you can imagine what he thought of Prohibition — came to the U.S. and toured the West in the mid- to late 1920s,” said Okrent. When Churchill arrived in Washington state, the first person who gave him alcohol was a Customs official, he noted.

It was the Great Depression that would kill Prohibition. The U.S. government was struggling, and people suggested taxing alcohol as a way for it to get money.

When President Herbert Hoover attended a game at baseball’s 1931 World Series, the crowd responded with loud boos, with many shouting, “We want beer.”

After Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, it did not take long for Prohibition to end.

The 21st Amendment ended the alcohol ban and drinking became legal again in December 1933.

Today’s legislation on alcohol sales and drinking comes from Prohibition. In addition to taxes, it includes age limits and required closing hours for bars. It also blocks Americans from opening a bar near a religious center or school.

Okrent noted how strange it is that it is harder to get a drink these days, when it is legal, than it was in the 1920s when it was illegal.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Kenneth Schwartz wrote this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

bar - n. a building or room where alcoholic drinks and sometimes food are served

nightclub - n. a place that is open at night, has music, dancing, or a show, and usually serves alcoholic drinks and food

distiller - n. a person or company that produces strong alcoholic drinks (such as whiskey) by distilling them

brewer - n. a person or company that produces beer

bathtub - n. a large and long container in which people take baths or showers

boot - n. a covering usually of leather or rubber for the entire foot and the lower part of the leg

overcoat - n. a long coat that is worn to keep a person warm during cold weather

cop - n. a police officer

tour - n. to travel through different parts of a country or region

boo - n. a sound that people make to show they do not like or approve of someone or something