Alcohol in Early 20th Century: Temperance & Prohibition

Alcohol in early 20th century saw dramatic changes. The growth of the temperance movements developed rapidly. This was both in the U.S. and around the world. Prohibitionists believed that a world without beverage alcohol was an attainable goal. The growth of the Progressive movement in the U.S. was significant. It held that governments could effectively engage in social engineering to create virtually perfect societies.

         This is Part of a Series

Alcohol in Antiquity.

Greeks and Romans: Alcohol

Alcohol in the Middle Ages.

The Renaissance: Alcohol

Alcohol in the 17th Century.

The 18th Century and Alcohol.  

Alcohol in the 19th Century.

Alcohol in the Early 20th Century.

The Mid-20th Century and Alcohol.  

Alcohol 1980-2000.


I.  Alcohol in the Early 20th Century

II. Resources


I. Alcohol in Early 20th Century

During the early 20th Century some countries established, and later repealed, prohibition. They include these.

    • Iceland (1912-1932)
    • Russia, (1914-1925)
    • Canada (1907-last province 1947)
    • Finland (1919-1932)
    • Norway (1919-1927)
    • US (1920-1933)

Votes to establish prohibition failed in other countries. They included New Zealand (1919), Sweden (1922), and Australia (1930).3

“Sex segregation was at the heart of Australia’s twentieth century drinking culture.”2


Famous Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) member Carry A. Nation (who copyrighted her name) began destroying saloons with a hatchet.1


In the U.S., Busch had overtook Pabst to become the nations best-selling beer.4


A bottling company built the first fully automatic bottle-making machine. A later version produced over 50,000 bottles per day.5


alcohol in the early 20th century

A major event effecting alcohol early 20th century was the phylloxera invasion. It devastated European vineyards and reduced wine production greatly. To help meet the demand, the Ottoman Empire exported 340 million liters of wine in 1904.6    


  • Sweden required all cities to adopt the Gothenburg system for retail sales.7
  • There were nearly 415,000 acres of vineyards in Algeria, but only about 26,000 in 1865. France imported much of it and passed it off as French wine. Sometimes even as classified chateaux.8


  • Prohibition began in Canadian provinces. Most repealed their prohibition fairly soon. They ranged from from only one year (Quebec. 1918-1919) to thirteen years for (Nova Scotia, 1916-1929). But Prince Edward Island maintained it from 1907 until 1948. The failure of prohibition marked the end of the biggest and longest social movement in Canadian history.9
  • GA and OK became the first states in the U.S. to adopt statewide prohibition in the twentieth century.10
  • An estimated half million farmers gathered in Montpellier, France, demanding government action against imported wine.11 The protests killed five people people.12


MS and NC adopted statewide prohibition.13


TN adopted statewide prohibition.14


alcohol in the early 20th century
Champagne Riots

The Champagne Riots began in 1910 and 1911. But violence and riots continued until the outbreak of WW. I. The primary cause of the riots was conflict over the boundaries of Champagne vs. non-Champagne wine. The arbitrary boundary made an enormous financial difference.15


  • Vodka accounted for 89.3% of the total alcohol consumed in Russia.16
  • WV adopted statewide prohibition.17


Congress passed The Webb-Kenyon Act. It banned shipment of alcohol beverages into a state if the law of that state prohibited it. If effect, this prohibited shipping alcohol into a state with statewide prohibition.18


  • alcohol in the early 20th centuryConsumption of absinthe increased when phylloxera destroyed much of France’s wine production. But viticulture began to flourish again in Languedoc. Yet sales were poor. So growers begin to blame absinthe for their problem. So an anti-absinthe movement grew strong. Of course, temperance groups joined the cause.19 In 1914, France yielded to pressure from wine producers and banned the sale of absynthe.20
  • The French army troops first awarded troops a daily wine ration in World War I. It was to improve their morale. Perhaps it was also to make them less fearful charging at German machine guns.21
  • During the First World War, the English army was fortified primarily with rum. The German were fortified with schnapps and brandy. For the French it was cheap wine.22
  • Australia mandated a 6:00 pm closing of alcohol purchases at hotels as a temporary war measure. (Hotels were the major outlets in Australia.) Yet it lasted until the middle of the century. Its unintended result included the six o’clock swill. Consumers drank as much alcohol as they could between leaving work and 6:00. The measure led to a black market in alcohol known as “sly grogging.”23
  • AZ, CO, OR, VA and WA State adopted statewide prohibition.24
  • By 1914, 33 states in the U.S. had adopted statewide prohibition.25

Many people were convinced that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crime. So as National Prohibition approached, some towns in the US actually sold their jails.26


  • Iceland imposed a total ban on the importation of alcohol. It lasted for seven years.27
  • AL, AR, ID, IA, and SC adopted statewide prohibition.28


MI, MT, NE, and SD adopted statewide prohibition.29


  • Denmark sold the Danish West Indies. It had supplied Denmark’s rum. So the price of rum increased sharply. Within five years Denmark became a beer-drinking country and remains so today.30
  • Sweden ended the Gothenburg system of alcohol sales. It replaced it with the Bratt (or motbok). It was a government monopoly rationing system. Each person had a motbok or book. Clerks recorded each purchase the person’s book. The system restricted how much a person could buy each month.31
  • IN, NH, NM, and UT adopted statewide prohibition.32


  • In Bulgaria “winemaking began again in earnest” after the end of Turkish rule in 1878.33
  • FL, NV, OH, TX, and WY adopted statewide prohibition.34


  • The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Jan 16, 1919. It went into effect one year later. The Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. and its possessions. Contrary to common belief, it did not prohibit buying or drinking alcohol.35
  • Congress passed the National Prohibition Act of 1919 (Volstead Act). It was enabling legislation for the Eighteenth Amendment. That is, it had to define alcohol beverage, set fines, etc. Congressman Andrew J. Volstead chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsored the legislation.36

During National Prohibition, temperance leaders hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible. He was to remove all references to beer or wine.73


  •  Speakeasies served both sexes, unlike the saloons they replaced.37
  • “Cocktails spread from the public [speakeasies] to the private [home] sphere during Prohibition” in the U.S.38

In Los Angeles, a jury in a bootlegging case was itself put on trial after it drank the evidence. The jurors argued in their defense that they had simply been sampling the evidence to determine if contained alcohol. But because they drank the evidence, the defendant charged with bootlegging had to be freed.39


CA grape growers increased their acreage about 700 percent during the first five years of National Prohibition. Production increased greatly to meet a booming demand for home-made wine.40


  • National Prohibition in the U.S.went into effect January 16, 1920 and lasted until December 5, 1933.
  • Prohibition reversed an historic pattern. Spirits took the place of beer and contributed about two-thirds of total alcohol consumption by the end of the 1920s.41 
  • alcohol in early 20th
    National Gesture

    Hypocrisy was widespread during U.S. Prohibition. The director of Prohibition enforcement for northern CA admitted in public that he drank occasionally. He “also served liquor to his guests because he was a gentleman and ‘not a prude.”’42 The U.S. Attorney General (the highest law enforcement official in the country) was implicated in alcohol corruption. The Prohibition director for the state of Pennsylvania conspired to illegally remove 700,000 gallons of alcohol from storage. He also controlled a $4,000,000 slush fund used to bribe Prohibition agents and officials.43 Andrew Volstead of Volstead Act fame, drank alcohol. Congress had its own bootlegger. The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives owned and operated an illegal still.44 President Harding voted for Prohibition as senator. Yet he kept a stock of bootleg alcohol in the White House.45


  • Poland established a government alcohol monopoly.46
  • Sweden implemented its motbok system. It restricted how much a person could buy each month. Clerks recorded each purchase in the buyer’s personal record book (the motbok). Sweden abolished the motbok system in 1954.47


New York State repealed the Mullin-Gage law passed in 1921. It had paralyzed the courts with liquor cases.48


  • Ghandi’s political party supported his plan to picket alcohol shops in India.49
  • The U.K. enacted a licensing act that consolidated and extended many wartime restrictions on alcohol. It included a prohibition against mid-afternood sales by pubs.50


  • When the fascists came to power in Italy, alcohol abuse became a criminal matter.51
  • When archaeologists opened the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamen they found wine jars buried with him in 1323 B.C. They bore labeles with the year, the name of the winemaker, and comments about the quality of the wine.52


In the UK it became illegal to sell alcohol to anyone below the age of 18.53


Investors formed the National Distillers Products Corporation. It began buying the alcohol stock of defunct distillers. When prohibition ended, it owned over half of the aged whiskey in the U.S.54


Botanists in South Africa developed the Pinotage grape by crossing Pinot Noir and Cincault.55


alcohol in the early 20th century
Dr. Raymond Pearl

Dr. Raymond Pearl published Alcohol and Longevity. In it he reported finding that moderate drinkers outlived both abstainers and alcoholics. Dr. Pearl’s ground breaking research occurred during the middle of National Prohibition (1920-1933). So it received little attention. Yet over time, researchers reported finding that drinking alcohol moderately leads to longer life.56    

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) strongly supported Prohibition and its strict enforcement. It backed up its support by both word and action.57


Powerful Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne WheelerBishop James Cannon, Jr. then emerged as the most powerful leader of the temperance movement in the U.S. He was chair of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals. H. L. Mencken was a famous journalist who said this of Cannon. “Congress was his troop of Boy Scouts and Presidents trembled whenever his name was mentioned.”58


Reflecting the influence of a strong temperance movement, Iceland imposed a ban on all alcoholic beverages in Icelandic media.59

After a busy day arresting Prohibition offenders, famous Prohibition enforcement agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith relaxed. Then they enjoyed their favorite beverages – beer and cocktails!60


National Prohibition led to a boom in the cruise industry. By taking “cruises to nowhere,” people could legally drink alcohol as soon as the ship entered international waters. There the ships would cruise in circles. The cruises quickly became known as “booze cruises.”64


  • Mild ale and bitter become the favorite of British beer drinkers.65
  • Farmers in Kazakhstan planted their earliest modern day vineyards. 66
  • “Starting in the 1930s, cocktain parties became popular forms of entertainment This is also when the social practice of having a drink (or two or three) before dinner became widespread [around the world].”67


  • Finland repealed prohibition by voting.68
  • alcohol in the early 20th century
    Sen. John J. Blaine

    On December 6, 1932, Sen. John J. Blaine of WI drafted a Twenty-first Amendment. It was submitted to the states for possible ratification. The goal was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment that created National Prohibition. It quickly passed both houses of Congress. The necessary 36 states ratified it on December 5, 1933. That ended National Prohibition.69 Yet a number of states maintained state-wide prohibition. The last to drop prohibition was MS in 1966. But it and many other states continue to permit local option. This permits counties to decide whether or not to have local prohibition.70


  • Congress anticipated that ratification of the 21st Amendment would be a very long process. So it modified the Volstead Act by means of the Cullen-Harrison Act. That permitted the sale of of beer with a maximum ABV of 3.2 percent. It became effective on April 7, 1933.71
  • The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect at 4:31 p.m. on December 5, 1933. It ended 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours and 32.5 minutes of Prohibition.72


We’ve seen highlights of alcohol in early 20th century. Its history was clearly turbulent. Now let’s explore what happened in the mid-twentieth century.


II. Resources on Alcohol in Early 20th Century

Popular Readings

Endnotes: Alcohol in Early 20th Century

1 Nation, C. The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation, 1905. And Asbury, H. Carry Nation. Also Hubbard, G. Carry Nation and Her Denver Crusade of 1906. And Lewis, B. Carry Nation: the trouble was all in her head. AR Gaz. Aug 25, 1999, pp. 1B, 6B. Also Madison, A. Carry Nation.

2 Kirkby, D. Drinking “The Good Life” Australia c. 1880-1980. In: Holt. M., (Ed.) Alcohol. Pp.203-223. P. 208.

3 Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History. Vol. 1, xxxi-xiv.

4 Forbes, T. How Budweiser Became the King of Beers. Thom Forbes website.

5 Esteicher, S. Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century, p. 86.

6 Wine History in Anatola. Wines of Turkey website.

7 Gordon, E. The Breakdown of the Gothenburg System, 1911.

8 Lukacs, P. Inventing Wine, p. 176.

9 Cheung, Y., and Erickson, P. Canada. In: Heath, D. (Ed.) Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Pp. 20-30. P. 21. Good for alcohol in early 20th century.

10 Hill, J. Defining Moments: Prohibition, p. xxi.

11 Lukacs, p. 177.

12 Charters, S. Wine and Society, pp. 287-288.

13 Hill, ibid.

14 ___. ibid.

15 Champagne Riots! Website of the Society of Wine Educators. Johnson, H. Champagne riots. Vintage: The Story of Wine.

16 Sidorov, P. Russia. In: Heath. Pp. 237-253. P. 239.

17 Hill, ibid.

18 Webb-Kenyon Act.

19 Sournia, J. A History of Alcohol, p. 76 and p. 753.

20 Blocker, op cit.

21 Charters, p. 287.

22 Lukacs, p. 191.

23 Hall, W., and Hunter, E. Australia. In: Heath. Pp. 719. P. 9.

24 Hill, J., op cit.

25 Brook, S. The Wines of CA.

26 Anti-Saloon League of America. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook, 1920, p. 8. Covers alcohol in early 20th century.

27 Asmundsson, G. Iceland. In: Heath. Pp.117-127. P. 118.

28 Hill, p. xxii.

29 Hill, ibid.

30 Schioler, P. Denmark. In: Heath. Pp. 51-62. Pp. 54-55.

31 Gebhart, J. The Bratt System of Liquor Control in Sweden.

32 Hill, op cit.

33 Stevenson, T. The Sotheby’s Wine Book, p. 412.

34 Hill, op cit.

35 The 18th Amendment.

36  The Volstead Act.

37 Gately, I. Drink. A Cultural History of Alcohol, p. 376.

38 Gately, p. 377.

39 The New York Times, Jan 7, 1928.

40 Feldman, H. Prohibition, 1928, pp. 278-281.

41 Blocker, J. Drinking in the US, 1400-2000. In:Holt. M., (Ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Pp. 225-240. P. 232.

42 Gately, p. 379.

43 Hill, p. 59.

44 Jennings, P. World News Tonight. ABC-TV, Jan, 29. 1999.

45 Esteicher, p. 115.

46 Moskalewicz, J., and Zielinski, A. Poland. In: Heath. Pp. 224-236. P. 226.

47 Nyberg, K., and Allebeck, P. Sweden. In: Heath. Pp. 282-283.

48 Gately, p. 380.

49 Blocker, 2003, p. xlii.

50 Blocker, ibid.

51 Cottino, A. Italy. In: Heath. Pp. 156-167. P. 161.

52 Esteicher, p. 18.

53 Plant, M. The United kingdom. In: Heath. Pp. 289-299. P. 292.

54 Blocker, 2003, ibid.

55 Esteicher, p. 119.

56 Anstie’s Limit.

57 Moore, L. Interpretation of the 1920’s Klan. J Soc Hist, 24 (2), 341-358. Covers alcohol in 20th century. Also The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Alcohol, & Prohibition.

58 Hohner, R. Prohibition and Politics. Patterson, M. The fall of a bishop. J South Hist, 39, 493-518. Also Bishop James Cannon, Jr.  

59 Asmundsson, G. Iceland. In: Heath, D., p. 119.

60 Asbury, H. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, S., and Zanetti, G. (Eds.) Players, p. 183. Also Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith.

61 Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits, p. 17. Gately, p. 378.

62 Neumann, C. The end of gender solidarity. J Women’s Hist, 9, 31-51. Also Root, G. Women and Repeal. Rose, K. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. Finally, Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

63 Hill, p. 86

64 Cruising Through History. In Gordon, L. Caribbean Cruises. London: Insight, p. 33.

65 Blocker, 2003, xxxi-xiv.

66 Colin, B. Kazakh Wines. Kazakhstan Edge website.

67 Lukacs, p. 197.

68 Levine, H., and Reinarman, C. Alcohol Prohibition.

69 Gately, p. 398.

70 Repeal of Prohibition.

71 Gately, I., ibid.

72 Prohibition: The Noble Experiment.

73 The Am Mix, 1(1), 4.


    • At this point you know much more by far than others about alcohol in early 20th century!