Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1939: Decades of Promise and Pain

By David E. Kyvig | Go to book overview

1

The Circumstances of American Life in 1920

PROHIBITION

In 1920 residents of the United States found themselves surrounded by easily observable signs that they were entering a new era in their everyday lives. Less than three weeks into the new year, a constitutional amendment took effect that prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Temperance enthusiasts staged mock funerals for “King Alcohol” while opponents offered a few sad eulogies for “John Barleycorn.” The days when alcohol remained a normal, or at least legal, part of most American diets ended on January 16, presumably forever.

The Eighteenth Amendment brought the federal government into people’s daily lives in a fashion never before experienced in peacetime. Significantly, national prohibition made it a crime to sell, but not to purchase or use alcoholic beverages, leaving many people with conflicted feelings about personal decisions on whether or not to drink. The resentment of many Americans toward national prohibition and the unhappiness of as many others with its ineffective enforcement would provoke debate about the dry law all across the country in the years to come. By decade’s end, prohibition violators accounted for over one-third of the 12,000 inmates of federal prisons while a glut of prohibition cases overloaded the courts. Despite the turmoil over prohibition in practice, the new law seemed to be an unavoidable permanent reality of daily life in America. As one proud sponsor boasted, “There is as much chance

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