The Making of Prohibition -
Part I: The History of Political and Social Forces at Work for Prohibition in America

By Ben Jankowski
Republished from BrewingTechniques' November/December 1994.

Although the Prohibition of the 1920s seems like an anomolous blip in the history of an otherwise accepting society, a look to the past reveals recurring efforts to limit public access to beer, wine, and spirits. This first in a series of articles about prohibitionary forces in America traces the roots of Prohibition from colonial days.

Prohibition is a familiar topic of conversation among pub and microbrewers. The current laws that govern the beer industry are a direct result of the last prohibition experiment, so it is important to understand this period well. Some brewers are apprehensive that new forms of beer and spirits restrictions will be legislated upon them before the end of this century. Because their livelihoods - and beer - are at stake, careful consideration of the present political environment makes more than casual conversation.

Currently, some federal agencies and legislators are contemplating formal curbs on alcohol consumption, including beer. Restrictive consumption may be accomplished through increasing taxes on beer to pay for federal programs, abolishing advertisements, facilitating - intentionally or not - the flow of misleading health statistics to the public, and outright prohibition. Many of these methods have been tested on the tobacco industry with some success. It is therefore important for home, pub, and microbrewers to understand the events that have shaped their craft and the beer industry and the direction in which our future might be headed.

This article is the first of two in a series on Prohibition. Part I deals with the events leading up to Prohibition - from its precedence in early colonial history to the events leading to the final dropping of the gavel on the Volstead Act in 1919. Part II will cover Repeal, the events since that time, and the current political climate.


Some form of limitation on spirits has been part of this continent's history since the first European settlers arrived. Originally, these limitations were imposed to prevent drunkenness among the colonists. An interesting theme that occurred throughout the temperance movement is the notion that despair promotes drinking. This correlation certainly had credence with the colonists, for whom survival was a constant issue.

By the time Captain Sedgewick established the first brewery in Massachusetts in 1637, spirits provided governments revenue-enhancement opportunities. Legislators enacted a rule that "No person shall remain in any inn or victualing house, 'longer than necessary, upon payne of 20 Schillings for every offense'" (1). Brewers and distillers were also taxed to gain revenue for the colonies. In 1644, New York Colony approved an excise tax on beer, wine, and brandy. In 1645, Massachusetts Colony restricted drinkers by declaring, "More than half a pint at one time is excess, and tippling, 'above ye space of half an hour'" (1) was forbidden.

In 1733, the Georgia colony had the dubious distinction of being the first colony to establish a prohibition edict. Despite General James Ogelthorpe's efforts to enforce a dry colony, he was thwarted by bootleggers from the Carolinas. The edict was rescinded in 1742.


During the post-revolutionary period, religious groups began to espouse a temperance stance within their congregations. Methodists and Presbyterians asked for total abstinence of their members. By the close of the 18th century, these religious groups would reach beyond their flocks to request temperance from individual states and counties. They believed that social diseases had their roots in alcohol.

During the infancy of the United States, the agrarian way of life was standard to every state. It is therefore not surprising that some of the first temperance movements originated on the farm. These movements were spawned by strong religious beliefs coupled with the notion that consumption of spirits produced sloth and corruption. In 1789, the farmers of Litchfield, Connecticut, began the first loose association of a temperance movement by prohibiting workers from drinking alcohol.

Cities were not exempt from temperance. The American Temperance Society was founded in Boston in 1826. Boston and other cities were fertile grounds for the movement, as the beginning of the industrial revolution spelled long hours and meager wages for factory workers. These conditions led many men to taverns or saloons to find comfort and, perhaps, to squander the week's wages. Later in the century, the suffrage movements would capitalize on this theme to promote prohibition.

The organized temperance societies set legislators into motion to pass prohibitionary laws. Thanks at least in part to the presence and activities of these societies, the Oregon Territory enacted the first prohibition law in 1843, but it was repealed in 1848. Maine was the first state to have a prohibition law in 1846, but this legislation was defeated several times throughout the next decade. Delaware was the next state to enact a prohibition law, followed by New Hampshire, Vermont, and Michigan. At the end of the 19th century, six states carried prohibition laws.

It was also during the 19th century that the emerging unions dictated abstinence from alcohol. The unions offered sobriety as a quid pro quo for safer conditions and an eight-hour work day. The Knights of Labor forbade membership to anyone connected with liquor traffic (2). The railroad unions, spearheaded by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, strictly promoted temperance among its rank and file. The unions saw temperance not only as a means of self promotion, but as leverage to improve working conditions and wages.

Prohibitionists even challenged the content of beer. In 1890, the Agriculture Department found 28 samples of beer to be "adulterated." Congressman E.J. Turner of Kansas introduced a bill that would have forced brewers using glucose, grape sugar, starch, corn, rice, soda, bicarbonate of soda, aloes, or any other substitute for hops to designate the product "adulterated beer." The bill terminated in hearings.


Although much recent publicity has focused on Carrie Nation and the Women's Christian Temperance Union as the catalyst to 20th century Prohibition, it was actually the Anti-Saloon League - founded in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, by the Reverend Howard Russell - that led the way for a dry nation. Self described as "The church in action against the saloon," the League initially used church services to plead its case and recruited members - and donations - after services.

Part of the success of the League was the nature of its organization: a loose confederation of evangelical churches that crossed denominational boundaries. Baptists, Methodists, and members of the Church of Christ, for example, worked together for the shared cause. The League was also "omnipartisan," working for bipartisan support of its cause. By concentrating on candidates who were favorable to its objectives, regardless of political party, it held the balance in many places and obtained an ever-increasing control over legislative bodies (3). The League retained attorneys to force closure of saloons, influenced the elections of officials whom it favored, and had its own periodical, The American Issue. This barrage of continuous information began to sway public opinion about saloons and about alcohol in general.

Business leaders began to see the benefits of the temperance movement. Besides religious beliefs, their reasoning included the idea that sobriety would increase productivity. Supporters of the League included John D. Rockefeller Sr., Henry Ford, Pierre DuPont, and the Pillsbury family. Future President Herbert Hoover was a strong supporter of the temperance movement. It was through the business community that the League acquired the majority of its donations to fight the saloon. At the height of the movement, between 1910 and 1923, the League collected up to $2 million a year in revenue in support of its agenda (4).

For its part, the saloons and their partners, the brewers who operated through tied houses,* did little to bolster their image. Strictly the domain of males, the saloon was where men met socially. But it was also a place to evade everyday life and the responsibilities that went with it. Fights were common in many saloons, and many of these working class establishments did not know when the patrons had reached their capacity of liquor. For 5 cents one could buy 24-oz schooners of beer, and public drunkenness was not uncommon.

These circumstances provided prime targets for protest by the League and the WCTU. Although 90% of the product dispensed by saloons was beer containing no more than 4% alcohol by volume, the temperance societies made great issue of beer as an alcoholic product. Further, 70-85% of the saloons at the beginning of the 20th century were tied houses. Any difficulties resulting from the saloons were viewed as a direct act of irresponsibility by the brewers themselves.


At the outset, the brewers viewed the temperance movement as a small annoyance. Indeed, there was no reason for the brewers to even listen to temperance societies. Between 1899 and 1914, the capital invested in brewing rose from $415 million to $793 million while the annual value of its product increased from $237 million to $442 million (2). This revenue gave brewers place as the fifth largest industry in the United States. Between 1900 and 1911, annual per capita consumption of alcohol increased from 17.73 gal to 22.81 gal; the majority was beer. These figures meant that brewers were generating close to $1 billion in annual net revenue by 1911.

Being such a large industry gave brewers considerable influence in politics, enabling them to maintain status quo in many of the states in which they operated. Powerful brewers included such brewing families as the Rupperts and Ehrets of New York, the Moerleins of Cincinnatti, and the Buschs and Lemps of St. Louis.

Reforming the saloon was not a priority among brewers for fear of losing profits. Because most saloons were tied to a brewery, it was not uncommon to have a saloon on each street corner in direct competition with each other. Many establishments offered free lunches for coming in, and many saloons disobeyed so-called blue laws, which barred them from opening on Sundays. Adherence to closing times became obfuscated as the pressure to keep the establishment profitable became paramount.

Some from within their own ranks did try to pressure brewers to reform the saloon to comply with temperance advocates. Consultants Hugh Fox and Percy Andrae spoke before the International Brewers' Congress in 1911 and advocated compliance with temperance reformers. Their speech advocated licensing saloonkeepers, closing the saloons in red light districts, and suppressing saloons in dry areas with compensation (4). They believed these measures would triumph over prohibitionists. The brewers' lack of understanding of public sentiment to reforming the saloon at this late date (1911) was the beginning of their slide toward Prohibition.


Originally, the League used its influence at the state level to determine whether a state desired prohibition by using the referendum process. At their convention in 1913, the League openly stated that prohibition should be a national issue and that they would work toward that goal. The person controlling the League at that time was Wayne Wheeler, a temperance man since his college days. It was through Wheeler's perseverance that prohibition entered the national consciousness. Wheeler was also the author of the National Prohibition Act of 1919 (which later became known as the Volstead Act).

Also in 1913, the Webb-Kenyan bill prohibited interstate shipment of alcohol into dry states or regions. Up to this time, no law prohibited beer from being brought into a dry state. President Taft vetoed the bill, but the veto was overridden in Congress.

In 1914, two congressmen had introduced a resolution calling for national prohibition. Known as the Hobson-Sheppard Resolution, it called for an amendment to the constitution to outlaw all alcohol in the United States. The resolution passed 197-190 but lacked the two-thirds majority to be enacted. This was still a victory for the League because many dry congressmen were elected in 1914 with the League's influence, and these congressmen voted for the resolution. In addition, 23 states had adopted prohibitionary laws.

When Woodrow Wilson informed Congress that the United States was at war with Germany in 1917, the League wasted no time in targeting the brewing industry as un-American and sympathetic to German causes. To be sure, many Germans who owned breweries were members of the German- American Alliance, a sociopolitical organization founded in 1901 by Dr. Charles Hexamer. Composed of German-born or German-descended citizens, it was dedicated to the furtherance of German Kultur (5). Kaiser Wilhelm even stated that Hexamer was the ruler of all Germans in the United States. The Alliance had two million members.

At the insistence of Wayne Wheeler and the League for unpatriotic activities, the Senate investigated the Alliance. Although the Alliance did display a German flag at conventions, it was because of interference with elections and payoffs to newspapers for crafting anti-prohibition articles (including payment to the Washington Times for $2 million) that the Senate ordered the Alliance to disband in 1918.

A further benefit to prohibitionists was the rationing of foodstuffs for the duration of World War I. Known as the Food Control Bill, it initially gave President Wilson the authority to divert barley from the liquor industry, upon his request. In addition, President Wilson in 1917 limited the alcohol content of malt liquor, except ale and porter, to 2.75% by weight (3). On 1 December 1918, the President exercised his option on the Food Control Bill, prohibiting the use of barley for brewing. Despite all of these restrictions placed upon the brewing industry, their response to reform was too little, too late. By 1916, the brewers recognized the need for some form of revision to the way they were doing business in the saloons. The United States Brewers Association lamented the "false mental association" that coupled the brewers with the worst of the saloons, confessed that for this association they themselves were in large part to blame (6), and offered some form of temperance to the saloon. This belated act of responsibility fell on deaf ears.

The National Prohibition Act became known as the Volstead Act after legislator Andrew Volstead of Minnesota. Volstead merely carried Wayne Wheeler's complete article of prohibition into Congress intact. Debate began on 27 May 1919. With approval it went to the Senate, which passed the resolution. Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution on 10 October 1919 by a vote of 321-70. President Wilson vetoed the Amendment, but Congress overrode his veto.

What had become the unthinkable happened. Complete prohibition was to become effective on 16 January 1920. If we look at the victory the League accomplished, we can see that the strategy they applied was merely to tap into the sentiment of certain groups who influenced political leaders to do their bidding. The average citizen, who was not organized and who favored legal access to beer, wine, and spirits, had no influence with elected leaders. The brewers' belief that temperance would never lead to prohibition led many of them to their demise, never heeding the warning signals that were so clear by World War I.


(1) Ernest H. Cherrington, The Evolution of Prohibition in the United States of America (Patterson Smith Publishing, Montclair, New Jersey, 1920).

(2) James Timberlake, Prohibition and the Progressive Movement 1900-1920 (Atheneum Press, city, state, 1963).

(3) G.L. Peterson, History of the Brewing Industry and Brewing Science in America (publisher, city, state, 1937).

(4) Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition. The Era of Excess (Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1962).

(5) John Kobler, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Da Capo Press Inc., New York, 1973).

(6) Charles Merz, The Dry Decade (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1930).

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