June 30, 1918 – What Americans Were Drinking Before Prohibition

In December, 1917, the U.S. Senate proposed the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively established the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the United States by declaring illegal the production, transport and sale of (though not the consumption or private possession of) alcohol. Upon being approved by the 36th state on January 16, 1919, the amendment was ratified, and by its terms, the country went dry one year later, on Jan. 17, 1920.

Disposal of Liquor After the Enactment of Prohibition

Disposal of Liquor After the Enactment of Prohibition

The Eighteenth Amendment did not define “intoxicating liquors,” nor did it specify penalties. It granted both the federal government and the states the power to enforce the ban by “appropriate legislation.” The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, was introduced in the House as H.R. 6810 by Andrew Volstead (R–MN) in June, 1919 to remedy these omissions.

The bill was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, largely on technical grounds because it also covered wartime prohibition, but his veto was overridden by the House on the same day, October 28, 1919, and by the Senate one day later.

In spite of this legislation, enforcement was lax for want of resources. (Banning the sale of alcohol with its lucrative taxes cut deeply into the national treasury.) By 1925, in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 ”speakeasy” clubs where liquor could be purchased. Needless to say, criminal activity increased dramatically.

On December 5, 1933, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. However, United States federal law still prohibits the manufacture of distilled spirits without meeting numerous licensing requirements that make it impractical to produce spirits for personal beverage use.

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The chart shown below (from the Library of Congress) dated June 30, 1918 from Bonfort’s Wine & Spirit Circular (which ceased publication in 1919) provides a glimpse of the spirits industry just prior to the time when Prohibition went into effect. It provides, for each type of alcohol, information on in which state or states it was produced, as well as the number of taxable gallons. 

Bonforts-Circular-Jan-15-1919-750x1024

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