Dry Humor

The Gist: 100 years ago, Congress voted for Prohibition. 14 years later, they voted for Repeal. It might not have happened but for the Great Depression and the inflexibility of Prohibitionists.

Part 2 of a review of Prohibition: a Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh and Last Call by Daniel Okrent. See Part 1, “The Drinking Age” here.

The primary verdict on Prohibition is that it didn’t work.


Figure 1. We might think of the real entrepreneur who did not sell alcohol but instead gave a free drink to anyone who paid to see his blind pig. Pay for swine, get some wine, if you will.


The verdict is true insofar as alcohol was available for sale, especially in large cities, during the time it was legally prohibited – and, perhaps more importantly, alcohol began to lose its social stigma, prompting a totally unexpected increase in women’s drinking. At the same time, alcohol consumption dropped around 70% in the years after the passage of the 18th Amendment and remained lower than before World War I for decades after Prohibition ended. 

How Prohibition ended is not really remembered. Modern Americans might guess that people just came to realize it didn’t work. That’s only part of the story. Bear in mind that there are dozens of dry counties today where you can’t legally buy a drop of liquor. Oklahoma voted five times to keep Prohibition until finally repealing it in 1959. Mississippi didn’t repeal statewide alcohol Prohibition until 1966.

Ultimately, America’s liquor drought lasted 14 years – it was drier than opponents remember, but wetter than supporters wanted. As noted in my last email, W.J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History lives up to its promise with a pithy overview. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call expands on the subject – perhaps a chaser to Rorabaugh’s shot. In today’s edition of Sober History, we’ll explore how national Prohibition worked (and didn’t) as well as how it came to be repealed.

Prohibitionists were wildly optimistic in their cost projections – something they share in common with practically every advocate of a government program. According to Okrent, the Anti-Saloon League’s (ASL) normally astute Wayne Wheeler in 1920 suggested “that five million dollars would be a sufficient appropriation for all federal enforcement of Prohibition (by way of comparison, the sum wouldn’t even have covered the payroll of Columbia University that year).” Only 1,500 federal agents were supposed to enforce the law across the United States while less than 60 vessels of the Coast Guard were supposed to patrol America’s “5,000 miles of saltwater coastline, plus another 1,450 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River” – a problem exasperated when rumrunners hired the same shipyards as the government to build faster boats.


Figure 2. If we’d only built the fence on the northern border, we’d know know how to do it again.


The federal government wasn’t the only available enforcer but Prohibitionists, who had used federalism so effectively on the way to achieving their national goal, ultimately lost the war locally. Concurrent jurisdiction allowed states to enforce the law but, as Okrent notes, “only eighteen states bothered to appropriate as much as a dollar for enforcement… By 1927 the dwindling number of states still spending any money on Prohibition enforcement together appropriated less than 15 percent of what they allocated for the enforcement of fish and game laws.” Maryland never even passed a law to enforce Prohibition and it wasn’t before long that others, most notoriously New York, repealed their local regulations. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the highest-ranking woman in American government up to that time, reflected that “It cannot truthfully be said that prohibition enforcement has failed in New York. It has not yet been attempted.” Without the armies of local law enforcement officers in cities, counties, and states, Prohibition could never really be tried.


Figure 3. In many states, you could drink like a fish so long as you didn’t fish like you drank.


But, even with the power it had, the federal government was either corrupt or stingy. Sometimes both. Warren G. Harding typified the corrupt: his Attorney General, one of two Cabinet officials designated to enforce Prohibition, ordered that seized liquor be delivered to himself and his friends. Calvin Coolidge typified the stingy: Walter Lippmann described Coolidge’s attitude toward government as “far from being indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity.” The other Cabinet official responsible for Prohibition was the Secretary of Treasury, and one man held the position for most of the era: Andrew Mellon. Mellon shared Coolidge’s stingy attitude toward government but also opposed the law in principle because he detested the income tax and liked liquor. The 1920s were a glorious era when Republicans not only said they wanted to spend little money, but actually did. That being said, the stinginess was odd in one respect: enforcement brought back to the government in fines, penalties, and taxes more than three times its cost.


Figure 4. Keep cool with Coolidge, whose determined inactivity made him an underappreciated government executive.


Relatedly, federal patronage was crucial to Prohibition’s political support but counterproductive to actual enforcement. The ability to dole out jobs was useful to reward loyal politicians but the men who filled the roles were often incompetent or corrupt. Willebrandt complained that she only had preachers and wardheelers to enforce the law. When they finally tried to professionalize, becoming the famous Untouchables, the loss of patronage undermined Congressional support.

Chicago Way

Figure 5. “You wanna know how to continue Prohibition? They advertise on billboards, you advertise on radio. They win a sheriff’s race, you win a majority in Congress. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you continue Prohibition. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”


There were gigantic loopholes in the law but Prohibitionists stringently stuck to blocking beer and wine from general distribution. As mentioned in my last email, the phrase “intoxicating” had been left intentionally undefined by the 18th amendment. Many believed that the drys were only targeting hard liquor and were surprised by Congress banning the distribution of all alcohol, which was in keeping with the Prohibitionists’ fears about substance abuse but seriously reduced political support. 

At the same time, the law provided for ultimately immense exceptions. Apple cider was allowed to appease the rural base. Whiskey prescriptions were allowed and soon reached over 10 million ailing patients a year, keeping some distilleries like Jack Daniel’s open while making Walgreen’s a national brand. Rorabaugh reports “Though state law controlled the amount of alcohol that could be purchased at one time, patients could buy liquor from multiple stores. Physicians could write unlimited prescriptions, and druggists had a powerful incentive to maximize total sales.” Some states were more honest than others. Okrent tells us: “Twelve forbade [medicinal alcohol] entirely, and nine more allowed doctors to prescribe only pure, tasteless, undiluted alcohol—no medicinal Old Grand-Dad, no therapeutic Jack Daniel’s, no curative ‘Rare Old Jamaica Rum / Imported in Wood / Exceptionally Fine.’” Wine exemptions were allowed for religious use, which worked fine for the centralized and hierarchical Catholic church but prompted a massive increase in the number of self-identified rabbis, many with suspiciously Irish surnames, some of whom opened up wine stores – “A typical one had a sign in the window reading ‘Kosher Wine for Sacramental Purposes’ and a rabbi behind the counter signing up customers to ‘join’ a synagogue at the same time they picked up the goods.” And, of course, these were just the legal ways to acquire alcohol. The courts did Prohibition no favors by insisting that alcohol passing through the U.S. from one foreign destination to another was necessarily permitted by treaty obligations – a boondoggle for rumrunners. 

And yet despite the unfunded, uneven, unenthusiastic, and unscrupulous enforcement, “To Wheeler, the law worked well enough in small-town America that it deserved to remain in place. He was optimistic that education and proper assimilation of immigrants to the standards that he espoused would dry out the cities in another generation,” reports Rorabaugh. Or, put another way, “Ultimately, drinkers with entrenched habits would die off, while a new generation would grow up abstinent under the salubrious influence of prohibition.” Tracking alcohol consumption in this era is fraught with difficulty but multiple independent analyses point to a drop of about 70% from before World War I to the early years of Prohibition, approximating when the movement against alcohol hit its pitch. While that left plenty of people drinking, that is still a dramatic decline! Harvard professor Mark Moore cites some related statistics:  “cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922.” Edward Behr claims that work absenteeism dropped 70%. Still, Cato’s Mark Thornton eloquently illustrates why the law in one way encouraged harder drinking: “Prohibition made it more difficult to supply weaker, bulkier products, such as beer, than stronger, compact products, such as whiskey, because the largest cost of selling an illegal product is avoiding detection.” In later years as the law was more openly defied, alcohol consumption rose but was still, according to analyses, more than a third lower than before World War I.


Figure 6. Wheeler believed time was on his side. It wasn’t. 


Whatever Wheeler’s optimism (or cynicism) about enforcement, his political acumen remained generally sharp, as Okrent relates: “a minority that has lost something will register its protest, he warned his fellow drys, but ‘the majority who have won the fight turn to other tasks.’” But the movement was shifting in a direction away from majority support, starting with their stringent “intoxicating” interpretation. Another permitted use of alcohol was for industrial purposes but, to prevent consumption, the government poisoned the product (a practice that continues today). Rorabaugh recounts the ensuing controversy: “After several New Yorkers died and hundreds were sickened by bad liquor in late 1926, Wayne Wheeler said, ‘The government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable, when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this alcohol is a deliberate suicide.’” 

Prohibitionists only got more extreme when Wheeler died in 1927 and as 1928 delivered a smashing electoral victory against the outright wet presidential candidate Al Smith. The ASL long had two factions, one dedicated to changing hearts, the other dedicated to changing laws. Wheeler had effectively managed the two but his successors did not. Spurred by the enthusiasm of controlling the machinery of law while facing embarrassment from the exposure of personal and family vices, they alienated donors like John D. Rockefeller, who withdrew support. Wheeler had always insisted on making dryness a bipartisan issue but it was threatened on both sides: urban wets became increasingly powerful in the Democrat Party as Republican financiers began funding efforts to repeal Prohibition in hopes that restored alcohol taxes could replace again the despised income tax. Nevertheless, emboldened by the 1928 election results, the ASL pushed for more aggressive enforcement than ever.

The drys were especially overconfident because the political system seemed so tilted in their favor. In order to repeal the 18th amendment, a process that had never happened in American history, the wets would need 2/3 of both houses of Congress AND the approval of 36 states. Every decade, the United States is supposed to go through a process of reapportionment in which some states get more Congressmen and some states get fewer based on population growth and decline. Partially because doing so in 1920 would have given more power to urban wet states, Congress did not bother – an unprecedented and never repeated act in American history. Okrent vividly illustrates why this mattered:

“Detroit provided an outstanding example of the inequities. Its population had doubled between the 1910 census and the unacknowledged 1920 census, but its congressional representation had remained constant; as a result, its two House members represented 497,000 people each, while in the House as a whole the average congressman stood for 212,000. As the decade stretched on, the imbalance only grew worse. By 1929 one of those Detroit districts was home to more than 1.3 million people, while at the same moment ten separate districts in Missouri contained fewer than 180,000 people each.”

So getting 2/3 of both houses of Congress was going to be difficult. But so was getting 36 states: 5% of Americans could block repeal. Rorabaugh recounts “As late as September 1930, the dry senator Morris Sheppard (D-TX), author of the Eighteenth Amendment, boasted, ‘There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.’” And so what? The drys had their law and the wets would have their liquor. Why wasn’t everyone happy?

1929 turned out to be a doomsday year for the drys, even if Prohibition limped along for four more years. Like the lead up to Prohibition, three crucial events would lead to its end.

First, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre horrified Americans and helped build the narrative that Prohibition empowered violent gangsters. The brutal murder of seven bootleggers, conducted by men in police uniforms, was publicly blamed and probably actually conducted on the orders of rival Al Capone. Capone courted publicity more than any other gangster of his era and contributed to a growing outrage that criminals, rather than taxpayers, profited from Prohibition. As alluded to above, the desire to get Capone (and others like him) led to some professionalization of related federal law enforcement that reduced patronage opportunities for Congressional supporters. Somewhat ironically, James Q. Wilson observed “there is not much evidence that crime (except for a few well-publicized gangland killings) went up during Prohibition.” Relatedly, Emily Owens finds that “on average, murder rates did not increase when alcohol markets were criminalized. Observed crime trends during the early 20th century are primarily explained by demographic changes.” Still, federal courts were flooded with Prohibition cases, prisons jumped in population, and crime probably became better organized. Regardless of the truth, the feeling, perpetuated by Hollywood, was that Prohibition drove crime – and was not the panacea to solve social ills that advocates had promised.

Nucky Thompson

Figure 8. “First rule of politics, kiddo: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” – Nucky Thompson


Second, the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform was founded by a well-heeled well-organized wet Republican who destroyed the image that women were universally for Prohibition. More than anything, the WONPR leadership was fed up with hypocrisy and disrespect for law. And yet “to avoid the charge that it favored saloons or drunkenness,” Rorabaugh recounts, “the WONPR stressed that it wanted rigorous government regulation of the alcohol industry.” This gave politicians substantial room to maneuver, though they still managed some ambiguity, with many insisting that they would vote to send a Constitutional amendment repealing the 18th to the states for the people to decide. Over the coming years, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (which labeled the WONPR, not inaccurately, a bunch of snobs) and the ASL (without Wheeler) would be politically outmatched.

Third, and most importantly, the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Depression and a government extremely thirsty for alcohol tax revenue. Relatedly, “previously dry newspapers clamored for the bill because they needed alcohol ads to survive the Depression.” Appropriate for such a deft politician, FDR was ambiguous about his feelings on Prohibition for as long as possible. As a state senator FDR had been feted by the Anti-Saloon League for pushing liquor controls. His wife Eleanor was “a committed dry whose father and brother had died of alcoholism.” When seeking gubernatorial reelection, “He said that he favored law enforcement, a hollow promise considering that Smith had repealed New York’s state enforcement law in 1923.” When seeking the presidency, “Whenever Franklin Roosevelt was asked about Prohibition, he stressed that the economy was a far more important issue.” Finally elected President in a landslide, FDR aggressively deployed patronage to repeal Prohibition (and help pay for his programs) in 1933. Instantly, alcohol taxes constituted 9% of federal revenue.

Had the drys been as nimble and flexible during Prohibition as they had been in achieving Prohibition, had there not been a Great Depression, Prohibition may have gone on for decades. Even with a continuous liquor clientele and women voting similarly to men, the Constitution’s strict requirements for amendment are very hard to meet (hence why we have only 27). But because of federalism and that liquor clientele making the business profitable whether legal or not, there would always be something available. The worst part of Prohibition repeal is that we didn’t also get a repeal of the income tax!

There are some interesting side effects of Prohibition: Coca-Cola sales had tripled and the drink became a national pastime; NASCAR evolved from fast cars to escape law enforcement; the cruise industry developed in order to serve liquor in international waters. But the biggest surprise of Prohibition was that alcohol’s social stigma somehow declined in its illegality. Women had drank 1/6th of men in the 19th century and did not frequent masculine saloons unless they were prostitutes but were very welcome in speakeasies. Okrent reports “A scholarly survey of 115 films released in 1929 established that drinking—virtually all of it illegal, of course—was depicted in 66 percent of them, more often than not favorably.” Rorabaugh suggests: “Because the safest place to drink without being arrested was at home, the middle class invented the home cocktail party.” One fascinating counter-factual: if the drys had continued their progress in social ostracizing of liquor without banning it nationwide, what would have happened?


Figure 9. Nerds reading this history, eager for social acceptance, pledged to make Dungeons and Dragons illegal – and therefore cool.


The biggest surprise after Prohibition is that alcohol consumption remained depressed for decades afterward. Consumption slowly climbed to a number approximating that immediately before Prohibition in 1973 but declined again in the 1980s, such that our per capita consumption today is 20% below our ancestors immediately before Prohibition (and 67% smaller than our ancestors before the Civil War).

There are a few theories on this. First, Prohibition changed the culture. Rorabaugh points out that “an American born in 1900 could not drink legally until age thirty-three, past the age when use normally peaks.”

Second, ironically, alcohol was potentially harder to procure after Prohibition than during. As Okrent pithily puts it, “what was formally illegal was necessarily unregulated.” Rockefeller aggressively distributed reports to journalists and legislators, instructed lawyers to draft model laws, and lobbied to get them passed, such that many states that repealed Prohibition nevertheless tightly regulated the flow of alcohol very close to ASL preferences in the lead-up. In the 1980s, there was a fresh (and successful) push from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to raise the legal drinking age to 21. 

Third, Rorabaugh attributes the decrease to America’s changing demographics. An older America is a sober America: “Consumption drops with each decade of adult life, and by age sixty-five a majority of people are abstainers.” The drop in the 1980s may have been due to “women entering the professional workforce in large numbers” and changing boozy work habits. Women generally drink less than men but have been even more disinclined after the federal government began publishing warnings that alcohol consumption was a danger to pregnant women (somewhat relatedly, it’s notable that infant mortality appears to have risen after Prohibition’s repeal). Ironic for the nativists who supported Prohibition, immigrants are reducing America’s drinking: 

“Mexican American men drink about as much as their Anglo counterparts in their twenties, but they drink much less after marriage because more than half of Mexican American women are teetotalers. When one partner in a couple does not drink, the other partner drinks less… Many Asians have the alcohol flush gene, which causes small amounts of alcohol to produce an unpleasant hot flash. Persons with this gene or from areas where the gene is common tend to be abstainers. African Americans continue to be light drinkers, and half of black women do not drink. Muslim immigrants are unlikely to drink for religious reasons. Members of certain Native American tribes drink heavily, but the country’s heartiest drinkers are white Americans who remain true to their European origins.”

Per capita consumption can also be a misleading statistic. According to the U.S. Justice Department, about half of Americans have less than a drink a month. If that surprises you, it may be because of your social circle: higher education is correlated with alcohol consumption. But, to return to the earlier data set from the 19th century, what that really means is that those who drink can drink a lot. 

There was a report in the early 20th century that “calculated that alcohol was responsible for 50 percent of crime, 45 percent of desertion of children, 42 percent of broken homes, and 25 percent of poverty.” Before we think we’re well-past that, we should acknowledge the continuous problem society has with alcohol, where one expert today says that most people in prison today were drunk when they committed their crimes.

Alcoholics Anonymous is an organization that calls on members to acknowledge their problem and then come to believe that a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity. To AA, that power is God. To Prohibitionists, it also included the government – and it didn’t work out like they hoped.

Prohibition is a fascinating history of political machinations but also of what people find worthy of righteousness – it was very easy to think that opponents of Prohibition were on the “wrong side of history” in 1920, when 46 out of 48 states had 80% of their elected representatives cast their lot with Prohibition. For anyone who cares passionately about persuading the public of some great good, the story is worth knowing from beginning to end.

Prohibition book

Figure 13. Click here to buy Prohibition: A Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh. 10/10. I’m obligated to Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution for recommending these books and providing lots of interesting thoughts on the subject generally. Cowen says about this book: “Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.”

Last Call

Figure 14. Click here to buy Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It’s longer and thus includes more material, has some excellent turns of phrase, but isn’t quite as good.


Thanks for reading! You can find part 1 of this series, about how Prohibition ended, here: Dry Humor. If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

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