A Century of Prohibition

Photograph Source: Removal of liquor during Prohibition – Public Domain

We live in the shadow of the past; it haunts the present like the memory of a dead relative who can’t be forgotten or forgiven.  Prohibition is a dead historically moment that can’t be forgotten.

Prohibition was established with the adoption of the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919, and was implemented through the National Prohibition Act, popularly known as the Volstead Act.  It was first implemented when the so-called “Wartime Prohibition” took effect in May 1919 and took effect nationally with the adoption of the National Prohibition Act, popularly known as the Volstead Act. It went into effect on January 16, 1920 and remained the law-of-the-land until it was repealed 13 years with the adoption of the 21st Amendment – the only Amendment to be overturned.

Prohibition grew out of a century-long campaign to contain the forces that were perceived as threats to the nation’s moral order. It railed against vice in every form, be it alcohol consumption, gambling, prostitution, birth control or obscenity in the arts. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), among others, championed this movement. The Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 and was the first political party to accept women as members; the male-only Anti-Saloon League (ASL) was established in 1898. Anti-immigration proponents assailed Irish and German immigrants due to their alleged abuse of alcohol.

The temperance campaign gained legitimacy during World War I and in its aftermath.  It was one aspect of a deeper social crisis that culminated in not only the establishment of Prohibition but the adoption of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote.  Often forgotten, the period witnessed social disruption amidst a wave of strikes, political bombings and what became known as the first Red Scare, one marked by the Palmer Raids and the deportation of nearly 300 “aliens,” including anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

Prohibition was in force from 1920 to 1933 and evolved through three overlapping phases. The first ran from 1920 to 1923, from the imposition of the 18th Amendment until New York State repealed the Mullan-Gage Act, the state’s concurrent legislation.  The second phase was Prohibition’s glory days and lasted from 1923 to 1928, with innumerable swank speaks, celebrity culture and the wide-scale flaunting of the temperance law.  On the night of June 28, 1928, the third phase of Prohibition commenced and lasted until it was repealed on December 5, 1933. Each phase was characterized by a distinct speakeasy scene, attendant popular culture, gangster activities and the failed enforcement practices.  Taken together, speakeasies defined American nightlife during the Roaring ‘20s and speaks were the place to be.

There were two fundamental developments that resulted from Prohibition and its repeal.  First, the old-fashioned gangs of the 1920s morphed into organized crime syndicates that rule today’s underworld.  Anyone whose seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy or Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire can glimpse the structural changes that came to redefine organized crime. Second, four years after the 18th Amendment was repealed and Prohibition ended, Congress adopted the Marihuana Tax Act on August 2, 1937; in the 1930s, marijuana was spelled “marihuana.”  It made the possession and sale of marijuana illegal.

A half-century later, Nancy Reagan launched the postmodern prohibition movement.  In 1982, she gave her infamous “Just Say No” speech at the Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, CA.  In a 1986 speech, she declared: “Today there’s a drug and alcohol abuse epidemic in this country, and no one is safe from it – not you, not me, and certainly not our children, because this epidemic has their names written on it.”

Mrs. Reagan’s original campaign sought to address an assortment of alleged youthful vices, including alcohol and drug abuse, peer violence and premarital sex.  Seeing an opportunity, a cabal of shrewd moralists, clever politicians and innovative entrepreneurs used the speech to formally launch the nation’s war on drugs.  They forged the new the police-corporate repression system, the domestic corollary to Pres. Dwight Eisenhower’s identified military-industrial complex.

Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock, two academic analysts, estimate that legalizing currently illegal drugs would save Americans approximately $41 billion a year in federal and state government expenditures relating to drug enforcement. In the three decades since Mrs. Reagan uttered her dubious words of warning, the total costs of the war on drugs is estimated at $1 trillion.

The war on drugs proved as successful as the original campaign against alcohol.  Both were failures.  In similar fashion, comparable “wars” to suppress still other transgressive activities — including gambling, pornography and adult “consensual” sex work — proved far less then successful.  Still other battles against race mixing, erotic music and dance, abortion and homosexuality have been fought.  These diverse issues have defined the culture wars that, over the last half-century, deeply influenced American politics … and still do.


In the 80 years since the passage of the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition lives on and has taken new forms.  U.S. federal, state and local regulators have embraced a mixed program of prohibition and/or regulation of what was consider unacceptable practices.  Such practices range from who — and how — people can drink alcoholic beverages to how and where one can gamble, which drugs one can imbibe and if one can engage in commercial sex.

During the ‘30s, hemp was popular and profitable, used for a variety of commercial purposes, including the smoking kind.  The Act sought to garner the federal government much needed tax revenues without outlawing marihuana production or consumption.  In 1970, President Richard Nixon championed the Controlled Substances Act that superseded Marihuana Act and launched the war on drugs — a decade before Mrs. Reagan’s speech.  In the decades since the adoption of the Marihuana Act and the Pres. Nixon and Mrs. Reagan, the war on drugs has dragged on and on and on. Today, marijuana for medical purposes is legal in 33 states and for recreational purposes in 14 states.

As marijuana consumption has been normalized, gambling and commercial sex have been mainstreamed. Gambling, one of the well-established rackets of Prohibition-era gangsters, has become a major commercial enterprise. In 1976, the federal Commission on the Review of National Policy toward Gambling recognized that gaming, like alcohol consumption, “is inevitable.  No matter what is said or done by advocates or opponents of gambling in all its various forms, it is an activity that is practiced, or tacitly endorsed, by a substantial majority of Americans.”  Such activities include state lotteries for every conceivable hustle; pari-mutuel betting on horses, greyhounds and jai-alai; sports bookmaking for every sport, from ping-pong to the Olympics; card games, keno and bingo; slot machines; and video poker, keno, blackjack and roulette machines. Casinos revenues were nearly $42 billion in 2018.  The rackets are big business; Al Capone and Owner Madden must be spinning in their graves.

Gambling might be a victimless crime; commercial sex is not.  As the old adage states, prostitution is the oldest profession and, sadly, it is still alive and well in the 21st century.  Sex work is contradiction: morally, sex work is a sin because no one should sell their sexual being; socially, under capitalism, sex – the human body – is a commodity and people sell their sexual selves to survive

Since the nation’s founding, females (and sometimes males) have been selling their sexual labor for what is perceived to have value, be it money, food, trinkets or social opportunities.  Today, commercial sex is regulated in only one state, Nevada, and restricted to mostly rural areas.  Not surprising, prostitution takes place throughout the country and operates under various names.  Streetwalkers persist but are relegated to the poorest exchanges. Ever innovative, prostitution has long adopted to the latest technology.  In the ‘20s, the telephone refashioned the bordello into the call house.  In the 21st century, the digital revolution is helping to mainstream commercial sex work.  In addition, commercial sex is also facilitated through massage parlors and “gentlemen’s” or strip clubs.  The dark side of prostitution is the recruitment of young girls (and some boys) and the forced sex slavery of foreign women that characterizes much of the commercial sex throughout the world.

Ongoing battles over “obscene” or indecent materials continue, promoted by the widespread availability risqué materials available through cable television and the Internet.  Efforts to limit “porn” through the 1996 Communications Decency Act have been repeatedly rejected by the courts.  Recent federal court decisions against the FCC relating to Janet Jackson’s “costume malfunction” and speaking the “F” word by Cher and Nicole Richie put such regulation in question.  However, one area of content suppression that continues to find widespread legal and popular support is the restriction of child pornography and the arrest of those caught either distributing or receiving such material.

Abortion and homosexuality, along with interracial sex and erotic music and dance, are very different kinds of “transgressions.”  They have each long been areas of bitter contestation, pitting moral conservatives and religious traditionalists against cultural secularist and political progressives.  A combination of personal valor (i.e., a willingness to challenge accepted moral or social conventions) and market forces (i.e., amoral cultural innovation) has redefined modern America cultural values.  In essence, these “wars,” whether fought over alcohol consumption or the latest sexy fashion, mark the shifting boundaries of acceptable individual conduct.


A century ago, Prohibition transformed alcohol consumption from an immoral practice into an illegal act, fostering the speakeasy and the reconfiguration of American moral values.  With the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol consumption became a regulated adult indulgence, illegal if it violated a local convention but nonetheless an all-American pleasure.  The original Roaring ‘20’s speak was a unique, unprecedented innovation of American entrepreneurialism, an iconic expression of popular culture.  During its short 13-year existence, it cultivated the full gamut of personal and social expressions that would come to define post-WW-II life, let alone 21st century post-modernity.

America in 2019 is not what it was in 1919.  The new woman of old is the every-woman of today; the New Negro is today’s every American of color; the “pansy” of yesterday is just another person; the gangster persists along with the underground economy; and the cocktail continues to represent the radical sense of sensual pleasure that defines post-modern America.

Since the country’s founding four centuries ago, Americans have fought over what is acceptable moral conduct.  Some have battled to preserve traditional, to repress notions of radical erotic experience and expression; others have pushed the boundaries of acceptable pleasure.  This battle continues, continually reshaped by history and changes in moral values.  Today, the meaning of transgression is in flux, buffeted by differences between the legal and the popular notions of what is acceptable behavior.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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