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Prohibition: A Timeline of Alcohol Use in the United States


2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Prohibition in the United States. From 1920 – 1933 the 18th amendment made the transport, production, and sale of alcohol illegal. A strong temperance culture started in the mid-1800s, and the early 1900s prohibitionists increased the pressure on Congress to place a federal ban on alcohol. The temperance movement was a social and political movement in the 19th century and early 20th century that believed alcohol was responsible for society’s ills, and called for moderation and abstinence of alcohol. The prohibitionist movement was further fueled by honourable beliefs such as income savings, reducing domestic violence and improving family life. It is important to note that while Prohibition made alcohol transport and sale illegal, alcohol consumption was still legal.

Alcohol Consumption Before Prohibition

As the Midwest was settled in the late 1700s and early 1800s, large volumes of corn started being grown. Farmers soon began to realize that converting corn to whiskey was extremely cheap, and significantly more profitable. By the 1820s, whiskey was cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk. The number of distilleries increased five-fold in the late 1700s, and as a result of cheap whiskey and easy access, American consumption soared in the pre-prohibition era. In the early to mid-1800s, the United States was a thirsty nation.

By 1830, the per capita consumption of alcohol hit a staggering 3.5 gallons (straight ethanol or the equivalent of 8.75 gallons of standard 80 proof liquor), approximately 45% higher than current consumption rates. There was a drinking culture during this time and Americans took advantage of every occasion to indulge. George Washington had a still on his farm, John Adams often started his day with hard cider, Thomas Jefferson had a renowned wine collection and made rye whiskey from his crops, James Madison had a pint of whiskey a day, and American soldiers received 4oz of whiskey as part of their daily rations.

Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition

The early years of prohibition seemed as though they were a success. Alcohol consumption dropped from a staggering 3.5 gallons per year to right around 1 gallon per year. During the early prohibition years, enforcement was the responsibility of the Internal Revenue Agency (IRS) but later became the responsibility of the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prohibition. There were early declines in drunkenness and a 30% drop in alcohol consumption. However, people found other ways of getting booze, and consumption of alcohol rates returned to pre-prohibition period levels by the late 1920s.

Organized crime has this era to thank for giving them their start as people looked to bootlegged alcohol and the black market to get their fix. Al Capone made a staggering $60 Million annually from bootleg operations and speakeasies (stores and nightclubs selling illegal alcohol). Other sources of alcohol during prohibition included informal production (moonshine and ‘bathtub gin’), sacramental wine for religious purposes resulted in an increase in questionable priests and rabbis, drug stores could sell ‘medicinal whiskey’ for everything from toothaches to the flu, ‘patients’ could legally buy booze from a pharmacy every ten days with a physicians prescription, and winemakers and brewers sold kits that people could ferment at home.

Alcohol Consumption After Prohibition

As prohibition continued, the costs of law enforcement increased and prison populations began to skyrocket. In the late 1920s, the great depression started, and the federal government began to recognize that they could generate significant tax revenues by legalizing alcohol, much like cannabis today. Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for election on the promise of repealing Prohibition and won a landslide majority victory. FDR’s victory marked the end for Prohibition as the 21st amendment was adopted by Congress in 1933.

In 1934, the year after Prohibition ended, alcohol consumption remained at approximately 1 gallon per year. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that alcohol consumption hit its peak. Since the 1980s, alcohol consumption has fluctuated and today, we remain close to pre-prohibition levels though consumption is not quite what it was back then. This is likely due in large part to inflation and a generally different perspective on alcohol.

Final Thoughts

Prohibition was a significant period in American history. It was sparked by the temperance movement in the early 1900s, led to a rise in criminal organizations, and helped spark the end of the great depression. Regardless of whether the prohibition was a success, it questioned the attitudes and beliefs surrounding alcohol and as a result, we are much more aware of the dangers and effects of alcohol. Alcohol abuse was not a consideration before prohibition like it is today. By examining the history and walking down memory lane, people can start to see how these attitudes have changed and how far we have come. It is by examining where society was that we gain a better picture of where society is.


Image by Annalise Batista from Pixabay