Prohibition in the 1920s – The 18th Amendment Made Alcohol Illegal


The roots of Prohibition began with the Anti Saloon League, founded in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio.

The organization began life as a state organization. After 1895, however, the League became a powerful national organization. The League was a non-partisan organization focused on the single issue of prohibition. It had branches across the United States to work with churches in marshalling resources for the prohibition fight.

In 1913, in a 20th anniversary convention held in Columbus, Ohio the League announced its campaign to achieve national prohibition through a constitutional amendment.

Allied with other temperance forces, especially the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the League in 1916 oversaw the election of the two-thirds majorities necessary in both houses of Congress to initiate what became the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

How Did Prohibition Happen?

Those working for the passage of the amendment were highly organized, but those who were against it were hardly organized at all.

The horrific world war took precedence in many people’s minds, and alcohol seemed a “trifling matter.” The Prohibitionists seized the opportunity to mobilize. They made it seem patriotic to conserve grain for the war effort and therefore not drink alcohol. They further extended the cause by arguing if a sober soldier was a better soldier, and a sober factory worker a better factory worker, then Prohibition made perfect sense.

Influence of World War I

In wartime, people become accustomed to the government having wide powers and control. Within this context, it did not seem that far-fetched for the government to control alcohol consumption.

In addition, the war turned public opinion against anything German, and many breweries were run by people of German decent.

The 18th Amendment

With sympathetic politicians in place, the Eighteenth Amendment easily passed on December 18, 1917 and was ratified two years later.

At the time, no one seemed to comprehend that the law would be difficult to enforce. And certainly no one understood how Prohibition would lead to so much organized crime.

The Amendment read, in part, “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

The Volstead Act

The Eighteenth Amendment went into effect on January 16, 1920. Temperance enthusiasts held a mock funeral for “King Alcohol.” Opponents said a sad eulogy for their dearly departed friend, “John Barleycorn.”

Plainly put, it banned the sale, manufacture, importation, and transportation of liquor. Private citizens could still keep liquor in their homes and serve it to their friends, but they could not make it, sell it, transport it, or import it.

To help enforce the law, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which defined what an intoxicating liquor was and outlined specific punishments for violations. It was deemed that anything with more than of 1% alcohol was now illegal. For the first offense you could be jailed up to 6 months plus a $1000 fine. For a second offense, you could serve up to 5 years in jail with a fine of $10,000 — an exorbitant sum in the 1920s!

Padlock Laws

In addition, “padlock laws” allowed agents to close an establishment that was serving alcohol for up to one year. The government could also seize any automobile used to transport liquor illegally.

Enforcement was never consistent across the United States. The Prohibition Bureau, which was part of the Department of Justice, was understaffed and underfunded. Some states refused to appropriate any money to hire additional officers to enforce the Volstead Act.

Many communities did go “dry,” and liquor violations began to clog the federal court system.


  1. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
  2. The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber