The Volstead Act was the nationwide ban on the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol by the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution from 1920 to 1933.

The Volstead Act was activated on January 17th 1920 and nationwide prohibition. The common name is National Prohibition Act which passed the Congress despite the veto of President Woodrow Wilson on October 28, 1919. The law defined intoxicating alcoholic beverages. The Volstead Act itself is divided into 69 sections and across 25 pages, it  defines prohibition in detail including its limits of reach and effects of its breach. Basically, it focuses on three primary roles “Prohibit intoxicating beverages”, “Regulation of the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor”, “Supply of alcohol and its use in scientific research, and in the development of fuel, other lawful industries, and for religious rituals”.

Andrew Volstead, US Representative from Minnesota By Harris & Ewing (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This prohibition was also known as “The Noble Experiment”.

The temperance movement has its origins in Ireland and thought drinking alcohol as sinful. The movement believed in the total renunciation of alcohol to the cure society of alcoholics, and furthermore, they believed in temperance as a social reform considering alcohol consumption as an expression of a “lack of virtue” causing the misery of the lower classes. Although, some  portray that there have been positive aspects on peoples health consuming none to very little alcohol during prohibition, though, the truth is, that many died during prohibition of alcohol poisoning and due to rising crime and illegal activities throughout the country.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1920 Alcohol was banned, and little was done to enforce the law in its beginning.

The illegal production and distribution of alcohol was spreading rapidly in 1920, and the government did not have the resources to oversee every border, every river or lake, and every speakeasy bar in America. In New York alone, the number of speakeasy bars increased from 1922 to 1927 from around 5,000 to 30,000. Other estimates for range from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy bars by 1927.

The original idea of reducing crime with prohibition was in fact not achieved.

The approximately 2,300 low-paid Prohibition agents nationwide were unable to fully enforce the ban in the US. In the following years, the illegal business and with it organized crime developed very quickly, as the demand for alcohol did not cease. Thus, the bootlegging crime was a considerable boom. From 1920 to 1921 alone, crime increased by 24%. Throughout the 1920s, crime increased dramatically by 13% more serious crime, 81% more drunk driving cases, and 9% more other offenses.

Contributor Kurz & Allison. Created / Published c1888 Oct. 12. Library of Congress Control Number 2003656544, Rights Advisory No known restrictions on publication.

Prohibition became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression, especially in cities.

On March 23, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act to lift the Volstead Act and allow the manufacture and sale of certain alcoholic beverages. On December 5, 1933, the signing of the 21st amendment ended prohibition by abolishing the 18th Amendment. Especially the rising issues with organized crime are considered a reason why people stopped supporting Prohibition, though Prohibition showed some further long-term effects on the US market.

Long-term effects of the Prohibition period.

  • Established organized crime: Even though prohibition ended, the structures of organized crime persisted. New business opportunities in trafficking other illegal drugs closed the void of prohibition.
  • Brewing Landscape: Before Prohibition the Nation had thousands of small breweries, the years thereafter only few breweries remained which had kept their craft skills and knowledge. The Craft Brewing industry gained significant market share not earlier than the late 1990th and is still in development as of today.
  • Wine-making Tradition: The clearing of vineyards caused decades of recovery for the wine industry to build-up wineyards again.
  • Biofuel: Ethanol (from grain) was the first fuel used in US automobiles in the 1890s. Due to the prohibition starting in 1919 to demolish and destroy many grain distilleries, the production of cheap ethanol fuels ran out. This was especially a cost driver for farm expenditures which relied on Ethanol at that time and had to switch to oil-based fuels such as gasoline or diesel.
  • Booze Cruise: One successful loophole were cruises selling alcohol outside the territorial waters (consumption was not prohibited). Popular destinations were i.e. Nassau in the Bahamas or Havana in Cuba.

Marching through Georgia” / L.M. Glackens. Illustration shows a group of men and women marching under such banners as “The Lips That Touch Corn Likker Shall Never Touch Ourn”, “W.C.T.U.”, and “Carrie Nation Cadets”, with one man carrying a small barrel labeled “Vegetable Tonic”, and a large wagon labeled “Water Wagon No. 1” immediately behind the leaders, to show their support for prohibition. They are all colored blue. Library of Congress Control Number 2011647272, Rights Advisory No known restrictions on publication