What did Prohibition Prohibit? It Wasn’t Drinking Alcohol.

What did Prohibition prohibit? It’s commonly thought that National Prohibition (1920-1933) made drinking illegal. It didn’t. No one could be convicted of a federal offense for doing so.

I. The Volstead Act

The 18th Amendment established National Prohibition. The Amendment was only 111 words long. It lacked specifics. That was the job of the National Prohibition Act of 1919. It was commonly called the  Volstead Act.

For example, many people supported Prohibition in the belief that it would not prohibit beer and wine. But the Volstead Act defined anything over one-half of one percent alcohol to be illegal. Thus, it was illegal to import, produce, distribute, or sell. However, there were exceptions for religious, medicinal, industrial, and scientific uses.

The Volstead Act was over 25 pages long. Its purpose was to answer the question, “what does Prohibition prohibit?”  The Act was very complicated and confusing. Before it went into effect, a newspaper published its interpretation of the law.

What Could People Legally Do?

The newspaper reported that it was legal to

  • Drink ‘intoxicating liquor’ at home or in a friend’s home.
  • Store such liquor alcohol at home.
  • Buy liquor with a medical prescription.
  • Make, transport and sell sacramental liquor with a government permit.
  • Transport liquor from an old residence to a new residence with a government permit.

What Could People Not Legally Do?

On the other hand, the newspaper reported that it was illegal to

  • Carry a hip flask.
  • Give or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
  • Take liquor into hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining room.
  • Buy or sell recipes for homemade liquors.
  • Ship beverage liquor.
  • Store liquor in anywhere except at home.
  • Make any liquor at home.
  • Display liquor signs or advertisements.

Unanswered Questions

prohibition prohibit
Andrew Volstead, after whom the Volstead Act is named.

In spite of its great length, the Volstead Act could leave many questions unanswered. Thus, people could accidentally violate the law. And they could suffer the consequences

The U.S. Attorney General received many requests for clarification. Did Prohibition prohibit publishing a photo of George Washington’s recipe for making beer written in his own handwriting? Did Prohibition prohibit hanging an antique alcohol ad in a private living room?

The Act also had inconsistencies. Legal rulings about different matters conflicted with each other. There was much uncertainty. Over time, court decisions answered some of the many confusions. For example, see The Prohibition Cases.


Adding to the complications were state and local laws. They could be more strict than the Volstead Act. So it could be illegal in some places to drink alcohol. This could lead to innocent violations of alcohol laws.

This was one of the many ways in which Prohibition was a disaster.

II. Resources for ‘What did Prohibition Prohibit?’

Behr, E. Prohibition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996, pp. 78-79.

Blakemore, A.W. National Prohibition: The Volstead Act Annotated. Albany, NY: Bender, 1927.

Hobart, G. The Volstead Act. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1923,124, 85-101.

Intoxicating Liquors. Eighteenth Amendment. Interpretation of the Volstead Act. Harvard Law Rev, 1921, 34(4), 437.