There are many myths about Prohibition. To start with it was not illegal to own alcohol during Prohibition. If you purchased spirits before Prohibition began there was nothing illegal about owning those spirits. It was not illegal to drink alcohol during Prohibition. There were laws against public intoxication, but there was no law against you enjoying your legally owned alcohol. What was illegal was the manufacture and sale of alcohol. If you ran out of your’ legally owned bourbon and you wanted to get more you only had one legal option. You could go to the doctor and get a prescription for one pint of 100 proof spirits for medicinal use. You could get a prescription every 10 days and there were a wide variety of ailments that were treated with spirits. Stomach ache, head ache, cough, fever, muscle aches and of course “female problems” are just a few of the ailments discussed on the boxes of Prohibition era spirits.
The other option was to get in touch with the local bootlegger. This was illegal but many people thought the law an unfair law that deserved to be broken. The illegal option also carried with it many dangers. The alcohol in the bottle was rarely good spirits bottled by a legal distiller. Most often it came from illicit stills from distillers of varying qualifications. The spirit bought from a bootlegger rarely was aged for an extended period of time and often tasted nasty. Thus the popularity of the cocktail grew during Prohibition as people tried to make these bad tasting spirits taste better by adding sugar and other flavors. In many cases it was also dangerous to drink bootlegged spirits. The high wood alcohol content affected the nerves of the drinker often giving them the “jackleg” and sometimes causing blindness or death.
Prohibition hurt the American economy. The government felt the pinch immediately as they lost the tax revenue from the legal sales of spirits. This includes not only the federal government but also the state and local governments. With distilleries and breweries closed, many people were left without jobs manufacturing alcoholic beverages, but the industries that supported the manufacturing were also hurt. Glass bottles, labels, shipping, advertising and more than any other, grain farmers. In the mid-1920s grain prices fell to a point that farmers were burning their crops in the field because it would cost more to harvest than they could get for the grain. Prices would have been higher if they had brewers and distillers competing for these grains.
Prohibition also caused a lot of people on the distribution side of the business to lose their livelihood. The local saloons and taverns were closed. Liquor stores were forced out of business. All of these people had to find a new way to make a living. With these businesses closed, many parts of the city found that they had trouble filling these empty buildings and another stream of tax revenue declined. Liquor sales were still happening but it was only the criminal element of society that was profiting from these sales. It was costing the city more as the crime rate increased.
By 1933 it was quite clear that the 18th Amendment was a failure. This was the government’s first and only attempt at social engineering by taking away a freedom from the American citizens. The 21st Amendment passed on December 5th, 1933 ending Prohibition and restoring to Americans the right to purchase legal alcohol. Be sure to celebrate Repeal Day on December 5th every year!
Photos Courtesy of The Filson Historical Society