Volstead Act begins the Prohibition

Saloons proliferated in early 20th century America, some offering not only drink but the associated vices of gambling and prostitution, and in the wake proliferated temperance groups who viewed saloon customers as boors, the wares as poison, and the establishments themselves as never more wretched hives of scum and villainy. Their philosophy held that once the business of boozing was stopped, the people themselves could be persuaded to give up alcohol altogether, and so with ever increasing strength the mounted a movement to prohibit alcohol sales.

On this day, October 28, in 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, enforcing the 18th Amendement to the Constitution prohibiting “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States.

The law was of course widely flouted, sometimes by “moonshiners” — so called because they brewed their alcohol under the cover of night, sometimes by organized liquor-running gangs. Al Capone owed much of his success to Prohibition. But there was still a legal way to obtain alcohol — prove there was a medical necessity for it. A “medical pint” of whiskey and brandy was prescribed for just about every ailment, and kept a few of the distilleries alive until the repeal of Prohibition with the 21st Amendment in 1933.