Beyond Steel
municipal Image

The Lehigh Valley During Prohibition

By Adam Bentz

...should we lose our Democratic principles at home right after winning a war to make the world safe for Democracy? Why should we liberate millions of people in other countries, and ourselves be deprived of our liberty?[1]

So questioned one Easton journalist in February 1919, just as federal efforts to ban liquor production began to take effect. The United States had just fought a war to "make the world safe for democracy." But as troops returned from France, elected leaders in Washington used their democratically-given power to take away the people's right to sell (and as a result, to buy) alcoholic beverages.

Temperance and prohibition movements began to pick up speed by the end of the nineteenth century. By 1916, the Anti-Saloon League, the most successful anti-drink organization, had used its political pressure and manipulation of public opinion to fill Congress with dry politicians who outnumbered wets by two-to-one. World War I sealed the fate of the prosperous alcohol industry. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson gave a gift to the "drys" by installing wartime prohibition, ostensibly to conserve grain for the troops in France.[2]

Drys jumped on the obvious opportunity World War I provided. They used the war fervor to attack the brewing industry, which until 1917 had been the last bastion of the liquor trade. Drys linked German-American brewers with America's enemies in Europe and thus turned temperance into a matter of patriotism.[3] They then pushed for something more lasting. On 22 December 1917, Congress submitted the Eighteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. In keeping with wartime restrictions on alcohol production and in an attempt to appease nervous drys from wet states, the Amendment did not prohibit consumption, only targeting manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages. One could legally drink after prohibition, but could not buy nor sell alcohol.[4]

Ratification came on 16 January 1919, with enforcement to commence one year later. Meanwhile, Congress passed the Volstead Act in September 1919 to spell out exactly how the government would enforce the amendment. The act stated that intoxicating beverages contained more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV. Federal agents could theoretically "padlock" businesses caught selling or manufacturing alcohol for a year. Those prosecuted for violating Volstead faced six months imprisonment or a $1,000 fine. Although possession of alcohol for home use was not criminalized, possession of illegally-produced alcohol was illegal, creating one of the many gray areas that plagued enforcement over the next decade.[5]

Lehigh University Digital Library
Conditions of Use