85th Year Anniversary of Prohibition Repeal*
December 5, 2018, marked 85 years since the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was repealed, bringing
an end to the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. known as the “Noble Experiment.”
The origins of Prohibition began in earnest with the formation of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in 1893. this
organization was created specifically to end drinking in the U.S. and had a large following. California wine
production was booming around this time, and by 1897 California wine production reached 34 million gallons
Some of California’s legendary wineries such as Krug, Wente and Beringer were gaining success.
At the ASL 20th annual conference in Columbus, Ohio, in 1913, the delegates voted unanimously to create a
constitutional amendment that would prohibit the sale of alcohol in the U.S. The ASL was a well-organized
lobbyist organization that linked drinking to the nation’s fear of venereal disease.
In December of 1918, the Food Control Act was passed by Congress giving President Wilson the power to limit
or prohibit the production of beer and wine if necessary to preserve resources for the war effort.
About a year later, in January of 1919, the 18th Amendment of the Constitution of the U.S. became law marking
the beginning of Prohibition. The 18th Amendment did not ban the consumption of alcohol, but prohibited
the”manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” You could drink all you wanted, but the means
to obtain alcohol was illegal.
A high demand for alcoholic beverages remained leading to widespread smuggling by rumrunners,
moonshiners and bootleggers. Many illegal drinking establishments known as speakeasies became popular.
Alcohol in various forms was sold throughout the U.S. at retail outlets. The U.S. was referred to as an
“amphibian” nation since, in reality, it was neither dry nor wet.
Although 80% of California wineries closed after the onset of Prohibition, significant wine production continued
and the remaining wineries actually enjoyed a boom supplying sacramental wine, medicinal wine (physicians
could prescribe alcohol for medicinal use), and concentrated grape juice for home winemakers.
To combat the country’s continued appetite for alcohol, in October 1919, the Volstead Act, formerly known as
the National War Prohibition Act was passed by Congress to provide enforcement of the Eighteenth
Amendment. The problem was that there were many loopholes in the Act, and American wine consumption per
capita increased while the Volstead Act was in effect.
California grapevine acreage actually increased from 500,000 in 1919 to 650,000 by 1928, largely due to the widespread popularity of non-intoxicating concentrated fruit juices that were exempted by the Volstead Act. The
California Vineyardist Association (CVA) was formed to produce and sell concentrated grape juice. Called
VINE-GLO, this concentrated grape juice was available by mail order or through pharmacies. Nine varieties
were available in kegs including “Burgundy.” The consumer was advised not to turn the juice into wine (“wink-wink”)
but it was simply a matter of adding water to start fermentation and produce wine.
In 1928, Herbert Hoover was elected President and he promised to intensify Prohibition enforcement. He would
eventually admit that enforcement of Prohibition was futile.
The repeal movement gathered momentum by businesses, organized labor and American women through the
Woman’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). The WONPR had over a million members
and opposed the oppression caused by enforcement. Ironically, it was the women’s temperance movement that
was at the forefront of the push for Prohibition
The repeal of Prohibition was a central issue in the 1932 presidential election. Franklin D. Roosevelt favored
repeal, while Hoover wavered, and Roosevelt was elected.
On December 6, 1932, Senator John J. Blaine of Wisconsin drafted the 21st Amendment that would nullify the
18th Amendment. The 21st Amendment was ratified in December 1933 by 35 states, with Utah finally agreeing
to be the 36th state needed to write it officially into the Constitution on December 5 when Roosevelt signed the
proclamation that ended Prohibition.
Prohibition lasted 13 years, 10 months and 18 days. This period was fifty-odd days less than the 14 years’
supply of wine laid down by the Yale Club in 1920.
Prohibition is the only amendment to the Constitution to have ever been repealed.
Largely excerpted from DRINK, A Cultural History of Alcohol, Iain Gately, Gotham Books, 2008.