2020. It is the 100 year anniversary of Prohibition in the United States. Originally the Wine History Project had planned for multiple exhibits throughout the county at various venues. Because of the Covid-19 Pandemic we have only been able to hold two events; we presented two showings of a Prohibition film called America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition. This film is about the impact of Prohibition on California winemaking made by Carla De Luca in collaboration with the Bancroft Library and historian Victor W. Geraci.

However, we do have a couple of small exhibits on display in San Luis Obispo County: one at the Paso Robles Historical Society and one at the Paso Robles Pioneer Museum. The exhibit at the Paso Robles Historical Society is entitled Temperance, Teetotalers, and Taboo and contains some very interesting items from the Wine History Project collections. The second exhibit at the Pioneer Museum is called Grape Expectations: Break Their Hearts…and Have No Mercy and focuses on the family still and home winemaking. Please check these organization’s websites for hours of operation.

Because of our times, we have decided to provide information regarding Prohibition in America on our website. Every month for the remainder of the year we will touch on different subtopics of Prohibition; and we will even bring it to the level of what was happening in the different towns within our own county. Because, there was activity that happened here in San Luis Obispo County. And we will share some of that with all of you in a future article.

Initially, we will discuss what led up to what we now refer to as the Prohibition Era and what federal and state legislation changed our laws in this country. We want to provide the groundwork and a brief history of anti-alcohol sentiment leading to Prohibition.

In the 1800s a movement was underway driven by religious and ideological groups denouncing liquor as the plague of society. The Temperance Movement would evolve into the Anti-Saloon Movement and eventually succeed in amending the United States Constitution. Temperance societies around the country worked to instigate local laws aimed at curtailing the production and consumption of alcohol. In 1851 Maine became the first state legislature to ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating beverages, with exceptions for medicinal, mechanical, or manufacturing purposes.

Other states soon instituted “Maine Laws” of their own. Many were repealed after a few years due to widespread opposition and riots. The state of Kansas became the first state to write prohibition into its Constitution by enacting a statewide constitutional prohibition on alcohol that prohibited all manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors effective January 1, 1881.

The deep-pocketed and politically connected groups like the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) gained widespread support for anti-alcohol legislation at the national level between 1910-1920.

The Anti-Saloon League was aware of their mythmaking when they consistently described the wine, beer, and spirit industries as a “liquor trust”. In fact, there was no centralized liquor business or “liquor trust”: the Anti-Saloon League used the “anti-trust” term at a time in the U.S. when antitrust laws were headline news – calling for social change to regulate the conduct of business organizations and promote competition for consumers.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was all about explaining its goals in the fight against alcohol. So much so, that they included those goals into their slogan which was, “Agitate – Educate – Legislate”.

The liquor trade was a popular misconception. The Anti-Saloon League sold this bill of goods to the American public; that the “liquor trust” was motivated solely by the aim of selling as much liquor to as many people as possible. The U.S. public believed that this opportunistic and monopolistic group, the “liquor trust”, would stop at nothing and no limits, to make American men drink themselves into a stupor, ultimately destroying the family unit and the American economy.

Because the liquor industry was directly attacked with temperance measures outlawing hard liquor, the wine and beer makers originally were willing to throw the liquor men to the “drys”. Hard liquor and beer were typically sold in saloons and bars. Wine was often consumed with food at home or in restaurants.

This would explain why beer and wine purveyors did not see the same risks in the Anti-Saloon movement. And the winemakers in California and across the United States had no real interest in protecting the saloon as long as home consumption of wine was not disturbed. So only those business owners who faced an imminent threat from not being able to sell their “products” were concerned at first. In 1914, the California Wine Growers’ Association proposed anti-saloon threats. They pitted themselves, the wine growers and winemakers, against liquor and beer makers. Until they realized that they were also playing into this popular misconception.

People To Know

  • Frances E. Willard (1839-1898) was the national president of Women’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death and was influential beyond her lifetime for an array of social and labor reforms.
  • Carrie A. Nation (1846-1911) was an early temperance movement campaigner notorious for using a hatchet to smash up taverns and saloons. Additionally, she was a speaker and author of The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation.
  • Wayne B. Wheeler (1869-1927) an attorney, lobbyist, and leader of the Anti-Saloon League and was instrumental in conceiving and drafting the Eighteenth Amendment and the National Prohibition Act.
  • Andrew J. Volstead (1860-1947) who was a House of Representatives’ member from 1903 to 1923; he sponsored and championed the National Prohibition Act because he was the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at that time.

U.S Congress passed on December 18, 1917

“After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”

America Goes Dry

  • The Eighteenth Amendment is passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification on December 18, 1917.
  • Two-thirds of the states are required to ratify it for the amendment to become law.
  • Mississippi becomes the first state to ratify the Amendment on January 7, 1918.
  • On November 18, 1918, Congress passed a temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 2.75 percent.
  • Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state (and the final state needed to meet the required two-thirds) to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment on January 10, 1919.
  • Andrew Volstead introduces on May 19, 1919, an early version of the National Prohibition Act (later referred to as the Volstead Act) to the 66th Congress (1919-1921) with the purpose of defining the process and procedures for banning alcoholic beverages in the United States.
  • The Democrats in Congress countered with the “wet law”, which would have repealed wartime prohibition. The fight between the “wets” and “drys” raged all summer in the House of Representatives.
  • The Wartime Prohibition Act takes effect on June 30, 1919.
  • July 1, 1919, became known as the “Thirsty-First”.
  • Congress passes the National Prohibition Act on July 22, 1919, with a Republican majority.
  • But on October 27, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson vetoes the National Prohibition Act. On that very day, the Senate overrode President Wilson’s veto.
  • On the next day, October 28, 1919, Congress overrides the President’s veto and the National Prohibition Act passes.
  • The Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Department of the Treasury is delegated the responsibility for the policing of the Eighteenth Amendment.
  • The Prohibition Unit is created to enforce the National Prohibition Act.
  • Prohibition goes into effect on January 17, 1920, which was one year and a day after the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment.
  • On March 3, 1927, the Bureau of Prohibition Act reorganizes the Prohibition Unit into the Bureau of Prohibition.
  • The Prohibition Reorganization Act created on May 27, 1930, transfers the Bureau of Prohibition from the U.S. Department of Treasury to the Department of Justice.

The National Prohibition Act, commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, passed on October 28, 1919. It:

  • Was not directed at the consumer; it didn’t prohibit the use or purchase of liquor.
  • Was directed against the producer and the distributor.
  • Had no penalty for purchase, possession, or consumption of liquor, wine, or spirits.
  • Defined the alcoholic strength of intoxicating beverages as “beverages which contain one-half of one per-centum or more of alcohol by volume.”
  • Contained language which was obscure. Because of this, home winemaking became popular because of the loophole within Section 29 of Title II; punishment “shall not apply to a person for manufacturing non-intoxicating cider and fruit juices exclusively for use in his home.” In fact, according to a Wine Folly blog, it was estimated that home winemaking grew by nine times its size during Prohibition and grape growers supplemented their lost incomes by selling “wine bricks” out of concentrated grape juice.

Eventually Mimeograph 135 was issued on October 14, 1920, by the Bureau of Internal Revenue to clarify the interpretation of the Volstead Act by stating, “the head of a family who has property registered may make 200 gallons exclusively for family use without payment of tax thereon.”