In 1920, the 18th Amendment made alcohol illegal across the United States. So it's tempting to think of Prohibition as a sudden and fickle change in national policy. But in reality, Prohibition had been going on for decades beforehand at the local and state level. By 1919, many places had already banned booze.
The GIF below offers a vivid history of how Prohibition unfolded, drawn from the iconic Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. It shows the changes among:
- Yellow "wet" territories and states
- Green states with local prohibition
- Blue states that were completely dry
Prohibition was a journey, not a flip of a switch.
As we watch marijuana legalization progress from state to state, it seems perfectly obvious that changes in attitudes and laws unfold locally, not nationally. We know that public opinion shifts unsteadily over time, and the same thing happened with Prohibition.
The mix of temperance laws in 1855 shows the anti-alcohol movement already at work:
Ernest Cherrington's The Evolution of Prohibition in the United States of America describes the country at this time, when a wave of statewide alcohol prohibition rolled across the nation. Though prohibition wasn't ubiquitous, the debate over alcohol was.
The temperance movement had been active since the 1820s, spearheaded partly by the American Temperance Society, which was founded in 1826. As W. J. Rorabaugh writes in The Alcoholic Republic, the United States always had a fundamental tension between its culture of heavy drinking and deep religiosity (which made some prone toward temperance).
As a result, states passed laws restricting alcohol use. Others just narrowly avoided having such laws. (Illinois, for instance, passed a law in 1851, but it was rejected by the courts.) By 1905, restrictions were increasingly widespread:
The prohibition movement was powerful enough to affect not only alcohol policy but broader politics, as well. In Ohio, the Anti-Saloon League fought against Republican Governor Myron T. Herrick's reelection in 1905, and he ended up losing by more than 44,000 votes, despite his party's popularity in the state.
And prohibition advocates weren't just passing laws — they also had a legal strategy. In Iowa, in 1905 alone, they secured more than 150 injunctions against liquor vendors and stripped 91 druggists of their liquor-selling permits (at the time, pharmacists were allowed to prescribe liquor even in dry states). That same year in Minnesota, 163 saloonkeepers were convicted for breaking the law.
By 1919, the year before the Prohibition amendment was ratified, alcohol was banned across the country in all but 16 states:
Two years earlier, in 1917, the Prohibition amendment had been sent to the states for ratification after passing in both the House and Senate. But a flurry of state laws passed in the intervening time, making many aspects of manufacturing and consuming liquor, beer, and wine illegal.
After the amendment passed, the remaining states went dry. The dates on the map show which states became dry in 1920:
These maps dispute the popular notion that Prohibition failed because of a lack of public enthusiasm (which research from the National Institute of Health has also debunked).
Prohibition wasn't a capricious law passed suddenly — it was the result of more than a century of work. While the effectiveness of the law is a different question worth debating, it's clear that a large number of people supported Prohibition over a long period of time. Big changes have always been gradual, especially when it comes to the issues that hit closest to home (or the bar).