Alcohol in the Early 20th Century: Temperance & Prohibition

Alcohol in the 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.

Entire Twentieth Century

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

Alcohol in the Early 20th Century

During the the early Twentieth Century some countries established, and later repealed, prohibition. They include Iceland (1912-1932, Russia, (1914-1925), Canada (1907-last province 1947), Finland (1919-1932), Norway (1919-1927), and the United States (1920-1933). Referenda to establish prohibtion failed in other countries. They included New Zealand (1919), Sweden (1922), and Australia (1930).3


Famous WCTU member Carry A. Nation (who copyrighted her name) began destroying saloons with a hatchet until her death in 1911.1


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 in the early 20th century was the phylloxera invasion. It devastated European vineyards and reduced wine production dramatically. 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 of classified chateaux.8


  • Prohibition began occuring in Canadian provinces. Most repealed their prohibition fairly soon. They ranged from ranging from only one year (Quebec. 1918-1919) to thirteen years for (Nova Scotia, 1916-1929). However, 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
  • Georgia and Oklahoma 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


Mississippi and North Carolina adopted statewide prohibition.13


Tennessee 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. An arbitrary boundary line made an enormous financial difference.15


  • Vodka accounted for 89.3% of the total alcohol consumed in Russia.16
  • West Virginia 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 or importing 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. However, viticulture began to flourish again in Languedoc. Yet sales were poor. So growers begin to blame absinthe for their problem. Consequently, an anti-absinthe movement grew strong. The Academie de Medecine demanded a ban. Temperance organizations 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 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.) However, it lasted until the middle of the century. Its unintended consequences 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
  • Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia and Washington 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 U.S. actually sold their jails.26


  • Iceland imposed a total ban on the importation of alcoholic beverages, which lasted for seven years.27
  • Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, and South Carolina adopt statewide prohibition.28


Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota adopt statewide prohibition.29


  • Denmark sold the Danish West Indies. It had supplied Denmark’s rum. Consequently, the price of rum increased sharply. Within five years Denmark became a beer-drinking (rather than spirits-drinking one) country and remains so today.30
  • Sweden replaced the Gothenburg system of alcohol sales with the Bratt (or motbok) government monopoly rationing system. Each person had a motbok or book. Clerks recorded each purchase in each person’s book. The system restricted how much a person could buy each month.31
  • Indiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Utah adopted  statewide prohibition.32


  • In Bulgaria ‘winemaking began again in earnest’ after the end of Turkish rule in 1878.33
  • Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Wyoming adopted statewide prohibition.34


During National Prohibition, some temperance leaders hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible. He was to remove all references to alcoholic beverages. 73

  • The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on January 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 the purchase or consumption of alcohol.35
  • Congress passed the National Prohibition Act of 1919 (Volstead Act). It was enabling legislation for the implementation of the Eighteenth Amendment. Congressman Andrew J. Volstead chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsored the legislation.36


  •  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. However, because they consumed the evidence, the defendant charged with bootlegging had to be acquitted.39


California’s grape growers increased their acreage about 700 percent during the first five years of National Prohibition. Production increased dramatically 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 California 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, who voted for Prohibition as senator, 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 United Kingdom it became illegal to sell alcohol to anyone below the age of 18.53


Investors formed the National Distillers Products Corporation and 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 which 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) and therefore, received little attention. Nevertheless, over time, an increasing volume of research reports that drinking alcohol leads to better health and longevity.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 Wheeler died in 1927,. Bishop 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


  • The New York City police commissioner estimated it was home to thirty-two thousand drinking places. It had only half that number of saloons and illegal joints before Prohibition.61

Pauline Sabin founded The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WOMPR)  She had earlier been a staunch supporter of National Prohibition. However, she came to believe strongly that it was ineffective. But worse, that it was actually counterproductive and causing very serious problems.62

  • President Hoover formed the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission). George W. Wickersham chaired the Commission. Much of its report was critical of National Prohibition in the U.S.63

National Prohibition led to a boom in the cruise industry. By taking “cruises to nowhere,” people could legally consume 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 referendum.68
  • alcohol in the early 20th century
    Sen. John J. Blaine

    On December 6, 1932, Sen. John J. Blaine of Wisconsin 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, thus ending National Prohibition.69 However, a number of states maintained state-wide prohibition. The last to drop prohibition was Mississippi in 1966. However, it and many other states continue to permit local option regarding the legal sale of alcoholic beverages.70


  • Congress anticipated that ratification of the Twenty-first 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.


Resources on Alcohol in the Early 20th Century

he Popular Readings

Barry, J. The Noble Experiment, 1919-1933: The Eighteenth Amendment Prohibits Liquor in America. NY: Watts, 1972 (Juvenile)

Behr, E. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. NY: Arcade, 1996.

Burns, K., et al. Prohibition. DVD video. Culver City: PBS, 2011.

Dunn, J. Prohibition. Detroit: Lucent, 2010. (Juvenile)

Engdahl, S. Amendments XVIII and XXI: Prohibition and Repeal. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2009

Hintz, M. Farewell, John Barleycorn. Prohibition in the US.
Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996. (Juvenile)

Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent, OH: Kent State U. Press, 2013.

Lender, M., and Martin, J. Drinking in America. A History. NY: Free Press, 1982.

Lerner, M. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2008.

Merz, C. The Dry Decade. Seattle: U. Washington Press, 1969.

Nishi, D. Prohibition. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2004.

Okrent, D. Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Scribner, 2010.

Orr, T. Prohibition. San Diego: Blackbirch, 2004. Bio sketches of major figures. (Juv.)

Peck, G. The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 2009.

Sinclair, A. Prohibition. London: Four Square, 1965.

References: Alcohol in the Early 20th Century

1 Nation, C. The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation. Topeka: Steves, 1905, 1908. And Asbury, H. Carry Nation. NY: Knopf, 1929. Also Hubbard, G. Carry Nation and Her Denver Crusade of 1906. And Cripple Creek, CO: Feitz, 1972. And Lewis, B. Carry Nation: the trouble was all in her head. Arkansas Gazette. Aug 25, 1978, pp. 1B, 6B. Finally, Madison, A. Carry Nation. Nashville: Nelson, 1977.

2 Kirkby, D. Drinking ‘The Good Life’ Australia c. 1880-1980. In:Holt. M., (Ed.) Alcohol. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Pp.203-223. P. 208.

3 Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003, xxxi-xiv.

4 Forbes, T. How Budweiser Became the King of Beers. Thom Forbes website, 2008.

5 Esteicher, S. Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century. NY: Algora, 2006, p. 86.

6 Wine History in Anatola. Wines of Turkey website.

7 Gordon, E. The Breakdown of the Gothenburg System. Westerville, OH: Am Issue Pub, 1911.

8 Lukacs, P. Inventing Wine. NY: Norton, 2012, p. 176.

9 Cheung, Y., and Erickson, P. Canada. In: Heath, D. (Ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. Pp. 20-30. P. 21.

10 Hill, J. Defining Moments: Prohibition. Detroit: Omni, 2004, p. xxi.

11 Lukacs, p. 177.

12 Charters, S. Wine and Society. Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006, pp. 287-288.

13 Hill, ibid.

14 Hill, ibid.

15 Champagne Riots! Website of the Society of Wine Educators. Johnson, H. Vintage: The Story of Wine. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

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

17 Hill, ibid.

18 Webb-Kenyon Act.

19 Sournia, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 76 and p. 753.

20 Blocker, ibid.

21 Charters, p. 287.

22 Lukacs, p. 191.

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

24 Hill, J., ibid.

25 Brook, S. The Wines of California. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

26 Anti-Saloon League of America. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook. Westerville, OH: Am Issue Pub, 1920, p. 8.

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. Wash: Ass’n Against the Prohib Amend, 1930.

32 Hill, ibid.

33 Stevenson, T. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. London: DK, 2005, p. 412.

34 Hill, ibid.

35 The 18th Amendment.

36  The Volstead Act.

37 Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008, p. 376.

38 Gately, p. 377.

39 The New York Times, Jan 7, 1928.

40 Feldman, H. Prohibition. NY: D. Appleton, 1928, pp. 278-281.

41 Blocker, J. Kaleidoscope in Motion. Drinking in the United States, 1400-2000. In:Holt. M., (Ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Oxford: Berg, 2006. 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. Historical interpretation of the 1920’s Klan. J Soc Hist, 1990, 24 (2), 341-358. Also The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Alcohol, & Prohibition.

58 Hohner, R. Prohibition and Politics.  Columbia: U SC Press, 1999. Patterson, M. The fall of a bishop. J South Hist, 1973, 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. NY: Avalon, 2002, p. 183. Also Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith.

61 Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits.  Seattle: Ford, 1996, p. 17. Gately, p. 378.

62 Neumann, C. The end of gender solidarity. History of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, 1929-1933. J Women’s Hist, 1997, 9, 31-51. Also Root, G. Women and Repeal. NY: Harper, 1934. Rose, K. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: NYU Press, 1996. Finally, Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

63 Hill, p. 86

64 Cruising Through History. In Gordon, L. Caribbean Cruises. London: Insight, 2005, 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 and Drug Prohibition. Amsterdam: CEDRO, 2004.

69 Gately, p. 398.

70 Repeal of Prohibition.

71 Gately, I., ibid.

72 Prohibition: The Noble Experiment.

73 The Am Mix, 2001, 1(1), 4.

At this point you know much more by fat than others about alcohol in the early 20th century America than most people. So congratulations!