History of Prohibition in America (U.S.)

It was the eve of the 20th century. The temperance movement had morphed into the prohibition movement. The history of prohibition in the US can be traced back to the Colonial period. But it began largely as a temperance movement. It called for temperance or moderation. Only later did it begin to call for complete abstention. At first the request was for voluntary abstention.

As it grew stronger, the “temperance” movement began calling more and more for enforced abstention. That is, it called for prohibition. By the turn of the century it was having success. It was using its power very effetively to obtain prohibition laws.

Some prohibition was state-wide. But it was usually only at the local level. Counties or municipalities would opt for prohibition, But the goal became nation-wide prohibition. Let’s have a look at the history of prohibition.

• Famous Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) member Carry A. Nation began destroying saloons with a hatchet. Alert to PR and profit, she copyrighted her name.1
• The WCTU had 7,067 chapters in 52 states and territories.  The total membership was  168,324.2
• The Prohibition Party candidate for president got 209,004 votes.3

During the school year, 22 million pupils took required anti-alcohol education. The WCTU called it Scientific Temperance Instruction.4

history of prohibition

Ernest H. Cherrington

• Congress passed the Anti-Canteen Law. It prohibited the sale of alcohol on any military premises.5
Ernest H. Cherrington joined the Anti-Saloon League. He became one of the most powerful leaders in the history of prohibition. Then he edited The Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. Next he helped found the World League Against Alcoholism. He headed the Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals of the Methodist Church. Cherrington was one of the few prohibition leaders whose reputation was not harmed by scandal. Most prohibition leaders were involved in racial or religious bigotry, sexual misconduct, financial improprieties, political scandals, or other problems.6
• The Intercollegiate Prohibition Association was founded. Within two years it became the third largest collegiate organization in the U.S.. After Repeal its name was changed to Intercollegiate Association for the Study of Alcohol.7
•  President William McKinley was shot and in a state of near-death. WCTU leader Carry A. Nation shouted to a crowd that ‘Bill McKinley deserves to die. He is a friend of the brewer and the drinking man….He deserves just what he got.’8
• The WCTU officially opposed the playing of golf on Sundays.9

Purley Baker became head of the national Anti-Saloon League. An important part of his strategy was to demonize brewers, virtually all of whom were German-Americans. For example, he asserted that Germans “eat like gluttons and drink like swine.”11
• The Lincoln-Lee Legion was established by the Anti-Saloon League. It promoted the signing of life-long abstinence pledges by children.10

• The Prohibition Party candidate for president got 258,596 votes.12
• A total of 204 Prohibition Party candidates won local election in Venango County, Pennsylvania.13

• The Scientific Temperance Federation was created after Mary Hunt of the WCTU died.  It was necessitated by legal arrangements that Mary Hunt had made to conceal the income from her “voluntary” work approving anti-alcoholm textbooks. This clouded ownership of her estate. The Federation published temperance materials until at least 1968.14 For more, visit Mary F. Stoddard.
• Three states had prohibition.15

Georgia and Oklahoma became the first states to adopt statewide prohibition in the 20th century.16

history of prohibition

S. S. Kresge

• The Anti-Saloon League formed its Industrial Relations Department. It had help from S. S. Kresge, of retail store fame. The League also got funds to build a modern printing plant. This supported the League’s new public information campaign. An important part of this was to demonize alcohol beverage producers.17
• Mississippi and North Carolina adopted statewide prohibition.18
• In Massachusetts, 249 towns and 18 cities had prohibition.19
• The American Temperance University closed. It had opened in 1893.20
• The Prohibition Party nominee for president got 252,821 votes.21

• Tennessee adopted statewide prohibition.22
• The Anti-Saloon League reported that over 41 million Americans were living in dry states or areas. That was over 45 percent of the entire population of the U.S.23
• Two-thirds of the precincts in Chicago had voted to go dry.24
• The American Issue Publishing Company was formed. It was the holding company of the Anti-Saloon League. Pro-prohibition materials were printed 24 hours a day.25

The WCTU had chapters (unions) in 53 states and territories. Its membership was 248,343. This was a large increase over the 168,324 just ten years earlier.26

• West Virginia adopted statewide prohibition.27
• The Methodist Church formed the Board of Temperance. (lts name later became the Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals.)    It worked closely with the Anti-Saloon League. The goal was national prohibition. Following Repeal, it support prohibition at the state and local levels.28

history of prohibition

Purley Baker

• After much fan-fare, Purley Baker presented dry congressmen copies of a proposed 18th Amendment for national Prohibition. He had drafted it with Wayne Wheeler, Bishop James Cannon, and other leaders of the League.29  This was a milestone in the history of prohibition.
• The Webb-Kenyon Act was passed. It  banned shipment of alcohol beverages into a state if the law of that state prohibited it. This prohibited sending alcohol into a state with statewide prohibition.30
• The 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It legalized the federal income tax. Previously, the tax on alcoholic beverages had provided approximately one-half to two-thirds of the entire federal revenue. By reducing federal dependence on taxes from alcohol, it eliminated a major objection to prohibition. This promoted ratification of the amendment for prohibition.31
• Nine states had statewide prohibition. In 31 others, local option laws were in effect. Over half the population of the country lived in prohibition areas.32

history of prohibition

William H. Anderson

William Hamilton Anderson (“the Dry Warrior”) arrived in New York City. He declared that “From now on, the attention of the National Anti-Saloon League will be directed toward New York as the liquor center of America.” He pledged to punish anyone who stood in the way of its prohibition agenda. Anderson effectively used such tactics as false rumors, forged documents, character attacks, and intimidation to achieve his goal.33
The Flying Squadron of America was a temperance organization. It began presenting revival-like programs in cities across the U.S.34
• Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, Washington State and West Virginia adopted statewide prohibition.35
• By 1914, 33 states in the U.S. had statewide prohibition.36
• The prohibition movement reflected, among other things, racism. For example, in arguing for prohibition, Congressman Richard Hobson of Alabama made this assertion. “Liquor will actually make a brute out of a Negro, causing him to commit unnatural crimes. The effect is the same on the white man, though the white man being further evolved, it takes longer time to reduce him to the same level.”37
• Prohibition Party candidate Charles Randall of California was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was re-elected in 1916 and 1918.38

history of prohibition

KKK: Defender of Prohibition

• A new  Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was started in Atlanta in 1915 to defend Prohibition, which existed in Georgia at that time. It’s often called the Klan of the 20s. Defending prohibition was a cornerstone of its agenda. An historian has observed that ‘support for Prohibition represented the single most important bond between Klansmen throughout the nation.’ Another scholar wrote that ‘enforcement of Prohibition, in fact, was a central, and perhaps the strongest, goal of the Ku Klux Klan.’39 For more about the anti-alcohol nature of the KKK visit the KKK and WCTU: Partners in Prohibition.
• Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, and South Carolina adopted statewide prohibition.40
• Whiskey and brandy were removed from the list of medicinal drugs in the United States Pharmacopoeia.41

Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Washington adopted statewide prohibition.42
• A total of 19 states in the country had state-wide prohibition.43
• A Prohibition Party candidate was elected governor of Florida.44
• The Prohibition Party nominee for the presidency received 221,030 votes.45  

history of prohibition

Sen. Morris Sheppard

• Senator Morris Sheppard introduced the 18th Amendment.46 Great effort was made to get it acted on before 1920. That was because the census of that year would report greater population in cities. They were  the wettest parts of the country. The results would give them increased political power.47
• The Reed Amendment to the Webb-Kenyon Act was passed. It made it illegal to mail advertisements for alcohol beverages to persons in dry areas.48
• The Lever Food and Fuel Act was passed. It made it illegal to distill beverage alcohol. This was to conserve food supplies during WW I.49
• It became a federal crime to sell alcohol to members of the U.S. military forces.50
• Indiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Utah adopted statewide prohibition.51
• The head of the American Medical Association (AMA) endorsed Prohibition. The group discouraged therapeutic use of alcohol.52

• The War Time Prohibition Act was passed. It was to conserve grain and other materials needed for the war effort in W.W.I.53
• Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Wyoming adopted statewide prohibition.54
• The dates on which states ratified the 18th Amendment during the year were:55

January 8, Mississippi
”             11, Virginia
”             14, Kentucky
”             28, North Dakota
”             29, South Carolina

February 13, Maryland
”                19, Montana
March 4, Texas
”           18, Delaware
”           20, South Dakota
April 2, Massachusetts
May 24, Arizona
June 26, Georgia
August 9, Louisiana
November 27, Florida

• The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment was formed. It failed to prevent National Prohibition.56 But it would grow as the unintended consequences of prohibition became apparent.
• The Anti-Saloon League called alcohol producers “un-American, pro-German, crime-producing, food-wasting, youth-corrupting, home-wrecking, [and] treasonable.”


The temperance movement had become a prohibition movement. The history of prohibition was nothing short of remarkable. It had become a popular wave of expectations. Alcohol had been demonized as the cause of most ills in society. There was the belief, hope, or dream that prohibition would lead to a better society.

No history of prohibition would be complete without a look at National Prohibition in the U.S.


Readings for History of Prohibition

Coker, J.L. Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement.  Lexington: U Press of Kentucky, 2007.

Kerr, K.A. Organized for Prohibition.  New Haven: Yale U Press, 1985.

Murdock, C.G. Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1998.



1     Nation, C.A.  Life of Carry A. Nation. Topeka: Steves, 1905.

2      Woman’s Christian Temperance Union: Growth.

3     Storms, R.. Partisan Prophets. Denver, CO: Nat Prohib Found., 1972.

4     Hunt, M. Reply. Cleveland, OH: WCTU Convention, 1904, p. 23.

5     Cherrington, E. The Evolution of Prohibition. Westerville, OH: Am Issue Press, 1920, p. 271.

6    Ernest H. Cherrington.

7     Intercollegiate Prohibition Association.

8     Will-Weber, M. Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2014, p. 190.

9    Temperance Movement and Prohibition.

10   Odegard, P. Pressure Politics. NY: Columbia U Press, 1928.

11   Ellis, M. German-Americans in World War I. In: Fiebig-von Hase, R., and Lehmkuhl, U., (eds.) Enemy Images in American History. Oxford, England: Berghahn, 1997. Pp 183-208.

12   Storms, ibid.

13   Prohibition Party History.

14  Crothers, T. The Scientific Temperance Federation. J Am Med Assoc., 1907, XLIX(2), 157-158. Truth, I.B. The Triple Threat. Westerville, OH: Scientific Temp Fed., 1968.


16   Hill, J.  Prohibition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2004, p. xxi.

17   In Memorium: Purley Baker, 1858-1924. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 1924.

18  Hill, ibid.


20   Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. NY: Putnam’s Sons, 1965, p. 323. Good history of Prohibition.

21   Storms, ibid.

22   Hill, ibid.

23   Regan, G. and Regan, M.M. The Book of Bourbon. Shelburn, VT: Firefly, 1995, chapter 1.

24   Cherrington, E. History of Prohibition and the Anti-Saloon League. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 1913.

25   Odegard, ibid.

26   Woman’s Christian Temperance Union: Growth.

27   Hill, ibid.

28   Harmon, N.B. The Encyclopedia of Methodism. Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publ., 1974, p. 793.

29   Cashman, S.D. Prohibition. NY: Free Press, 1981.

30  Denison, W.T. States’ Rights and the Webb-Kenyon Act. Columbia Law Rev., 1914, 14(4), 321-329.

31   Alcohol Prohibition.

32  Cherrington, 1920, p.320.

33    Ossian, L.A. William Hamilton. In: Blocker, J.S., et al. (eds.). Alcohol and Temperance. ABC-CLIO, 2003, pp. 41-42.

34  Flying Squadron.

35   Hill, p. xxi.

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

37   Sinclair, A. Prohibition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962, p. 31.

38   Prohibition Party History.

39   First quote from The Various Shady Lives of The Ku Klux Klan, Time. April 9, 1965. Second from  Norberg, D. Ku Klux Klan in the Valley. White River Journal, January, 2004.

40  Hill, p. xxii.

41   Timberlake, J. History of Prohibition and the Progressive Movement. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1963, p. 47.

42. Hill, ibid.

43    Storms, ibid.

44   Prohibition Party History.

45   Storms, ibid.

46    Morris Sheppard.

47   Storms, ibid.

48  History of Prohibition.  u-s-history.com/pages/h1085.html

49    Regan and Regan, ibid.

50    Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits. NY: Putnam’s, 1973, p. 19.

51    Hill, ibid.

52    Sinclair, p. 61.

53   Prohibition Era.

54  Hill, ibid.

55   Ratification of Constitutional Amendments.