A Toast to the Prohibition Movement and Its Epic Failures

A Toast to the Prohibition Movement and Its Epic Failures

That you’re reading this blog means you’re savvy enough to know Prohibition happened, led to some pretty fucked up moments in Chicago history, and then failed.  Before you can understand the glamorous, jazz-filled, gorgeous failure of Prohibition that led to the most exciting decade in Chicago’s history, you should probably know why Prohibition started.

Once women won the right to vote in 1919, a handful of well-meaning women of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union saw alcohol as the last great evil holding women hostage to abusive men.  Women like Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard called the Prohibition movement, “Home Protection,” encouraging women to rally behind the cause and sober up their terrible husbands.  As Willard’s idea gained support throughout the country, a strange thing not seen again in American politics occurred that helped propel the constitutional amendment that we would later know and love as Prohibition: bipartisan support.  It’s completely understandable if you’re unfamiliar with the word “bipartisan,” but the concept of banning liquid gold from American homes brought together not only Democrats and Republicans, but also strange bedfellows like leading industrialists and suffragettes, and Populists and Progressives. With a strangely assorted bipartisan solution to the anti-immigrant sentiment of the pre-World War I era, the 18th Amendment easily passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was ratified by the requisite number of states in only 13 months.  For appropriate context, the Equal Rights Amendment of the Constitution has been flirting with ratification by states since 1972 without success.

With easy ratification and a noble-sounding sentiment, proponents of Prohibition failed to consider how horribly dangerous, interesting, and permanent the failure of Prohibition might be.  The market for entertainment, soft drinks, rent and especially alcohol-free restaurant sales tanked.  Businessmen that bought into Prohibition expecting to make more money as people quit drinking their paychecks quickly discovered their folly and were left without legal booze to wash away their despair.  Politicians that eagerly crammed the constitutional amendment through both chambers were also soon to discover that the tax revenue that came with legal sales of alcohol (only $11 billion) evaporated and the movement cost $300 million to enforce—and enforcement was still, of course, impossible. Turns out the speakeasies weren’t collecting tax on bathtub gin!

At the same time that the country was discovering Prohibition failed to lead to the promised land for a young America, Americans were having more fun than ever.  Even in the 1920’s Americans knew with certainty that making alcohol illegal made it more enticing.  Pharmacies were booming because it was still legal to prescribe whiskey.  Gangster and flappers were born in the dark corners of Chicago where the gin flowed freely.  Prohibition had only made alcohol, particularly excessive amounts of it, more fun.  The concept of temperance was replaced with the concept of short dresses, bobbed hair, and tommy guns.

And that’s how Prohibition made Chicago, Chicago.

If boozy cocktails, women’s liberation, gangster-lore and true crime fill out your weekends, raise a glass to Frances Elizabeth Willard on the tour!

Written by Amy Williams

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