Have a drink. It’s legal again.

This Day in History: On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment of January 16, 1919, commonly called the Volstead Act ending the increasingly unpopular nationwide prohibition of alcohol.


Why did Prohibition start?

By the turn of the 20th century, temperance societies were prevalent in the United States. Concerned citizens had begun warning others about

the effects of alcohol nearly 100 years earlier. In 1826 the American Temperance Society was founded to convince people to abstain from drinking. Not long after, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union pledged not only to ban alcohol and drugs, but to improve public morals. The anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893 and eventually became a powerful political force in passing a national ban on alcoholic beverages.

Women were strongly behind the temperance movement, for alcohol was seen as the destroyer of families and marriages. Men would often spend their money on alcohol, leaving women with no money to provide for their children. Factory owners also supported temperance as well because of the new work habits that were required of industrial workers – early mornings and long nights.

Progressive reformers also took to Prohibition for they saw it as a continuation of their efforts to improve society in general. Temperance societies and Progressives alike saw the need for more governmental control and involvement in citizens’ lives.

They did not stop there, however. The temperance societies began to push to change American society and elevate morality through national legislation. The amendment worked at first: liquor consumption dropped, arrests for drunkenness fell, and the price for illegal alcohol rose higher than the average worker could afford.

These statistics however, do not reflect the growing disobedience toward the law and law enforcement. The intensity of the temperance advocates was matched only by the inventiveness of those who wanted to keep drinking. Enforcing Prohibition proved to be extremely difficult. The illegal production and distribution of liquor, or bootlegging, became rampant, and the national government did not have the means or desire to try to enforce every border, lake, river, and speakeasy in America. In fact, by 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.

The demand for alcohol was outweighing (and out-winning) the demand for sobriety. People found clever ways to evade Prohibition agents. They carried hip flasks, hollowed canes, false books, and the like. Neither federal nor local authorities would commit the resources necessary to enforce the Volstead Act. For example, the state of Maryland refused to pass any enforcement issue. Prohibition made life in America more violent, with open rebellion against the law and organized crime. [Source.]

To hide their footsteps, these “cow hoof” shoe lifts were used around moonshine stills. Photo from Getty Images.

Prohibition in Florida

Perhaps nowhere did Prohibition fail so spectacularly than in Florida. Actually, it pretty much never was there. All the federal ban on alcohol, which ran from 1920 to 1933, managed to accomplish was to hand the lucrative booze business to criminals.

Here was a thirsty tourist trade, local officials vulnerable to corruption, and miles of open beaches and coves. Mobsters oversaw stills, smuggling, and distribution to hotels and speakeasies, and ran many joints themselves.

Rum-running became routine. Boats would speed the liquor to Florida from the Bahamas, only 60 miles from the coast. In the Bahamas, a case of liquor was $18. In South Florida, it was double that on the street, or behind closed doors. Up north, it was as much as $100. [Source.]

Why was the Volstead Act repealed?

Why did Prohibition end? With the country mired in the Great Depression by 1932, creating jobs and revenue by legalizing the liquor industry had an undeniable appeal. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president that year on a platform calling for Prohibition’s repeal, and easily won victory over the incumbent President Herbert Hoover. FDR’s victory meant the end for Prohibition, and in February 1933 Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. [Source.]

Fun Factoids about Prohibition:

In the history of the United States, only one constitutional amendment has been repealed. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment—better known as “prohibition”—banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States.

Harry Truman to Bess, writing from France during the Great War, said: “It looks to me like the moon shine business is going to be pretty good in the land of Liberty Loans and Green Trading stamps and some of us want to get in on the ground floor. At least we want to get there in time to buy in a supply for future consumption. I think a quart of Bourbon would last me about forty years.” [Source.]

Who was Andrew Volstead? Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who managed the legislation.

The final vote to repeal Prohibition was cast by the state of Utah. Though a few states continued to prohibit alcohol after Prohibition’s end, all had abandoned the ban by 1966.

How did FDR celebrate the repeal? It’s said with a dirty martini. (Were dirty martinis even a thing in 1933?)

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