To what extent was Prohibition a success from 1920 – 1933?

The 18th amendment of the United States meant intoxicating liquids which were consumed, produced or sold were illegal and this was known as prohibition. This had some very serious consequences for the United States, of which some were good and others bad. This essay will examine whether prohibition was a success from 1920 to 1933. Firstly, this essay will discuss the reduction of alcohol producing businesses and companies which also led to the subsequent reduction of alcohol consumption due to prohibition. This will then be countered by the increase of illegal underground speakeasies and the saturation of courts due to alcohol related crimes. Secondly, this essay will talk about the decrease of, alcohol related, visits to the hospital, due to prohibition. However, this will be refuted with the rise of organised crime. Thirdly, this essay will discuss the rural success that prohibition had and how there were some success in agents shutting down speakeasies. Yet, this will be countered by the epidemic corruption of the authorities in addition to the people making alcohol in their own homes which shows the unsuccessfulness of prohibition. Finally, this essay will produce a conclusion. Overall, it is in this essays belief that prohibition was not a success from 1920 to 1933.

One way in which prohibition was a success was the reduction of breweries to virtually zero in 1926 (Blocker, 2006 ,236). In addition, in 1914 there were 318 wineries, but by 1925, this was reduced to 27 (US Bureau, 1928, 767). Furthermore, government tax, from spirits, dropped to 13 million dollars from 365 million dollars and income from liquors went from 117 million dollars to practically naught (US Treasury, 1930, 64). Major alcoholic brewing companies such Miller & Anheuser-Busch and Coors Brewing Company turned away from their traditional alcoholic businesses to other ventures such as milk and pottery (Mulligan, 2003, 174). Due to most alcohol producers failing to continue after prohibition this inevitably led to a reduction of alcohol consumption (Burnham, 1968, 60). In fact, yearly drinking of alcohol, per capita, was reduced to 4.5 litres which was 30% less than before prohibition came into effect (Miron & Zwiebel, 1991, 5). Beer and wine consumption also drastically came down because it was very hard to supply bigger products such as these (Warburton, 1961, 114 & MacCoun and Reuter, 2001, 161). This very clearly shows that prohibition was a success in America. However, this is countered by Thornton (1991, 4) who argues that the demand for alcohol actually increased which was the opposite of what was intended. This is backed by Barker and Stewart (2010, 52) who argues that prohibition did not stop alcohol consumption. Inevitably, this led to the rise of bootlegging between Detroit and Canada which was worth 215 million dollar annually (Barker and Stewart, 2010, 52). Moreover, before prohibition, there were 300 bars in Washington DC, however after the implementation of prohibition, there were 700 ‘speakeasies’ (Barker and Stewart, 2010, 52). ‘Speakeasies’ means a place to get an illegal alcoholic drink (Okrent, 2010, 207) therefore there was an increase of underground places that had available alcohol which shows that prohibition did not work. Due to the increase of speakeasies and the availability of alcohol, drink related crimes increased which meant courts could not concentrate on more serious crimes (Kyvig, 1979, 30 & Sinclair, 1962, 211). One example of this can be seen in New York where the courts were paralysed with alcohol related cases, that it had to repeal the prohibition enforcement law (Gately, 2008, 380). This clearly shows how prohibition was a debacle, hence the essays belief that prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, was a failure.

The decrease of alcohol related medical and hospital visits shows how in fact, prohibition was a success. Death, due to alcohol declined rapidly, especially, during the early years of prohibition (Blocker, 2006, 237). This is backed by Moore (1989, 1) who says that alcohol related arrests and conducts were down 50% and death, due to cirrhosis, decreased to 10.7 for every 100,000 people. This is further backed up by MacCoun and Reuter (2001, 161) who argues that during the start of prohibition, there was a 50% reduction of cirrhosis but then it increased after prohibition was revoked. The reason why cirrhosis is significant is because it is usually developed due to chronic alcoholism therefore the reduction of this diagnosis shows how the population were consuming less. This is backed up by Edwards et al (1994, 131) who claims that alcohol related difficulties and consumption were the lowest attained in any give time period of the US. This clearly shows how prohibition was indeed a success in the US. However, on the other hand, others have claimed prohibition was not a success due to the rapid rise of organised crime. A black market emerged for alcohol and this led to the success of organised crime, especially mafias, who become more prominent during the prohibition era (Thornton, 1991, 120). This is backed by Towne (1923, 159) who says that prohibition had a positive correlation to the rise of organised crime rates in this black market. However, this is countered by Cook (2013, 56) who argues that prohibition, and the subsequent criminalisation of alcohol, is not the reason for the rise of crime, but urbanisation is. One example of this can be seen in New York where, during prohibition, lawbreaking was actually declining (Pinard, Pagani, 2000, 199). This clearly shows how there is differing opinion between scholars of the past and contemporary scholars. Nevertheless, the overwhelming consensus is that crime did substantially increase during the prohibition era. Overall, this clearly shows how prohibition was not successful which is why this essay believes that prohibition was a not a success from 1920 to 1933.

Finally, another way prohibition was a success was through rural areas. Rural areas endorsed prohibition, especially small towns in the US, where drinking of alcohol deteriorated (Barker and Stewart, 2010, 53). In fact, in the latter years of the 1930s nation-wide prohibition was still supported by at least 40% of Americans (Blocker, 1989, 136) which shows how strong the support for prohibition was. In addition, federal agents had some success in shutting down speakeasies, the most famous agents being Izzy and Moe. Izzy and Moe single handily arrested nearly 5,000 “bartenders, bootleggers and speakeasy owners with an amazing 95% conviction rate” (Herbert, 2002, 187). This shows how prohibition had some success in the US. On the other hand, however, due to prohibition there was a rise in corruption. As Bowne argues (1969, 160) there were numerous accounts of bootleggers who bribed policemen, government agents and individuals of high political rank. This is further supported by Behr (1996, 161) who said that there was no actual state implementation of such an amendment thus the rise of corruption. This is also backed up by Weburn (1991, 234) who said most authorities were overwhelmed and conquered by gangs. Nevertheless, people still made their own alcohol in their homes, especially wine and cider (Burnham, 1968, 62) which shows the loopholes that people took advantage of. This also meant that a large part of the population was breaking the law. Furthermore, prohibition did not work due to the logistical problems as there was 18,700 miles of coastline and only 1,550 agents (Bowen, 1987, 166), which clearly meant it was nearly impossible from stopping alcohol from coming in. This shows how prohibition was a complete and utter failure, which is why this essay believes that prohibition was not a success from 1920 to 1933. 

To conclude, prohibition was an extremely contentious issue that had some significant consequences for the United States. Firstly, one consequence of prohibition was the reduction of alcohol making businesses, which in turn led to American consuming less alcohol. However, this also led to the increase of underground speakeasies which meant alcohol was actually more readily available than before prohibition. This also led to courts being saturated with alcohol related crimes which meant less time was spent on more serious crimes. Secondly, the implementation of prohibition meant there was less alcohol related hospital admissions and less alcohol related deaths which was due to the people consuming less. However, the negative consequence was the rise of organised gangs that operated the huge alcohol black market. This also meant many millions of American were law breakers and consequently led to less respect for the law. Finally, prohibition had much success in the rural areas with nearly 40% of Americans still supporting prohibition in the latter years of the 1930s. In addition, there were many cases of agents shutting down illegal speakeasies with the most famous being Izzy and Moe. However, prohibition also led to the rise of corruption. In addition, many people were making their own alcohol, especially wine and cider and the logistical problems were too great for alcohol being stopped from coming in. Overall, there were some success for prohibition but, the unsuccess’s far outweigh the success, which is why this essay believes that prohibition was not a success from 1920 to 1933.


  1. Barker, Stewart. (2010). The United States 1917-54: Boom, Bust and Recovery. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
  2. Behr, Edward. (1996). Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing.
  3. Blocker, J. (1989). American temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform. US: Twayne Publishers.
  4. Blocker, J. (2006). Did Prohibition Really Work? Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Innovation. American Journal of Public Health, 96(2), pp.233-243.
  5. Bowen, E. (1987). This Fabulous Century: 1930-1940. New York: Diane Pub Co.
  6. Burnham, J. (1968). New Perspectives on the Prohibition “Experiment” of the 1920’s. Journal of Social History, 2(1), pp.51-68.
  7. Charles Hanson Towne (1923). The Rise and Fall of Prohibition: The Human Side of What the Eighteenth Amendment Has Done to the United States. New York: Macmillan.
  8. Edwards, G., Anderson, P., Babor, T., Casswell, S., Ferrence, R., Giesbrecht, N., Godfrey, C., Holder, H., Lemmens, P., Makela, K., Midanik, L., Norstrom, T., Osterberg, E., Romesljo, A., Room, R., Simpura, J & Skog, O. (1994). Alcohol policy and the public good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Gately, I. (2008). Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. New York: Gotham.
  10. Herbert, A. (2002). “The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe”. In: Hyde, Stephen and Zanetti, Geno, (eds.) Players: Con Men, Hustlers, Gamblers, and Scam Artists. New York: Avalon.
  11. Kyvig, D. (1979) Repealing National Prohibition. London: Kent State University.
  12. MacCoun, R.; Reuter, P (2001). Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  13. Miron, J. and Zwiebel, J. (1991). Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition, American Economic Review, 81: pp. 242–247.
  14. Moore, M. (1989). Actually, Prohibition Was a Success. Available at: [Accessed 10 Nov. 2018].
  15. Mulligan, William H, Jr. Coors. (2003). Adolph Brewing Company. In: Blocker, Jack S., et al. (eds.) Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia. Vol. 1 A-L. California: Santa Barbara.
  16. Okrent, D. (2010).  Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner.
  17. Philip J. Cook, Stephen Machin, Olivier Marie, Giovanni Mastrobuoni (2013). Lessons from the Economics of Crime: What Reduces Offending?. London: MIT Press.
  18. Pinard, G. and Pagani, L. (2000). Clinical Assessment of Dangerousness: Empirical Contributions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  19. Sinclair Andrew. (1962). Prohibition: The Era of Excess. New York: Harper & Row.
  20. Thornton, M. (1991). Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure. Cato Institute, (157), pp.1-12.
  21. Thornton, M. (1991). The Economics of Prohibition. Alabama: University of Utah.
  22. US Bureau of the Census. (1928). Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington DC.
  23. US Treasury Department. (1930). Statistics Concerning Intoxicating Liquors. Washington, DC: Bureau of Industrial Alcohol
  24. Warburton. (1961). Licensed Beverage Industry, Facts about the Licensed Beverage Industry. New York: LBI.
  25. Wenburn, Neil. (1991). The USA: A Chronicle of Pictures. New York: Smithmark Publishers Inc.