The Volstead Act and Prohibition (Classroom Activity)

The prohibition movement in the United States began in the early 1800s and by 1850 several states had passed laws that restricted or prevented people drinking alcohol. Early campaigners for prohibition included William Lloyd Garrison, Frances E. Willard, Anna Howard Shaw, Carry Nation, Mary Lease and Ida Wise Smith. Another important figure was Neal Dow, who established the Young Men's Abstinence Society. He also led the campaign that resulted in Maine passing the nation's first prohibition law in 1846.

During the 19th century, two powerful pressure groups, the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union were established in America. In 1869 members of the temperance movement formed the Prohibition Party. Three years later James Black of Pennsylvania became the party's candidate for the presidency. However he won only 5,608 votes.

During the First World War most people considered it to be unpatriotic to use much needed grain to produce alcohol. Also, several of the large brewers and distillers were of German origin. Many business leaders believed their workers would be more productive if alcohol could be withheld with them. John D. Rockefeller, alone, donated over $350,000 to the prohibition campaign. .

Opinion on prohibition began to change and by January, 1919, 75% of the states in America had approved the 18th Amendment which prohibited the "sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors". This became the law of the land when the Volstead Act was passed in 1920.

Primary Sources

(Source 1) Anti-Saloon League poster (1919)
(Source 1) Anti-Saloon League poster (1919)


(Source 2) Ernest Moore, The Social Value of the Saloon (July, 1897)

The saloonkeeper is the only man who keeps open house in the ward. It is his business to entertain. It does not matter that he does not select his guests; that convention is useless among them. In fact, his democracy is one element of his strength. His face is the common meeting ground of his neighbors - and he supplies the stimulus which renders social life possible; there is an accretion of intelligence that comes to him in his business. He hears the best stories. He is the first to get accurate information as to the latest political deals and social mysteries. The common talk of the day passes through his ears and he is known to retain that which is the most interesting.

There is another primal need which the saloon supplies and in most cases supplies well. It is a food-distributing centre - a place where a hungry man can get as much as he wants to eat and drink for a small price. As a rule the food is notoriously good and the price notoriously cheap. That the saloon feeds thousands and feeds them well no one will deny who has passed the middle of the day there.

It is hardly necessary to enlarge further upon the evils of the saloon. They are many and grave, and cry out to society for proper consideration. But proper consideration involves a whole and not a half truth, and the whole truth involves its own power of proper action. In the absence of higher forms of social stimulus and larger social life, the saloon will continue to function in society, and for that great part of humanity which does not possess a more adequate form of social expression.

(Source 3) Anti-Saloon League cartoon (1919)
(Source 3) Anti-Saloon League cartoon (1919)


(Source 4) Richard P. Hobson, Slaves of the Saloon (1919)

The saloon business cannot exist without slaves. You may smile at that statement, but it is absolutely true. Is not the man who is addicted to the drink habit a slave? There are 1,000,000 such slaves in the United States. They are slaves of the saloon. They go out and work a week or a month, draw their pay, go into the saloon, and hand the saloon keeper their money for something which ruins their own lives. Is not this slavery? Has there ever been in the history of the world a worse system of slavery? It is quite natural of course, that the slaveholder should not care to liberate these slaves.

(Source 5) Thomas M. Coffey, The Long Thirst (1975)

John D. Rockefeller was a known contributor to dry causes. He believed as did many of the most powerful men in business, industry, and finance, that the nation's workers - which is to say, their employees - would be more productive if beer and liquor could be withheld from them ... the Rockefellers poured at least $350,000 into the Anti-Saloon League before 1920, plus an estimated $75,000 per year thereafter.

(Source 6) Men drain 10,000 barrels of beer into New York Harbor (1925)
(Source 6) Men drain 10,000 barrels of beer into New York Harbor (1925)

(Source 7) Herbert Asbury, The Noble Experiment of Izzie & Moe (1950)

Prohibition went into effect throughout the United States on 16th January 1920, and the country settled back with an air of "Well that's settled". There. had been a liquor problem. But a law had been passed. Naturally, there was no longer a liquor problem. No prophet arose to foretell the awful things that were coming.... Nor did anyone imagine that the Amendment and its enabling legislation, the Volstead Act, would be difficult to enforce. It was the law, and by and large the American people were lawabiding.

(Source 8) A woman supporting the repeal of the 18th Amendment (1927)
(Source 8) A woman supporting the repeal of the 18th Amendment (1927)

(Source 9) Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday (1931)

The Government provided a force of prohibition agents which in 1920 numbered only 1,520 men and as late as 1930 numbered over 2,836. The agents' salaries in 1920 mostly ranged between $1,200 and $2,000; by 1930 they had been munificently raised to range between $2,300 and $2,800. Anybody who believed that men employable at 35 to 40 or 50 dollars a week would surely have the expert technical knowledge and the diligence to supervise successfully the complicated chemical operations of industrial-alcohol plants or to outwit the craftiest devices of smugglers to resist corruption by men whose pockets were bulging with money, would be ready to believe also in Santa Claus, perpetual motion and pixies.

(Source 10) Alec Wilder, interviewed by Studs Terkel in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970)

I loved speak-easies. If you knew the right ones, you never worried about being poisoned by bad whisky. I'd kept hearing about a friend of a friend who had been blinded by bad gin. I guess I was lucky. The speaks were so romantic. It had that marvellous movie-like quality, unreality. And the food was great. Although some pretty dreadful things did occur in them.

(Source 11) A photograph of a speakeasy (1930)
(Source 11) A photograph of a speakeasy (1930)

(Source 12) Pauline Sabin, Outlook Magazine (8th June, 1928)

I was one of the women who favoured prohibition when I heard it discussed in the abstract, but I am now convinced it has proved a failure. It is true we now longer see the corner saloon: but in many cases has it not merely moved to the back of a store, or up or down one flight (of stairs) under the name of a speakeasy? It is not true that they are making their own gin and drinking it furtively in their own rooms?

(Source 13) Advertising instructions for Vino Sano grape drink (1931)

Dissolve one (cube) in one gallon of plain water. Treat this exactly as you would freshly pressed fruit juices for home use. Sugar may be added according to taste, usually one pound for the dry types, two pounds for the sweet types. The beverage should be consumed within five days, otherwise, and in summer temperature, it might ferment and become wine.


Questions for Students

Question 1: Describe the different reasons for being in favour of prohibition expressed in sources 1 and 3.

Question 2: Compare the views of the authors of sources 2 and 4.

Question 3: Explain the meaning of the phrase "contributor to dry causes" in source 5

Question 4: Use source 9 to explain what the writer in source 7 meant by "the awful things that were coming".

Question 5: Referring to the sources in this unit, give as many reasons as you can why prohibition was difficult to enforce.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.