How successful was prohibition in the 1920’s

“The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and out jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent” Reverend Billy Sunday


Section A: Plan of investigation
Section B: Summary of evidence
Section C: Evaluation of sources
Section D: Analysis
Section E: Conclusion
Section F: List of sources

  1. Plan of the investigation
My study will focus on “How successful was prohibition in the 1920’s” I will seek to determine whether prohibition was a success or a failure and what contributed to this. I chose this topic because I was interested in why prohibition came around and how prohibition led to the rise of criminals such as Al Capone, John Dillinger and baby face Nelson Prohibition seemed to set the scene for the next fifteen twenty years in the USA I am interested in finding out if there was a way of preventing the failure of prohibition, gangsters and corruption but also if the prohibition was partly successful or just a failure.

In order to answer my question I have structured my analysis question using the following method firstly I will compare whether prohibition was a success or a failure by looking at social political and economic factors and secondly which reasons are more convincing. In order to keep the scope of the study manageable, I have made use of a variety of carefully selected sources, including books[1] and websites[2]
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B.Summary of evidence
Background to prohibition

The eighteenth amendment was certified on January 16th 1919 and the amendment was to come into effect on January 17th 1920 the Volstead act reinforced this it specified that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act”. Prohibition was supported by all states apart from Connecticut and Rhode Island. Prohibition had been tried before in USA and each time it had been repealed, firstly in 1734 Act of Georgia and also “The Maine Law” in 1851 which was followed by 13 states but proved impossible to enforce so once again it was repealed. This asks the question why was prohibition attempted again if it would only be repealed the outstanding reason has to be that leaps forward in medical research proved that unlike before alcohol was now proven to have a bad effect it was linked to diseases such as sclerosis and kidney failure.
The anti-saloon league the ASL [3] which had been in place 25 years prior to the 18th amendment where a key organization in introducing prohibition Anderson, William H was one of their more successful leaders known as “the dry warrior” he would create false rumors and falsify documents and intimidation and these tactics helped him the ASL and other organization change the constitution and introduce the 18th amendment. Women also played a key role in the introduction of prohibition there were a number of Women’s unions who like the ASL wanted prohibition. The ASL became one of the most powerful forces of the time.
Key events of the prohibition
The prohibition is not famous for the health benefits that where expected now most people associate this era with criminals, gangsters, bootleggers and hidden drinking spots known as speakeasies “The gangsters moved in and illegal production and distribution of alcohol, or bootlegging, became widespread. By 1925 in New York alone there was anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000 speakeasy clubs”[4]. Gangsters saw the opportunity to make a lot of money off the high demand for alcohol and that’s what saw criminal organizations come to the forefront of prohibition the most famous gangster of the time is Al Capone organizations such as Al Capone’s would smuggle alcohol in from over the borders and rumrunners from the Caribbean, one of the most well-known incidents during prohibition was the St valentine’s day massacre where Al Capone’s organization “the outfit” gunned down 11 of the Bugs Moran Mob it is so well known for the violence and brutality of the event . Along with the rise of gangsters came the rise of corruption as the law became increasingly hard to enforce with the prohibition agents being underpaid and under qualified. The original cost of law enforcement was thought to be around $5 million before prohibition however during prohibition this escalated to $300 million.
The aftermath of prohibition

After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 many states introduced the minimum drinking age as 21, the beer revenue act[5] that made alcohol with a percentage of 3.2% or below legal. By this time America was in the great depression after the wall st crash in 1929 by legalizing alcohol this would create a lot of jobs lessening unemployment and boosting the economy.

Many things evolved from prohibition Jazz music became incredibly popular it emerged as the most popular form of music of the era. By this time Al Capone public enemy number one was imprisoned for tax evasion but organized crime continued just as strong as during prohibition with criminals such as John Dillinger and “pretty boy” Floyd coming to the forefront.

Alcohol consumption decreased to roughly 30[6] percent of the level it was at before prohibition, it bettered peoples finances during the depression, alcohol consumption didn’t pass the level it was at before the prohibition until the 1970’s

  1. Evaluation of sources

“the origin of source A is…From this we can deduce that its purpose…

On this basis, the source is valuable because…Nevertheless it also has some limitations in the sense that…
2 sources

  1. Analysis of sources
Someone says this… however….

book says this…. However…. Biased etc. recycle some of the points you use in section C




someone argues this but then someone else argues this, summarize the different interpretations

Critical analysis
= which is more reliable or convincing is it giving you the full picture

Although the things people know most about the prohibition are negative different Historians still have contrasting interpretations. Richard Hofstadter and Andrew Sinclair showed Prohibition to be a complete failure they believe that it was thrust upon the country. Hofstadter believes that the prohibitionists only targeted foreign alcohol and that the support for the prohibitionist came from the country not the cities “they represented the cities as full of foreigners making evil profits out of poisonous drinks” another quote from Andrew Sinclair I found powerful was “this lawlessness, spawned by prohibition, now threatened to spread with mass unemployment, and shake the roots of society” this quote for me shows how he thinks about the prohibition the “lawlessness” being the criminals mass unemployment being the jobs lost. They believe that prohibition was the cause of organized crime becoming prominent in America as prohibition saw an increase in bootleggers, smuggling alcohol from overseas which also lead to hijackings and even murders.
However other historians especially more recently have different views and this goes against what most people know or believe about the period Norman Clark and John C. Burnham they believe that the prohibition played a big part in the progressive movement Burnham makes the point that it is commonly referred to as an experiment and not a reform President Hoover called it “great social and economic experiment noble in motive and far reaching in purpose” it could be referred to as an experiment because the 18th amendment was repealed unlike amendments before it. Burnham believes that prohibition was not a totally unsuccessful movement, although the drinking levels of before and during the prohibition are unclear the rates of cirrhosis death decreased by 10-20 percent[7] and alcohol is the main cause of cirrhosis this suggests a decrease in the consumption of alcohol, also another study shows that alcohol consumption decreased to roughly 30[8] percent of the level it was at before prohibition, it bettered peoples finances during the depression, alcohol consumption didn’t pass the level it was at before the prohibition until the 1970’s. Burnham also believed that prohibition was not the reason for an increase in crime and the rise of organized crime across America as organized crime did exist before prohibition and continued to exist after it. Prohibitionists had serious issues in mind with the deaths that alcohol caused it was a very real problem for a lot of people.
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It is difficult to pin point how successful or unsuccessful the prohibition was because of the varying degrees of enforcement this meant that depending on what area you were in it was either harder or easier to gain access to alcohol so in some parts bootlegging was prolific or in the cities there were a lot of speakeasies meaning easy access to alcohol whereas in other parts the law enforcement was strict therefore alcohol was harder to get so there was less alcohol consumed. Alcohol consumption did decrease at the start of prohibition but then began to rise to surpass the consumption before prohibition this would be dangerous not only because people are drinking more alcohol but also because of the quality of the alcohol, before prohibition the alcohol sold in saloons is likely to have been good quality but when people start making their own often strong alcohol it could lead to a serious increase in health problems. Prohibition was repealed with the passing of the 21st amendment, maybe this wasn’t the only solution instead of making all alcohol illegal they could’ve just made strong alcohol illegal and maybe the amount of alcohol one person could have at once, if they only made wine and beers with low percentage legal straight away it could’ve worked better lessening the amount of people drunk and the amount of people with alcohol related illness also by still allowing the sale of beer it would’ve kept people in work and also removed the need for alcohol to be illegally made or sold which could’ve prevented or decreased the rise in organized crime.
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  • administrative (web address renewed 2007-06-22). WHO | World Health Organization [ONLINE]. Available at: [last accessed: 13th September 2013]
  • RICHARD HOFSTADTER (1960). The Age of Reform. Vintage (ISBN: 0394700953).Prohibition: The era of excess
  • J.C. Burnham- New perspectives on the prohibition “experiment” of the 1920s
  • The American Review vol 81, No. 2 papers and proceedings of the hundred and third annual meeting of the American Economic Association. (May, 1991), pp. 242-247
  • Author Unknown. Did Prohibition Really Work? Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Innovation [ONLINE]. Available at:!po=67.2414. [last accessed: 13th September 2013]
  • SUNY at Albany. Organized Crime and Prohibition [ONLINE]. Available at: [last accessed: 13th September 2013]
  • Charles Hoynowski (web address renewed 06-Jul-2013 17:34:41 UTC). Untitled Page [ONLINE]. Available at: [last accessed: 13th September 2013]

[1] List of books
[2] List of websites
[3] ASL non partizan organization established in 1893 that focused on the single issue of prohibition

[4]Henry O’Rourke who was a police officer in New York during the 1920s.

[5] Introduced by the Roosvelt administration
[6] The American economic review, vol 81, No.2,pp.242-247, (May 1991)
[7] The American economic review, vol 81, No.2,pp.242-247, (May 1991)
[8] The American economic review, vol 81, No.2,pp.242-247, (May 1991)