Wet vs Dry: how prohibition fractured America

The “noble experiment” of prohibition was anything but, says food historian Richard Foss; it fractured communities and resulted in nationwide crime. Here, Foss explores how the movement was fuelled by anti-immigration sentiment as much as morality, and led to deep divisions, from race to religion…

New York City police watching agents pour liquor into a sewer

The federal ban most commonly known as prohibition, established across the United States in January 1920, prevented most varieties of alcohol from being made, transported or sold except for medical reasons. It would remain in force for 13 years. Yet, prohibition in the USA didn’t begin and end when most people think it did; its history has much deeper roots, and in some parts of the country it still hasn’t ended.

The ban also wasn’t enacted for the reasons many might expect, and though it was a national law, enforcement was rigorous in some places and non-existent in others. As we enter the 100th year since prohibition went into effect, the history of the ways in which the movement divided the country and shattered social norms deserves some scrutiny.

The federal ban most commonly known as prohibition, established across the United States in January 1920, prevented most varieties of alcohol from being made, transported or sold except for medical reasons. It would remain in force for 13 years. Yet, prohibition in the USA didn’t begin and end when most people think it did; its history has much deeper roots, and in some parts of the country it still hasn’t ended.

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The ban also wasn’t enacted for the reasons many might expect, and though it was a national law, enforcement was rigorous in some places and non-existent in others. As we enter the 100th year since prohibition went into effect, the history of the ways in which the movement divided the country and shattered social norms deserves some scrutiny.

Medicinal drinking: alcohol in the early USA

When Europeans first settled in America in the 17th century and into the 18th, alcohol was regarded as not merely a beverage, but a medicine. Many of the country’s founding fathers were enthusiastic consumers of beer and rum: George Washington owned a distillery; Thomas Jefferson was a wine enthusiast; and in their era, anyone who didn’t drink alcohol would have been regarded as peculiar. Late into the 19th century beer and cider were the everyday drink of most Americans, and wine production was gaining in quality and quantity. How, then, did the prohibition movement, which was politically insignificant as late as the 1860s, grow to be so powerful?

Many immigrant groups were vilified as ignorant, violent, opposed to democratic institutions, and, crucially, as drunks

The answer has less to do with alcohol than with some of the people who were drinking it: Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Those immigrants arrived in large numbers in the 1840s and were labelled as enemy infiltrators by white Protestant leaders playing on popular prejudices. They were also accused of having greater loyalty to the Pope than to any government. They were vilified in print and caricatured by cartoonists as ignorant, violent, opposed to democratic institutions, and, crucially, as drunks. Germans were portrayed as swilling lager beer, a drink quite unlike the dark ales favoured by the original colonists, and the Irish were depicted as being addicted to distilled liquor. Anti-Semitism was a factor too, as Jews used wine as a sacrament and some owned major distilleries.

A cartoon depicting anti-immigrant sentiments
A cartoon depicting anti-immigrant sentiments, c1850, which fuelled nativists’ calls for prohibition. (Image by Alamy)

In the 1840s, radicalised white Protestants evolved into a political force popularly called the Know-Nothing Party, which had some electoral success and attracted more than a million members. As Know-Nothings became mayors of major cities like Boston and Philadelphia, they ordered that saloons – the gathering places for immigrant communities – be closed on Sundays, their only day of rest. In some places brewing lager beer, but not other beverages, was made illegal, or licence fees were raised to exorbitant levels. This prompted protests like the 1855 Lager Beer Riot in Chicago, in which one person was killed and the police only quelled protesters by wheeling loaded cannons into the streets.

Polarising politics

The Know-Nothing movement faded in the late 1850s as the slavery question overwhelmed other political considerations, and most members joined the Republican Party. After the American Civil War (1861–65) the Republican Party became dominant in national politics and it adopted the nativist agenda. Republican ‘Drys’ dominated the more rural and Protestant northern and western states, while the Democratic party became known as the party of ‘Wets’, broadly consisting of city dwellers, Catholic immigrants, and southerners. Of course there were exceptions, places where local politics produced Dry Democrats and Wet Republicans, but the divide in the country was broadly regional, and religious.

In 1884, a prominent Republican named Reverend Samuel Burchard summed this up in a tirade characterising the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion”. In doing so he managed to insult drinkers, Catholics, and southerners in one phrase. He made that statement when introducing Republican presidential candidate James G Blaine in New York City, which had a huge Irish Catholic population. Blaine’s failure to repudiate Burchard’s comment was widely blamed for him narrowly losing the state and consequently the election.

Republican ‘Drys’ dominated the more rural and Protestant northern and western states, while the Democratic party became known as the party of ‘Wets’

Where Drys governed, they often enacted prohibition on a state- or county-wide basis, and by 1913 more than half of Americans resided in places where alcohol sales were restricted. After 1916, as the country moved towards entry into the First World War, more states enacted prohibition as a “temporary wartime measure” to ensure that grain used for brewing and distilling could instead be devoted to the military. This fuelled the push toward a federal prohibition.

The Senatorial elections of 1918 were crucial to the cause of prohibition, and they took place in an atmosphere unlike any previous campaigns in the country. Democratic president Woodrow Wilson had alienated America’s German community by supporting the harsh post-war penalties on that country and had enraged Irish-Americans with his support for Great Britain as Irish independence loomed. Both groups sat out the election or changed sides in droves, at a time when fear of foreigners was further inflamed by the success of communism in Russia. Republicans were helped by the fact that women were newly eligible to vote. The women’s suffrage movement had been organised through a network of Protestant churches that also had an anti-immigrant bias, and the two movements merged in the electorate.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States. (Photo by Tony Essex/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The failure of ‘Wets’ to organise as effectively against the prohibition movement was partly down to the fact that many in the beer and wine industry thought prohibition would only apply to “intoxicating liquors”, as was stated in an early draft of the bill in 1917. By the time winemakers realised their businesses would be affected too, it was too late to muster wide support. Low literacy and voting rates among new immigrants, some of whom spoke limited English in an era before multilingual ballots, may also have contributed to their low turnout.

As a result of all these factors, the Republicans came to power with prohibition at the centre of their agenda. So it was that a programme only a minority of Americans actually supported was enacted in 1919 and became law when ratified by the states in 1920.

Race, religion, and the Klan

America in the prohibition era was vastly different from the many diverse and multicultural areas it is home to today. Many towns across the country were founded by church groups who had moved there en masse and many more were composed of immigrants who clustered where their language would be understood and their traditions preserved. Sometimes one community might support prohibition unanimously, while a neighbouring town did everything it could to thwart it.

An illegal distillery photographed during prohibition
An illegal distillery photographed during prohibition. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Officials at the Los Angeles port community of Long Beach, which was largely Protestant, were noted for zealous and violent enforcement that included destructive raids of homes and businesses. But neighbouring San Pedro had a large Italian and Croatian community that used fishing boats to smuggle liquor from ships that waited past a three-mile limit from the shore. Many Italians also used their home winemaking and distilling skills to supplement their income and add to the river of imported booze. Much of this imported alcohol was distributed to greater Los Angeles or consumed surreptitiously, but some was sold openly at nightclubs like Shanghai Red’s on Beacon Street, a red-light district of sex and sin where local police scarcely dared to tread. This pattern was repeated across the country and was sometimes inflamed by politicians who launched crusades against dissidents of either stripe.

The Drys were abetted by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which exploded out of the rural south and made a bid to legitimise their white supremacist views as champions of prohibition. They were particularly successful in Indiana, where members were a majority in the state assembly in 1925, and in California, where Klan members dominated many local governments. In the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood in 1922, a KKK mob attacked the home of a Hispanic family accused of bootlegging. The Klan leader who led the mob was shot after pulling a pistol on a police officer, and when his hood was removed it was discovered that he was the city constable. But when a case against 37 of the Klan rioters went to trial in front of a local jury they were found not guilty, despite abundant evidence.

The Ku Klux Klan.
The ‘Drys’ were abetted by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, which exploded out of the rural south. (Photo by G W Romer/Getty Images)

Flouting the law

Race and religion were inextricably bound up with prohibition’s enforcement, since police forces throughout the country were overwhelmingly white and included Klan sympathisers. Many used their positions of power to terrorise or extract bribes from African-American and immigrant communities. The difficulty of separating genuine zeal for enforcing the law from routine bullying made it impossible to stop this behaviour, and, along with rampant bribery by organised crime syndicates, helped diminish respect for the authorities in many areas.

So much illegal alcohol was smuggled through New Orleans that the price of liquor actually went down after it was prohibited

Elsewhere, there were places where even the highest authorities flouted the law. When Louisiana Governor Huey Long was asked by the Mayor of Atlanta what he was doing to enforce prohibition, he replied: “Not a damn thing”. This was a popular option in a state that was overwhelmingly Catholic, had a large immigrant population, and was dependent on tourism. So much illegal alcohol was smuggled through New Orleans that the price of liquor actually went down after it was prohibited.

The effect on the economy of border cities was particularly drastic. Almost every upscale restaurant in San Diego, California, closed, since Tijuana, Mexico, was only 15 miles away and liquor flowed freely there. In El Paso, Texas, a giant saloon and gambling hall opened only a few yards from the border, to the dismay of local restaurateurs who lost business. To the north, rum runners in Detroit drove across winter-frozen rivers to Canada and fuelled a thriving regional trade. It was a pattern repeated all along the sparsely patrolled 5,525-mile border with Canada.

A Mexico town during prohibition
The effect of prohibition on the economy of border cities was particularly drastic. This photo shows numerous cantinas in a Mexico town near the US border. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The decline and legacy of prohibition

As prohibition continued, increased organised crime and police corruption became obvious, weakening support for the law even in areas where abstinence had previously been popular. And the economic effect of prohibition was magnified by the onset of the 1929 Depression. Prior to prohibition, taxes on alcohol had made up almost a quarter of the federal budget, and amid the Depression the loss of that revenue was ever more important.

In 1933, prohibition finally yielded to practicality. Passed in February 1933 and ratified on 5 December 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th and so ended prohibition in the United States.

Some effects of prohibition lingered on for years, while others were permanent. The California wine industry, which had been making world-class products, was decimated, with lush old growth vines replaced with inferior varieties suited to home winemaking or making raisins. Both the vines and the business took decades to recover.

Beer was badly affected also: several regional beer styles died out; for instance, nobody today knows exactly how to make the once-popular flaked maize lager or even what it tasted like (though hobbyists and brewpubs have attempted to recreate it). The big commercial breweries that replaced the thousands of local operations made only a few styles, and the expertise in all others was lost.

In some places prohibition didn’t actually end in 1933, because individual municipalities enacted it on a local basis. There are still more than 200 counties in the USA that ban alcohol sales, including some that host substantial alcohol production. Lynchburg, Tennessee is home to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, where more than 500 people produce 16 million cases a year of a beverage that can’t legally be consumed anywhere near their facilities.

How different would America have been without prohibition?

It is impossible to say how America would have been different had prohibition not been enacted. Anti-immigrant and anti-alcohol sentiment would still have existed, but perhaps without the vehemence that occurred as neighbouring cities and regions became warring camps. Organised crime would probably have been more local and less successful, since alcohol distribution funded the majority of their activities during the prohibition era. They certainly would have lost their glamour as suppliers of ‘forbidden fruit’, and perhaps there would have been more support for cracking down on gangsters.

Dr Martin Luther King famously asserted “You can’t legislate morality”, but there has never been a shortage of people who try.

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Richard Foss is a journalist and food historian based in California. He is the author of Rum: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2012).