- Historic Sites
Reflections On The Dry Season
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
The voice down at the other end of the table was edged with irritation. “Damn it, Prohibition was a failure too. You’d think we’d have learned something by now!” Then my friend turned to the dinner party’s in-house historian. “Right, Bernie?”
“Sure” was my quick answer. Like most quick answers, it was too easy.
We were speaking of the drug “war.” As the 1990s began, people involved in some way with narcotics dominated the lurid headlines, and a small but growing number of spokesmen were for some form of drug legalization. It was these last who had raised the decibel level. In essence some guests believed that the “legalizers” were willing, as a cheap fix, to sell out the poor to addiction, while others—including my friend who had appealed to the court of history—contended that the “prohibitionists” ignored the sordid record of our thirteen-year effort to stamp out alcohol.
It was a good time to raise the issue. This year marks the seventieth anniversary of Prohibition’s beginning. The Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States, was ratified in January of 1919. The Volstead Act, the enforcing legislation, took effect a year later. Was it, in fact, a useless exercise?
My memory held a montage of true and fictional scenes from histories and novels, and movies set in the Roaring Twenties: speakeasies running round the clock; Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, Dutch Schultz and Little Caesar gunning each other down from black sedans; hip flasks at the prom; Gatsby’s guests whooping it up in West Egg. Familiar stuff, all of it suggesting one universal, uninterrupted law-breaking orgy.
But when I checked recent historical work on Prohibition, I learned that my automatic response had been as glib as most of the things we hear, read, and say about the complex issues surrounding the social control of addictive behavior. For example, in Drinking in America (first published in 1982 and revised in 1987), Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin, after a careful and balanced review of studies made during and since Prohibition, note that Prohibition did reduce drinking. The average annual per capita consumption of absolute alcohol by Americans of drinking age—that is, the total alcoholic content of all the beer, wine, and distilled spirits they consumed—stood at 2.60 gallons in the period from 1906 to 1910. It began to drop in the next decade due to state prohibition laws and wartime grain-saving restrictions on brewing and distilling. When statistics were kept again after legal consumption was resumed, the numbers were 0.97 in 1934, 1.20 in 1935, and an average of 1.54 for the period 1936 to 1941. (Pre-1914 levels weren’t reached again, in fact, until 1971.)
In addition, Census Bureau studies showed that the death rate from chronic or acute alcoholism fell from 7.3 per 100,000 in 1907 to 1.6 in 1919, surged to 4.0 in 1927, but was back down to 2.5 in 1932, Prohibition’s last full year. Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, one cause of which is alcohol abuse, dropped from 14.8 per 100,000 in 1907 to 7.1 in 1920 and never rose above 7.5 during the 1920s. Economic studies estimated that savings and spending on household necessities increased among working-class families during the period, possibly from money that once went to drink. And Norman H. Clark’s fine 1976 “interpretation” of the Prohibition era, Deliver Us from Evil , cites impressive evidence that during the early years of Prohibition arrests for drunkenness and crimes committed while drunk fell off sharply.
Clark and Lender and Martin in their books drew on a key article by John C. Burnham in the Journal of Social History in 1968 titled “New Perspectives on the Prohibition ‘Experiment’ of the 1920s.” Drinking might have been cut back even further if more resources had been devoted to enforcement. In 1922 Congress gave the Prohibition Bureau only $6.75 million for a force of 3,060 employees (including clerical workers) to hunt for bootleggers, moonshiners, and rum runners in thousands of urban neighborhoods, remote hollows, border crossings, and coastal inlets. State legislatures were equally sparing; in 1926 state legislatures all together spent $698,855 for Prohibition work, approximately one-eighth of what they laid out on enforcing their fish-and-game laws. Even so, by 1929 the feds alone had arrested more then half a million violators.
Clark lists several legends about the Prohibition era that current historical understanding would challenge or at least modify. The Eighteenth Amendment was not sneaked into existence by bluenosed country Bible pounders while “the boys” were overseas in World War I. Twenty-three states had some form of statewide or local-option “dryness” by 1916, the result of a decades-long temperance campaign that enlisted plenty of progressive urbanites who thought that the liquor traffic was as great a threat to public health as the sweatshop or the tenement— though not all of them expected a total ban on every form of alcoholic drink. Businessmen, too, rallied to a cause that promised a clear-eyed and efficient work force.