The effects of Prohibition on American life are many, but its causes were similarly complex. Many responsible for the ratification of the 18th Amendment claimed to have America’s best interests at heart.
In some cases, they did. But others had racist, classist and xenophobic motivations.
To understand Prohibition, we must reckon with all sides of this long, complicated story.
The significance of saloons pre-Prohibition
In the late 19th century, the U.S. went through serious changes. And saloons were at the heart of them all.
In 1863, as the Civil War raged, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people living in the Confederate States, but not the entirety of the U.S.
In 1870, five years after the war ended, The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, which gave Black men the right to vote. Of course, many of these laws were not enforced. The second half of the 19th century also brought the Second Industrial Revolution. And millions of immigrants, primarily from southern and eastern Europe, also came to the U.S. between 1800s–1900s.
“Then there are local immigrants within the country who are moving around, who have no kind of ties,” says Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “They’re not connected to family, cultural institutions, churches [and] synagogues. But what they have is a saloon around the corner.”
Saloons provided a place for primarily working-class men to gather, discuss politics and feel more tied to their communities, says Grinspan, who also wrote The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century and The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, which is scheduled to be published in April.
The second American Industrial Revolution brought great advances in transportation, mass-produced goods and the fast dissemination of information through advancements in telegraph. But progress came with a cost.
“A lot of these people were born into a world where you lived in a community, knew your neighbors [and] worked most likely in agriculture or really small manufacturing,” says Grinspan. “And they’re going to this world where they’re just part of a machine. They’re becoming part of a machine in factories or mines.”
During the second Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age (1876–1900), some Americans saw their salaries and quality of life increase. But it wasn’t without the sacrifice of the working class.
By 1900, it’s estimated that 40% of Americans lived in major cities. Many weren’t set up for such an influx of people. Sanitation issues and overcrowding were common.
During the second part of the 19th century, children were more likely to die in infancy. The working class and poor struggled to feed themselves. Between 1790–1890, the America life expectancy dropped. And Americans were also physically shorter due to poor diet, notes Grinspan.
Saloons, however, offered free food with the purchase of a beverage. Many workers relied on saloons for meals. “That’s where the expression, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch,’ comes from,” says Grinspan. Saloons also often let homeless or transient people use their address to receive mail.
“There are all these roles the saloon is playing in the life of poor, working-class Americans that no other institutions are stepping up to play,” says Grinspan.
Saloons even became headquarters for political machines.
In the 19th century, working-class men voted at much higher rates than wealthy men. And while the system certainly was not completely inclusive, Grinspan likens this time period to “the adolescence of democracy.”
At this time in America’s history, the government didn’t do much in terms of running elections, according to Grinspan. Political parties were even responsible for printing and distributing their own ballots.
“These [saloons] are kind of community nexuses,” says Grinspan. “If you’re saloon keeper in a town, you know who is in that town, you know what people need, you know who’s unemployed, you know who could use a favor, you know who is likely to turn out and vote [and] you also who is likely to do a dirty trick for your campaign.”
Saloons became places “where immigrants could learn how to participate in the political process, how to vote and who would support their interests as immigrants and as workers,” says Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
That poor and working-class Americans could bond over politics threatened some people, says Grinspan.
“It looks menacing to not just the super-upper class, not [just] the millionaires, but the well-to-do bourgeois, upper-middle-class populations,” he says. “They look at politics, and they see saloon keepers running things, [and] they see immigrants outvoting them.
“They know that as long as it’s just a numbers game, there are more working-class people in the country than there are well-off people in the country, they’re going to lose. So, they start to set the saloon up.”
Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, agrees.
“If you see the tavern from the beginning of American history as a very powerful political institution which was responsible in part for the American Revolution happening in the first place and then several rebellions afterwards, then you really do see why there would be people who would not want immigrants assembling in these spaces,” she says.
Starting in 1890, Prohibitionists began to gain traction. Saloons started to close their doors. By doing this, they effectively “suppressed poor people’s votes,” Grinspan wrote in a 2016 op-ed in The New York Times.
Racism, classism and Prohibition
The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) formed in 1893. Unlike other temperance or Prohibition groups, it targeted saloons, rather than alcohol. The ASL published a whopping 250 million pages of anti-saloon propaganda each month, writes Sismondo in her book.
The ASL also employed the use of “pressure politics,” a technique the organization is credited with inventing that uses intimidation, backroom deals and other questionable tactics to achieve an outcome, Sismondo writes.
Even though ASL “proclaimed what an evil alcohol had become in society at the time, many scholars really believe [it focused] on immigrants who were the customers in these saloons and the political machines that operated in these places,” says McCulla.
The ASL maintained close ties with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to push its agenda in Southern states. “I would say not every anti-saloon leaguer is a Ku Kluxer, but every Ku Kluxer is an anti-salooner,” said Clarence Darrow, a 20th-century lawyer known for the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, to a Baltimore Evening Sun reporter in 1924.
Why would the KKK be anti-saloon? Following Reconstruction, some white Southerners vehemently opposed the growing Black middle class, who owned their own entertainment spaces.
In 1906, fueled by baseless news reports of Black men attacking white women, the Atlanta Race Riots began. Over several days, angry white mobs descended on the city and killed more than 20 Black Georgians. Hundreds more were injured, and many Black-owned businesses were destroyed, which included saloons, said to be the root cause of these unconfirmed attacks.
“To me, that’s a real turning point of Prohibition,” says Sismondo.
“After that, Georgia became much more open to the idea of Prohibition, which wasn’t an idea that had a lot of legs in the South until after the Atlanta Race Riots,” says Sismondo. “That’s when you start to see the dominoes fall of states switching over to going dry in the southern United States.”
Along with the violence inflicted on Black Americans, many immigrant populations became the victims of “tremendous harassment” in the early 20th century, says Sismondo, based the perception that these groups were more likely to be involved in illicit alcohol activity. While certain communities might have been more inclined to be involved with these pursuits, they often had fewer opportunities and were “discriminated against at the employment level,” she says.
Another important aspect of Prohibition is the language of the law itself. The 18th Amendment didn’t make the consumption of alcohol illegal, but it did forbid the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”
“The law is set up to penalize the people who are too poor to refuse that kind of work,” says Sismondo.
Much like how the penalties for marijuana possession disproportionately affect poor and marginalized communities today, wealthier Americans were less affected by Prohibition.
“And so, much like a marijuana law, a law against recreational use of alcohol gives you a pretext to stop people on the street to put them in jail,” says Sismondo.
Grinspan agrees. “So, the wealthy guy who has a liquor cabinet in his house is fine. He can still drink. He’s not going to a saloon. But the poor man who can’t afford that and goes out for a beer, he’s a target.”
Health risks coincided with poverty and marginalization, too. “If you were not wealthy, then you were much more likely to be a victim of the effects of tainted alcohol,” says McCulla.
The complexities of allegiance to the 18th Amendment
While it’s tempting to group people as good or evil based, the reality is often not clear cut. Prohibition was no exception.
“This one of those stories where the people you might be inclined to like are responsible for some bad things,” says Grinspan. “And people who you might be hostile to are responsible for some good things.”
While saloons could benefit their communities, some enabled awful acts. One example is Mickey Finn, who owned the Lone Star Saloon in Chicago until it was shut down in 1903. Finn sold a namesake concoction to travelers laced with chloral hydrate, which caused unsuspecting patrons to pass out. When they awoke, their belongings were gone, writes Sismondo in America Walks into a Bar.
Domestic violence was also an issue that could coincide with alcohol abuse. Many groups that fought for suffrage also advocated for Prohibition and temperance.
According to Vox, drinking did decline during Prohibition. And some places saw domestic violence complaints decrease.
“The saloon was blamed for a lot of domestic violence, and it probably was playing a role in that,” says Grinspan. “All these men getting drunk, coming home, it could be a problem.”
However, Grinspan says, that ignores larger issues like gender, race and class that remain prevalent in U.S. political and social life.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to say, ‘Oh, it’s the saloon,’ as opposed to addressing all the bigger issues with industrial capitalism,” says Grinspan.
Last Updated: May 8, 2023