Prohibition, which writer H. L. Menken dubbed "the 13 awful years," failed so miserably here in the United States, you need only look at life during that era in DC.
There was an unofficial bootlegger who had an office in the House of Representatives building. That same enterprising bootlegger later expanded his operation into his own office in the Senate.
When the the 18th Amendment became law in 1920, there were 247 licensed bars in Washington. In 1932, one year before the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, records show that authorities raided 1,155 locations in the district where on-premise alcohol was found. At another 600 speakeasies, owners, tipped off by corrupt officials, were able to dispose of their illegal contraband before the raids. In fact, it is estimated that more than 3,000 speakeasies of all sizes and types operated in DC during the Prohibition era.
"People felt Prohibition was for someone else to obey, but not for me," says Garret Peck, author of Prohibition in Washington D.C: How Dry We Weren't.
As part of the Books and Beyond series, Peck appeared at the Library of Congress today to discuss the history of Prohibition and his new book.
The attempt to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol was the result of decades of intense lobbying by the Temperance movement, which featured such groups as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League.
"Temperance was the social movement of the time," Peck said. "They (the supporters) believed if we dry up the country, we'll be a more God-fearing nation."
But quickly it became apparent that the law was doomed to fail. Alcohol consumption continued, and, in many cases, especially women influenced by "the 1st sexual revolution," actually increased. "Suddenly disobeying the law became glamorous," Peck said.
The author noted that Washington D.C. was not plagued by organized crime related to the bathtub gin trade like cities such as Chicago and New York."Here it was a scene dominated by amateurs," Peck explained.
Eventually the combination of lawlessness and economic hardship caused by the Great Depression led to repeal. But, Peck noted, evidence of those 13 years still exists. For example, the national income tax was instituted during that time to substitute for the substantial loss of federal tax on alcohol. Words coined such as scofflaw (which literally means one who scoffs at the law) are still part of our lexicon. And then there is NASCAR, which actually began with races between drivers of souped-up cars especially equipped to rush alcohol past government agents trying in vain to enforce the Volstead Act.
Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips:
Prohibition is currently in vogue. There is the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. There is the recent 3-part Ken Burns PBS documentary on the subject that is now available on DVD. And, for those who would like a more active look at Washington's illegal drinking past, Peck offers a special walking tour of DC's Prohibition years.
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