Welcome to my blog, aka my place to comment and reflect on things I find inspiring, amusing, irritating, or baffling. When I was young, my Stanford PhD, former physics professor, software engineer father used to help me with my math homework, and I, being mentally deficient in all things math, could never quite get it. He would constantly say to me, "Jill, it's not rocket science." (Did I mention the PhD was in Aeronautics and Astronautics??) So I thought it would be an appropriate title for this blog because everything I write about is, indeed, not rocket science.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Mini History Lesson: Prohibition

I recently had to do a history-related writing sample, so I thought I'd copy and paste and do another mini history lesson. Prohibition is a fun topic, right? If you're interested in this subject, Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary film series is excellent, particularly parts 2 and 3. 

In 1919, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, or The Volstead Act (also known as Prohibition), which banned the sale, manufacture, and distribution of alcohol.  Prohibition was a complex societal reaction to America’s changing cultural landscape.  Increases in immigration, industrialization, and urbanization brought vices such as prostitution, sexual promiscuity, crime, and of course, excessive drinking.  Prohibition gained traction from the progressive reform movements of the early twentieth century and was founded upon nativism, worries about societal disorder, growing fears of unruly and immoral immigrants, anti-Catholic sentiment, and women who were fed up with their men coming home drunk and abusing them.

Anti-saloon sentiment was widespread among business leaders, progressive reform organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, and middle-class Protestants, all of whom believed that society’s ills could be pointed in one direction: to the saloons and those who drank at saloons, who were predominately working-class immigrants.  Business leaders hoped prohibition would help control their workforce, which would no longer be impaired by alcohol; middle-class Protestants thought it would help control the unruly immigrant community and impose order and cultural unity; and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (and other women’s and Christian organizations) thought it would improve the quality of women’s lives in the home.  Fears of drunken men visiting saloons and brothels and bringing venereal diseases into the home filled the heads of well-intentioned reformers trying to protect innocent women and children.    


As anyone familiar with old-time gangster movies or the show Boardwalk Empire knows, Prohibition was grossly ineffective and widely ignored.  Although alcohol consumption did decrease by as much as 30%, there were many unintended consequences, the largest of which was the rise of organized crime; organized crime existed before Prohibition, but flourished after it.  Prohibition cemented the gangster’s place in American history – Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, George Remus, and Lucky Luciano gained their notoriety during the Prohibition era.  Bootleggers, the name given to those who illegally smuggled alcohol, formed an underground network, producing, distributing, and selling alcohol to thirsty Americans all over the United States.  Gangs became more organized and more violent and speakeasies (illegal bars) cropped up everywhere, having the reverse effect upon society that prohibitionists had intended: more crime, vice, and social disorder. 


Enforcement of the law was laughable; corrupt politicians, police, and prohibition agents abounded, their pockets lined with cash by the people they were supposed to be arresting.  Local police were largely uninterested in enforcing the law, which left enforcement up to understaffed and underfunded federal agents, who did not have the manpower to enforce the law on an individual basis and were up against well-organized and violent gangs.  As the decade wore on, millions of Americans continued to drink and unapologetically defy the law while gangsters capitalized on their unquenchable thirst and became millionaires.


Prohibition was a hot political topic, and candidates’ stance on the issue was an important factor in determining elections; Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 partly because of his promise to repeal Prohibition.  The Great Depression made Prohibition even less popular, and as time passed, Americans became increasingly disillusioned by the law.  Ultimately, many Americans did not believe that their defiance of the law was a problem, and they didn’t want their behavior regulated by the government.  The United States government agreed that it was a lost cause, and Prohibition ended in 1933, with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, the first amendment to ever repeal a previous amendment.  

1 comment:

  1. Yay, another history lesson! I totally agree with you that the most recent season of Boardwalk Empire is disappointing... but I still love it for teaching me all about this fascinating period in American history. I wouldn't know anything about Prohibition, the Volstead Act, the Women's Temperance League, or any of the gangsters you named above if it weren't for that show. I love the 1920s and 30s. I wonder if the new Gatsby movie is going to be any good.

    Where are your posts for 2013, Jill Jill?

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