Liquor and Law
DESPITE ratification of the 18th Amendment and Congressional passage of the Volstead Act to enforce it, the United States did not and never did become an utterly “dry” nation. Physicians could legally prescribe distilled spirits from government-controlled distilleries for various health conditions. The manufacture and sale of “sacramental wine” were permitted for religious use. And there was no ban on home-made wine and hard cider.
DESPITE Prohibition, many Americans continued to drink undaunted and their demand created an illicit underground economy. All over the country moonshine dripped from illegal stills. In response, the Internal Revenue Service established the Bureau of Prohibition to find them, confiscating over 690,000 stills between 1921 and 1925. Smugglers worked along the sea coasts and the southern and northern borders to supply foreign-made alcohol. As estimated by the federal government, this industry was worth about $3 billion a year (or around $41 billion in today’s dollars). And grocery stores like Kroger and A & P legally sold equipment and ingredients for do-it-yourself brewers and distillers, with the Prohibition Bureau estimating that home-made beer amounted to some 700 million gallons in 1929.
ALTHOUGH Prohibition’s proponents had advanced persuasive arguments for the 18th Amendment, its opponents had countered, even before January 17, 1920, that Prohibition would put people out of work, destroy businesses, damage the economy, and would represent a serious infringement of civil rights. As criminal enterprises and lawlessness flourished throughout the 1920s, another argument against Prohibition came into ever-sharper focus: it did not work.