Photographs Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
President Herbert Hoover called it the “noble experiment.” Many Americans, a majority by 1933, called it silly. In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment and the National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) made it illegal to “manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess” intoxicating beverages. The actions of many Americans from 1920-1933 showed that alcohol was so important to their culture that it was worth risking life, liberty and property. Or, as Homer Simpson observed: “Prohibition! They tried that in the movies and it didn’t work!”
Alcohol arrived with the early settlers—our current use of the term “puritan” ignores their daily use of ale. However, concern about its effects came on the same boat. In Massachusetts, a scarlet letter D was used to mark habitual drunkards. In 1851, Maine became the first state to outlaw alcohol consumption, though the law had several loopholes. Leaders in Minnesota and Wisconsin were inspired by the example and soon passed similar laws, though Minnesota’s was tossed out by the territorial Supreme Court, and Wisconsin’s was vetoed by the governor.
After the Civil War, radicals like Carrie Nation became well-known distractions. The Prohibition Party was not successful, but the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League made the difference. The WCTU was often the first social organization for women in many cities and was so influential the birthday of its founder, Emma Willard, became an official school holiday in several states including Wisconsin. The Anti-Saloon League is often considered the first modern lobbying group, supporting politicians from any party as long as they voted properly.
The ASL also changed the narrative from drink itself to the saloon. The saloon, bar, tavern, or “sample room” was a common feature of both rural and urban life but was more essential in the city. Factory workers living in cramped tenements had nowhere to go for recreation, so the saloon became the only place to meet outside of work. However, for every reputable saloon there were more that were centers for gambling, prostitution, crime, and corrupt politics. Activists were particularly concerned about the habit of sending a child with a pail down to the saloon to get his father some beer, a practice called “rushing the growler.”
“Drys” demanded all levels of government enact their wishes. Some cities went dry or limited saloons to certain parts of town, creating bar districts that can still be seen today. County-option votes hoped that the virtuous farmers in the countryside could out-vote the city folk. Several states declared for prohibition well before the constitutional amendment, including North and South Dakota, which created a thriving market for alcohol in cities such as East Grand Forks, Minnesota. National prohibition might have taken longer were it not for the anti-German propaganda triggered by American entry into World War I. Not only should the grain and manpower used for beer or liquor be used for the war effort, but brewers were suspected of being German sympathizers who would send their profits to the Kaiser. Wartime prohibition was established first, followed by the passage and surprisingly quick ratification of the 18th Amendment. America officially went dry on January 16, 1920, though production, sales, and consumption of beverages containing alcohol had been prohibited in most places well before that.