Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The “Noble Experiment” Begins – Prohibition

Ninety-three years ago today, Prohibition became law in the United States. And as a result, the country would never be the same.

On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was added to the US Constitution, and one year later it was put into effect.  It had taken two years of diligent work by the Senate, the House, numerous religious groups, the Anti-Saloon League, and 36 states before Prohibition was enacted.
It was President Herbert Hoover who called Prohibition "The Noble Experiment," because some felt it was a way to attempt to keep families together, while doing away with alcohol abuse.  Prohibition was considered an experiment because those in the larger cities saw nothing wrong with drinking in moderation.

Prohibition called for a nation-wide ban on the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcohol.  This included wine, beer, and spirits – any alcohol over 0.5% by volume.  But it did not outlaw the possession or consumption of alcohol.  The Volstead Act was enacted in order to achieve this.  But there were still loopholes in the laws.

One such omission allowed pharmacists to legally dispense alcohol by prescription.  It didn’t take the criminal element long to figure out that owning a pharmacy was the perfect façade to bootleg liquor from.

 Another loophole allowed wine to be obtained and used for religious purposes. Self-ordained ministers and rabbis suddenly appeared to purchase wine for their ‘congregations’ across the country.

Prohibition was brought about to curb excessive drinking and loose morals, while touting the increased economic effects that would result.  Some predicted that this “noble experiment” would not go well.

This ban on alcohol had been tried before – on a smaller scale.  In 1844, a Massachusetts town had made the sale of alcohol illegal.  This led one tavern owner to then charge admission to customers to see a striped pig in his saloon.  Once inside, drinks were provided for ‘free.’

The state of Maine became the first state to ban the sale of alcohol in 1851.  The state’s Irish population and those of the working class revolted.  By 1855, opinions had seethed until a deadly riot broke out in Portland.  The law was quickly repealed.

Proponents of Prohibition were sure that once the sale of alcohol was banned, people would become more moral and family–oriented. Health issues were expected to improve. Supporters believed that the economy would get better because workers would become more productive and many men would stop spending all of the family’s money on drink. Crime rates were expected to decrease dramatically.

Instead of bringing about these conditions, Prohibition was a fiasco.  Besides the loss of billions of tax dollars, thousands who had worked in the alcohol industry immediately lost their jobs when distilleries, wineries, breweries, and saloons closed.  Restaurants began to fail when they could no longer make a profit from the sale of alcoholic drinks.

Prohibition cost the Federal Government $11 billion dollars in lost revenue from the excise taxes on alcohol sales.  States that relied on excise liquor taxes to fund them, suddenly and completely lost that income. (The State of New York derived almost 75% of their budget from these taxes – and it was gone, overnight.)  With an eye toward getting more money in the coffers quickly, income taxes were enacted and became the new way to fund state and the Federal budgets.  (And, interestingly, were never done away with after Prohibition was repealed…) It appears no one took into account the cost to enforce Prohibition – which grew to over $300-million dollars.

Millions of Americans became criminals, thanks to Prohibition.  Moon shiners cropped up all over the country, taking grain and distilling it into corn mash and hooch to be sold. Bootleggers smuggled homemade alcohol to those who wanted it, for an outrageous price. Many people attempted to make their own wine at home by following the ‘warning’ labels attached to jugs of concentrated grape juice. These labels described what not to do to cause the juice to ferment and become wine.

Organized crime was now thriving in major cities such as Chicago and New York, thanks to Prohibition. With the passing of the 18th Amendment, alcohol sales went underground.  Speakeasy clubs sprang up in all major cities. Operated by gangsters, these illegal clubs allowed entry to anyone who knew the password or secret knock.  Once inside, a customer could enjoy illegal drinks and socialize with like-minded people.

In New York alone there were reports of between 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in business by 1925. With only 1,500 Federal Prohibition agents to enforce the new law, vice spread quickly throughout the country.

Prohibition also brought about health issues.  Now that alcohol was unregulated, black market hooch could be contaminated with acetone, antifreeze, various aldehydes, or by the coils used in the stills, which contained lead or glycol. It was estimated that over 1,000 people died every year during Prohibition from drinking impure and harmful alcohol.

By 1933, lawmakers were ready to admit that the Noble Experiment had been anything but noble.  After almost fourteen years, the 18th Amendment was abolished, making alcohol legal again.  This is the first and only time an amendment to the US Constitution has been repealed.

So tonight, pour a glass of your favorite wine, beer, or spirit, and toast the fact that the right to drink alcohol is a personal decision and not one controlled by a national or state law.

Cheers! Prohibition is no more!

~ Joy