Prohibition in Tennessee: Good Beginning, Sad Ending

Prohibition Welcomed

Prohibition in Tennessee was welcomed. Temperance had a long history in the state. By 1907 the sale of alcohol was prohibited throughout most of Tennessee. Ten years later state-wide prohibition occurred. It became illegal for anyone to possess any alcoholic beverage.

The popularity of National Prohibition in Tennessee reflected the fact that most residents thought it would be beneficial. They thought it would to lead to improved health, less violence, and greater safety. That it would increased public morality and create a better environment for young people. The General Assembly voted almost unanimously for it.

Problems

But many people were not willing to give up their freedom to drink. And the state’s rugged terrain was ideal for hiding moonshine stills.

Corruption

With easy, untaxed money to be made, police and sheriffs were routinely bribed. Politicians were also widely on the take.

The rampant graft and corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lack of respect for the law. It became fashionable to flaunt it, especially among women and young people. For the first time in history, women began to drink in public.

Prohibition also led to the pattern of infrequent but very heavy drinking. People didn’t go to a speakeasy to have a leisurely drink with a meal. They went to guzzle alcohol while they could.

Bootleg Dangerous
prohibition in Tennessee

Prohibition in Tennessee had a sad fate.

Bootleg alcohol was carelessly made. It often contained creosote, lead toxins and embalming fluid. Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness and even death. This led some drinkers in the state to switch to hair tonic, mouthwash and illegal drugs. This would have been unlikely in the absence of Prohibition.

Other Problems

Prohibition denied the state tax revenues from alcohol. This, at the very time it was causing big increases in criminal justice costs.

Widespread crime and other problems caused by Prohibition mushroomed. Hypocrisy was rampant. More and more residents decided that the presumed cure was much worse than the disease. They called for Repeal.

Repeal

Prohibition was overturned in 1933. Yet temperance sentiment still endures in neo-prohibitionism. For example, Tennessee still prohibit the Sunday sale of spirits. This is despite the fact that Sunday is the second busiest shopping day of the week.

Learn more about Prohibition in Tennessee

Beard, M. The W.C.T.U. in the Volunteer State. Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1962.

Hooper, B. Prohibition in Tennessee. Westerville, OH: American Issue, c 1913.

Isaac, P. Prohibition and Politics. Turbulent Decades in Tennessee, 1885-1920. Knoxville: U Tennessee Press, 1965.

Lacy, E. Tennessee teetotalism. Social forces and the politics of progressivism. Tenn Hist Q,  24(3),   219-240.

Modey, Y. The Struggle over Prohibition in Memphis, 1880-1930. Memphis State U, 1983.

Pulliam, W. Harriman, the Town that Temperance Built. Harriman, TN: Pulliam, 1978.

Wolfe, M. Bootleggers, drummers, and national defense. Sideshow to reform in Tennessee, 1915-1920. East Tenn Hist Soc, 49, 77-91.