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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
# Prohibition
Prohibition: When alcohol was banned in America
It was made illegal to buy, sell or manufacture alcohol in 1920 in the United States. Here’s what happened next.

IF YOU LIVED in the United States in the 1920s, and wanted to celebrate with a glass of champagne or rum, you had just a few options open to you: find a speakeasy, or a friend who knew good bootleggers and didn’t fear the law.

From 1920 – 1933, the sale, manufacture and transportation of liquor (alcohol) was banned, just as the Roaring Twenties were about to get swinging. The 80th anniversary of the repeal of the amendment that led to the ban was marked in April of this year, coincidentally as a film about the excess of the age, the Great Gatsby, was about to be released in cinemas.

Pic: SarahDeer/Flickr

Pic: SarahDeer/Flickr

With a rise in drinking levels following the American Revolution, the temperance movement – including groups like the Anti-Saloon League – became concerned. Was alcohol to blame for violence, murders, and all-round bad behaviour?

Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, women played a large role in encouraging people to adopt temperance as a way of life, at a time when they themselves were not afforded the right of suffrage.

However, of course it was not the case that every woman supported the move, as this protest showed: there were plenty of women who wanted their beer back.

An anti-prohibition parade and demonstration in Newark, New Jersey, October 1932. Pic: AP Photo

Pressure from the evangelical Protestant churches and the spread of temperance groups did not go unnoticed by legislators, and the 18th amendment to the US constitution was made in 1919. It came into effect on 16 January 1920, and banned alcohol outright.

The amendment was clarified by the Volstead Act. It set out the terms of the law, which notably allowed people to drink alcohol if it was permitted by a doctor.

A prescription for medicinal liquor. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Did Prohibition work? These Ohio State University statistics appear to show it did reduce the amount of people drinking alcohol - but only for a few years after its repeal.

Pic: AP Photo

Of course, the fact that alcohol was banned meant that it became even more enticing. To get around it, 'speakeasies' (illegal bars) were created and alcohol was smuggled to these secret bars around the country.

The largest distillery ever uncovered in Detroit was raided and prohibition officers are seen inspecting tanks and vats in one part of the plant, in January 1931. Pic: AP Photo

Some people came up with rather enterprising ways to conceal their illicit goods:

Estelle Zemon, left, and an unidentified woman model ways to conceal bottles of rum to get past customs officials during the U.S. alcohol prohibition, March 18, 1931. Pic: AP Photo


Estelle Zemon shows the vest and pant-apron used to conceal bottles of alcohol to deceive border guards during the U.S. alcohol prohibition on March 18, 1931. Pic: AP Photo

Alongside this came the rise of the gangster, with mobster Al Capone being one of the era's most notorious men. There was money to be made in smuggling and selling alcohol, and gangsters were quick to take advantage.

Chicago mobster Al Capone. Pic: AP Photo/File

The threat of the Prohibition agents, who were sent to raid speakeasies and arrest those breaking the law, was not enough of a deterrent.

State police who hunt rum runners during prohibition, in 1924. Pic: AP Photo

This month saw the release of the film the Great Gatsby, the interpretation of the F Scott Fitzgerald classic novel. It is set in 1922, during the Prohibition era and also the Jazz Age, when jazz music became a movement, flappers emerged as a female force to be reckoned with, and bootlegging kept gangsters in money and people intoxicated.

Author Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald poses with his wife Zelda Sayre and his daughter Scottie in their apartment in Paris, France on July 16, 1925. Pic: AP Photo

It was a time when modernity ruled, and cars, celebrity and music held a distinct cultural and economic power. In the post World War I USA, just as the 20th century came into its own, the pursuit of this modernity changed things forever.

The USA was the richest country in the world, things were booming, and even the law wouldn't stop people from partying. But as the Great Gatsby showed, the American Dream could sometimes be as discomfiting as a nightmare.

Actress Joan Crawford is seen dancing the Charleston in the lead role in "Our Dancing Daughters" in Hollywood, 1928. Pic: AP Photo

The Great Depression brought the Jazz Age to a crashing end, when the stock market crash of Black Tuesday 1929 ushered in a new, darker era for the United States. As businesses suffered, unemployment soared, and the nation's mood dropped, the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment grew.

Pic: Minnesota Historical Society/Flickr

The amendment to the US Constitution was finally repealed in 1933 - the very first, and so far only, time for this to happen.

When Prohibition was officially ended, the celebrations were enormous. But the clinking of glasses and imbibing of alcohol took a different tone that night: for the first time in 13 years, it was legal.

A crowd gathers on Broadway to celebrate the repeal of prohibition after midnight in New York City, April 7, 1933. Pic: AP Photo

Read: Is The Great Gatsby any good? Here’s the answer…>

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