5 Things You Didn't Know About Prohibition

On January 16, 1919, prohibition took effect, which made it illegal in the United States to manufacture, transport or sell liquor. Here are 5 things you didn't know about the long dry spell in American history....


It Wasn’t Illegal to Drink Alcohol During Prohibition The 18th Amendment only forbade the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors”—not their consumption. By law, any wine, beer or spirits Americans had stashed away in January 1920 were theirs to keep and enjoy in the privacy of their homes. You just couldn't make it, transport it, or sell it. You could get medicinal alcohol, including whiskey and other hard liquors that your doctor prescribed, and sacramental wine was still allowed as well.

World War I Helped Push Prohibition Through Prohibition was all but sealed by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, but the conflict served as one of the last nails in the coffin of legalized alcohol. Dry advocates claimed the barley used to make beer could be better used as grain for bread for troops and people in Europe who suffered from food shortages. While Prohibition itself didn't start until after World War I, the argument was still persuasive enough to help get legislation passed. Anti-alcohol crusaders were often fueled by xenophobia, and the war allowed them to paint America’s largely German brewing industry as a threat.


Companies That Made Alcoholic Beverages Had to Get Inventive Some small breweries kept producing their products secretly, but many had to repurpose their factories to stay in business. Anheuser Busch and Yeungling both switched to making ice cream, and Coors upped their production of ceramics and pottery. Most brewers sold malt syrup so that beer could be made at home, winemakers sold grape concentrate, and “near beer” with 0.5 percent alcohol kept their businesses going until the law’s repeal.

Prohibition Wasn’t Enforced Nationwide  Federal agents were designated to enforce the new prohibition law, including Eliot Ness of The Untouchables fame. However, the individual states were supposed to enforce the law inside their borders. Many of the governors objected to the added cost and did not appropriate the funds to enforce the law. The state of Maryland, where everyone knew that crabs go best with a cold beer, refused to appropriate any money at all and never enacted a code to enforce prohibition.

Local Prohibition Laws Continued Until the 1960s. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 after the passing and ratification of the 21st Amendment, but that ended only the nationwide enforcement of alcohol prohibition. It wasn't until 1966 that Mississippi, the last state to have a statewide Prohibition law, repealed theirs and allowed alcohol sales. But even that wasn't the end of alcohol prohibition. Many counties and cities had their own laws that either forbid the sale of alcohol completely or forbid it on certain days such as Sunday, and many states still have laws controlling the sale of alcohol or the types/percentages that can be sold.