Today in History – October 28

On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act providing for enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified nine months earlier. Known as the Prohibition Amendment, it prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States.

We have only to look about us in this great city, to observe the traces of the deadly influence of intemperance. Everywhere, we face crime, disease and death, all testify to the necessity of the prosecution of the cause, of steadfast and unwavering effort and prompt action to lead to complete success.

[Address by Charles C. Burleigh]. In The Whole World’s Temperance Convention. [Metropolitan Hall, NYC, Sept. 1-2, 1853] New York: Fowler and Wells, 1853. p. 10. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Unidentified Woman, Half-length Portrait, Facing Front, Holding a Copy of the Book “Sons of Temperance Offering” for 1851. ca. 1851. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division

The movement to prohibit alcohol began in the early years of the nineteenth century when individuals concerned about the adverse effects of drink began forming local societies to promote temperance in the consumption of alcohol. Some of the earliest temperance societies were organized in New York (1808) and Massachusetts (1813). Many of the members of these societies belonged to Protestant evangelical denominations and eventually organized religion played a significant role in the movements. As time passed, most temperance societies began to call for complete abstinence from all alcoholic beverages.

The Anti-Saloon League, founded in Ohio in 1893 and organized as a national society in 1895, helped pave the way for passage of the Eighteenth Amendment with an effective campaign calling for prohibition at the state level. Their success is reflected by the fact that as of January 1920, thirty-three states had already enacted laws prohibiting alcohol. Between 1920 and 1933, the Anti-Saloon League lobbied for strict federal enforcement of the Volstead Act.

Sixteenth Convention, Anti-Saloon League of America at Atlantic City, N.J., July 6-9, 1915. Thomas Sparrow, photographer,July 1915. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, founded by reformer and educator Frances Willard in 1883, mobilized thousands of women in the fight for temperance.

I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry External,” Words by Lew Brown; Music by Albert Von Tilzer; New York: Broadway Music, 1919. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries

Willard also worked for women’s suffrage, as did many other women who found their political awareness expanded by involvement in the temperance crusade. Given their political and economic vulnerability, nineteenth-century women’s lives were easily devastated if the men they depended on “took to drink.” Famous for attacking saloons with a hatchet, Carry Nation’s flamboyant activism evolved from her upbringing in an atmosphere of strong religious beliefs and a failed marriage to an alcoholic. Although few embraced Nation’s extreme stance, Prohibition was viewed by many as a progressive social reform that would improve and protect the lives of women and children.

The Volstead Act ultimately failed to prevent the large-scale production, importation, and sale of liquor in the United States, and the Prohibition Amendment was repealed in 1933.

U.S. Officials Destroying Liquor at the Brownsville Customs House External. Robert Runyon, photographer, December 20, 1920. Runyon (Robert) Photograph Collection External. Briscoe Center for American History:University of Texas/Austin

Taken from Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies, the following recordings from the early 1920s lampoon Prohibition. “Dinnie Donohue” relies on the ethnic stereotype of a drunken Irishman, while “Save a Little Dram” features a minister complaining that his congregation is stingy with their gin.

Dinnie Donohue, on Prohibition.”
An “Irish monologue,” Performed by William Cahill, Orange, N.J: Edison, 1921.

Save a Little Dram for Me.”
Written by Will E. Skidmore and Marshall Walker, Performed by Duke Rogers, Orange, N.J.: Edison, 1922.