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 formed National Prohibition. The Amendment was only 111 words long. It lacked specifics. That was the job of the National Prohibition Act of 1919. It’s commonly called the Volstead Act. (For more, see Andrew Volstead.)

For instance, many people supported Prohibition. They thought 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 those. But there were exceptions. These were for religious, medical, 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 belief of the law.

What Could People Legally Do?

The newspaper reported that it was legal to do these things.

    • 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 permit.
    • Transport liquor from an old residence to a new residence with a permit.

What Could People Not Legally Do?

On the other hand, it reported that was illegal to do any of these.

    • Carry a hip flask.
    • Give or receive a bottle of alcohol as a gift.
    • To drink in a public dining room.
    • Buy or sell recipes for homemade alcohol.
    • Ship alcohol.
    • Store alcohol in anywhere except at home.
    • Make any alcohol at home.
    • Display alcohol signs or ads.

Unanswered Questions

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

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

The US Attorney General received many requests to clarify. Did the law prohibit publishing a photo of George Washington’s recipe for making beer written in his own handwriting? Did it prohibit hanging an alcohol ad in a private living room?

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


Adding to the comfusion 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.

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II. Resources: What did Prohibition Prohibit?