Earlier this month, genealogy firm Mocavo published an infographic on the 1920s-era prohibition of alcohol through the passage of the Volstead Act. Many of the law’s proponents (naively) envisioned an America that would rid itself of vices and human impurities through legislation.
However, making alcohol illegal only encouraged more dangerous behavior, enabled the spread of organized crime, and bred corruption at the local, state, and national levels. The mass experiment abruptly ended in the 1930s.
Several decades earlier, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln had warned of the dangers of regulatory overreach into the lives of ordinary Americans: “Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes… A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
America in the 1920s
Imagine an era with big name mob bosses, bootleggers trying to make bank from homemade brewed booze, and red-hot jazz music. A number of decades ago, this time period existed as the prohibition era, also nicknamed the roaring 1920’s. Mob-controlled nightclubs rose to dominance, jazz music infiltrated airwaves, and illegally prepared alcohol richly flowed inside crowded speakeasies.
The coast-to-coast ban on alcohol spurred rebellion, corruption, and plenty of illegal activity, opposite what prohibition advocates had expected. In fact, the billion-dollar industry put big mob bosses on the map. Infamous mobsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano became just as well known as jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke.
Depicted as a time for illegal thrills by today’s cinematic Hollywood productions, the 20’s was notorious not only for its ban on alcohol and heavy mob influence, but for the jazz music that accompanied the era. The allure of bustling jazz music roused in many a sense of exploration, and often united previously segregated communities. The culture surrounding this flood of fast and loose entertainment involved flashy flapper styles for women and a sense of communal rabblerousing for men.
With the steep rise in criminal activity and wild behavior, prohibition eventually came to a halt and the use of alcohol regained legal status by the 1930’s. Parts of the economy had been suffering, mob violence was prevalent, and most importantly, though alcohol had been legally banned, its use could not be abolished. All in all, the prohibition was unsuccessful at accomplishing its mission, instead influencing a decade of drunken tomfoolery, mob-inspired crime, and rebellion.
The prohibition era went down in history as a time of rebellion, fast and loose jazz music, and mob-controlled big business. When the whiskey wells dried up and the spirits were no longer freely flowing due to new countrywide laws, uprisings had become imminent. Bootleggers sprung up everywhere illegally brewing sometimes-deadly concoctions, the cost of alcohol skyrocketed triple-fold, and gangster-related violence was prevalent.
So what led to the prohibition? Several different community influencers, including the church, women, and medical scholars encouraged the ban on alcohol. The reasoning was sparked by various social and economic ideologies. Women reasoned that alcohol was placing a wedge between families. Men would go to bars after work, spending money on alcohol instead of financially contributing to their families. Economically, business owners wanted to prevent immigrant workers from drinking and potentially showing up to work drunkenly.
Volstead Act and Unintended Consequences
Communities assumed that once the prohibition was in effect, there would be a drop in crime rate, work industries would boom with fully alert employees, and family households would regain solid structure. Cities were so sure that the prohibition would ultimately better communities that local jailhouses were converted to warehouses.
However, the expectations of prohibition activists went unmet. Instead, mob-controlled nightclubs took over cities, illegally brewed alcohol flowed freely and abundantly in underground speakeasies, and jazz music became an irrevocable part of the epoch.
A rise in violence was also unexpected and unavoidable. The billion-dollar industry created by the prohibition put big mob bosses on the map. Infamous gangsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano became just as famous as jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke. Crime rose steeply and with it the construction of new federal prisons, ultimately accomplishing nothing that prohibition advocates had hoped for.
To put a halt to the influx of illegal activity, the prohibition came to an end in the 1930’s. The use of alcohol once again became legal, and the popular adage “Drink up!” was legally in full force.