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The 1920s were a decade of contradictions, and the era of Prohibition was an icon of that time. During this period, the federal government imposed one of the most famous national bans in history: the production, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.
The Roots of Prohibition
The Prohibition era, which was ratified by the member states on January 16th, 1919, was a period in U.S. history during which the production, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages were banned nationwide.
The following year, through the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Volstead Act that provided for its implementation, the federal government officially established Prohibition.
Prohibition initially gained ground in the country under strong pressure from political and religious movements for temperance and the so-called “Societies for Sobriety,” which advocated for the need to moralize the country by limiting or abolishing alcohol consumption altogether
The Temperance Movements
The temperance movements had deep roots in American society, but gained more momentum after World War I. Characterized by strict and impeccable moralism, they saw alcohol as a social plague and a threat to morality and public health.
These religious or political groups, moralists and fundamentalists, claimed that the cause of absenteeism and poor performance at work, as well as domestic violence and even crime itself, could be traced to alcohol.
These groups organized awareness campaigns, marches, and petitions to demand the adoption of laws against alcohol consumption. One of their slogans was “The Lips That Touch Liquor Will Never Touch Mine”.
The establishment of Prohibition also found strong supporters among big industrialists. Figures like John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford invested considerable amounts of money to bring about a morally “better” and more productive society.
Many politicians also joined these efforts, seeing temperance as an opportunity to gain votes and supporters.
A Contradictory Historical Period
Prohibition supporters believed that the ban on the production, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors would reduce the crime rate, creating a more “virtuous” society.
However, these movements also encountered much resistance and opposition from those who saw Prohibition as a violation of individual rights and government interference in the private lives of citizens.
The decision to enact Prohibition led to a series of social and cultural events, which were captured in many iconic photographs. However, the “forbidden” did not necessarily mean abstinence, but often translated into transgression and action against the system.
The Rise of Organized Crime & the “Prohibition Bosses”
The advent of Prohibition led to a series of unintended consequences, including an increase in organized crime and corruption, as well as an obvious decline in the quality of alcohol produced and an increase in consumption prices.
In this context, the greatest victory was for the underworld, due to the prospects of profit that were about to be created. It is said that on the night of January 15-16, 1919, just a few hours after Prohibition came into effect, an armed gang attacked and robbed a train loaded with whiskey worth $100,000 in Chicago, thus marking the official beginning of illegal alcohol trafficking.
And so an invisible force began to take root in the country under the control of the so-called “Prohibition Bosses”. These figures, who became increasingly influential in those years, formed networks of contacts that actively involved politicians, police, and criminals.
These relationships became increasingly dark and frequent, leading to the development of legendary figures such as Al Capone or McCoy. American society found itself facing a period of rampant crime and widespread corruption, with problematic consequences for the country’s well-being
The Proliferation of “Speakeasies”
With Prohibition, the production and sale of alcoholic beverages became illegal, but the demand remained high. This gave rise to places known as “speakeasies”, real clandestine locations, devoid of signs, and hidden in the most unlikely places. Behind the back room of a drugstore, in the storeroom of a barber, or underground, hidden by secret passages or with separate entrances and exits, “speakeasies” were a window into the culture of the 1920s.
Translated literally as “speak quietly, calmly”, these places were vibrant with jazz music, dancers, luxurious clothing, and alcohol. They were places where social classes mingled, and celebrities, politicians, and criminals shared the same environment, creating an atmosphere of charm and secrets.
Despite the risk of being discovered and arrested, Americans continued to flock to these places, eager to escape the boredom and oppression of Prohibition.
The End of Prohibition
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the election with the promise of abolishing the 18th amendment and in March of that year, with the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowed the production of alcoholic beverages with a maximum alcohol content of 4%.
This marked the beginning of a gradual relaxation of Prohibition. The Great Depression had put the American economy in crisis, and the Roosevelt government saw the abolition of the law as a possible source of revenue for the United States.
On December 5, 1933, the 21st amendment was approved, definitively repealing the previous prohibition and putting an end to the era of Prohibition. The amendment was then ratified by the states and put an end to the national alcohol ban.
A contradictory period
The era of Prohibition represented a unique and very significant moment in American history.
Iconic photographs of this period help us remember the most significant events and understand how Prohibition influenced the society and culture of the country and its development.
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