The Volstead Act
New York City police officer examines confiscated alcohol. (Credit: Art Edger/NT Daily News/Getty Images)
The 1920s saw many freedoms expanded while leading to others being curtailed. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, had banned the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors,” and at 12 A.M. on January 16, 1920, the federal Volstead Act closed every tavern, bar and saloon in the United States. From then on, it was illegal to sell any “intoxication beverages” with more than 0.5% alcohol. This drove the liquor trade underground. People were able to make a simple shift, going to nominally illegal speakeasies instead of ordinary bars. Speakeasies were controlled by bootleggers, racketeers and other organized-crime figures such as Chicago gangster Al Capone, who reportedly had 1,000 gunmen and half of Chicago’s police force on his payroll.
To many middle-class white Americans, Prohibition was a way to assert some control over the unruly immigrant masses crowding into the nation’s cities. Drinking was a symbol of all they disliked about the modern city, and eliminating alcohol would, they believed, turn back the clock to an earlier and more comfortable time.
Rather than accomplishing a milder, gentler society, Prohibition led to rebellion and the rise of organized crime.
History.com Staff. “The Roaring Twenties.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties.
Andrews, Evan. “10 Things You Should Know About Prohibition.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 16 Jan. 2015, www.history.com/news/10-things-you-should-know-about-prohibition.