On January 16, 1919, the 18th amendment was ratified and went into effect one year later on January 17, 1920.  A century later, the question is, “How did this happen?” There are a lot of factors leading to Prohibition that include religious and social reasons, but here I am going to focus on the industry and their response to the Prohibition movement. 

The distilling industry in the late 19th and early 20th century was not well organized. There was infighting between straight whiskey distillers and rectifiers over the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that led to the “What is Whiskey?” question that was not settled until 1909 with the Taft Decision. The response to the growing temperance movement by the distilling industry was fractured and sporadic. There were distillers speaking to the subject but most of the written accounts I have found were speeches to groups such as warehouse workers or distilling associations. They were preaching to the choir and not the general public. Not an effective way to defend their product. 

George Garvin Brown did write a defense in the form of the book The Holy Bible Repudiates “Prohibition” in 1910. This was a collection of quotes from the Bible that defended the use of alcohol. This was a good effort, but once again, it was not widely distributed to the general public.

What was effective in staving off Prohibition was the response from the beer industry. Beer companies owned most of the nation’s bars and saloons. They defended selling and drinking beer in saloons as part of the German heritage of the beer industry. To attack saloons was to attack German culture and there were a lot of German-Americans that took offense.

The other defense was the fact that there is a tax on distilled spirits that dates back to the American Civil War. The tax on distilled spirits was paying over 50% of the Federal Government’s budget.  To prohibit the distilled spirits industry was to bankrupt the United States government. The distillers felt secure in this fact and felt no need to worry since the government would not kill the goose who lays the golden eggs.

The first sign that the distillers were in trouble was in 1913 when the states ratified the 16th amendment to the constitution creating an income tax. This effort was supported by the prohibitionists because the new source of income made the government free from dependency on the excise tax on distilled spirits. Not long after the 16th amendment passed, Congress started to change the excise tax laws to make it harder on distilleries and more expensive to the consumers, hoping to decrease the sale of distilled spirits.

The fatal blow came in 1917 when the United States entered the Great War on the side of the Allies. It became fashionable to attack German culture and the beer industry and saloons. There were other social reasons for this happening – there was resentment by rural America against cities and the growing immigrant population. Immigrants were more often from cultures and religions that drank at pubs and taverns in their home country and met in their local saloon in the cities. The war simply gave focus to the attack on the saloons. 

By 1918, Congress had passed first, “Wartime Prohibition” to force distilleries into making only industrial alcohol to support the war and prohibited beverage alcohol production. Soon afterwards, the 18th amendment was passed through Congress and sent to the states. It was passed on January 16, 1919 and Prohibition went into effect a year later. 

Prohibition could have been avoided if the industry had done more to prevent it. There were things they could have done to police their own actions, particularly in saloons. They should have done more to appeal to the general public. These were hard earned lessons that today’s industry still remembers. Prohibitionists are still around, but the industry of today will never take their existence for granted again.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller