Prohibition made it illegal for Americans to make, sell or transport alcohol. For many years, there had been groups in the USA campaigning against alcohol. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, supported by many other Americans with strong Christian beliefs, had argued that alcohol led to drunkenness and violence, and brought poverty and hunger to families when men spent all their wages on liquor. Such people believed that alcohol undermined the decent American values of hard work and respect for the family and for God.
Eighteen states had already banned the sale of alcohol, but in January 1918 the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited all Americans from buying, selling or transporting liquor. The Volstead Act backed up the 18th Amendment by defining liquor as any drink containing more than ½% alcohol and by setting penalties for anyone breaking the new law. Prohibition came into force in January 1920.
Right from the start, most Americans opposed
Prohibition, and were prepared to break the law by continuing to drink liquor. The smuggling of alcohol from other countries soon became big business: rum was brought by sea from the West Indies and whisky was smuggled across the border from Canada. Such smuggling and the illegal transport of alcohol around the USA was known as ‘bootlegging’. Other enterprising Americans made money by producing ‘moonshine’, liquor which was illegally manufactured in secret breweries and stills.
In every town and city, secret bars called ‘speakeasies’ were established in the back rooms and cellars of houses. Illegal drinkers would gain entry to a speakeasy by using a secret password or a coded knock. Before Prohibition there had been about 15,000 legal bars in New York. By 1930, there were about 32,000 of these illegal speakeasies.
Enforcement of Prohibition proved to be impossible.…