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85th Year Anniversary of Prohibition Repeal*

December 5, 2018, marked 85 years since the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was repealed, bringing an end to the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. known as the “Noble Experiment.”

The origins of Prohibition began in earnest with the formation of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in 1893. this organization was created specifically to end drinking in the U.S. and had a large following. California wine production was booming around this time, and by 1897 California wine production reached 34 million gallons Some of California’s legendary wineries such as Krug, Wente and Beringer were gaining success.

At the ASL 20th annual conference in Columbus, Ohio, in 1913, the delegates voted unanimously to create a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the sale of alcohol in the U.S. The ASL was a well-organized lobbyist organization that linked drinking to the nation’s fear of venereal disease.

In December of 1918, the Food Control Act was passed by Congress giving President Wilson the power to limit or prohibit the production of beer and wine if necessary to preserve resources for the war effort.

About a year later, in January of 1919, the 18th Amendment of the Constitution of the U.S. became law marking the beginning of Prohibition. The 18th Amendment did not ban the consumption of alcohol, but prohibited the”manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” You could drink all you wanted, but the means to obtain alcohol was illegal.

A high demand for alcoholic beverages remained leading to widespread smuggling by rumrunners, moonshiners and bootleggers. Many illegal drinking establishments known as speakeasies became popular. Alcohol in various forms was sold throughout the U.S. at retail outlets. The U.S. was referred to as an “amphibian” nation since, in reality, it was neither dry nor wet.

Although 80% of California wineries closed after the onset of Prohibition, significant wine production continued and the remaining wineries actually enjoyed a boom supplying sacramental wine, medicinal wine (physicians could prescribe alcohol for medicinal use), and concentrated grape juice for home winemakers.

To combat the country’s continued appetite for alcohol, in October 1919, the Volstead Act, formerly known as the National War Prohibition Act was passed by Congress to provide enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. The problem was that there were many loopholes in the Act, and American wine consumption per capita increased while the Volstead Act was in effect.

California grapevine acreage actually increased from 500,000 in 1919 to 650,000 by 1928, largely due to the widespread popularity of non-intoxicating concentrated fruit juices that were exempted by the Volstead Act. The California Vineyardist Association (CVA) was formed to produce and sell concentrated grape juice. Called VINE-GLO, this concentrated grape juice was available by mail order or through pharmacies. Nine varieties were available in kegs including “Burgundy.” The consumer was advised not to turn the juice into wine (“wink-wink”) but it was simply a matter of adding water to start fermentation and produce wine.

In 1928, Herbert Hoover was elected President and he promised to intensify Prohibition enforcement. He would eventually admit that enforcement of Prohibition was futile.

The repeal movement gathered momentum by businesses, organized labor and American women through the Woman’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). The WONPR had over a million members and opposed the oppression caused by enforcement. Ironically, it was the women’s temperance movement that was at the forefront of the push for Prohibition

The repeal of Prohibition was a central issue in the 1932 presidential election. Franklin D. Roosevelt favored repeal, while Hoover wavered, and Roosevelt was elected.

On December 6, 1932, Senator John J. Blaine of Wisconsin drafted the 21st Amendment that would nullify the 18th Amendment. The 21st Amendment was ratified in December 1933 by 35 states, with Utah finally agreeing to be the 36th state needed to write it officially into the Constitution on December 5 when Roosevelt signed the proclamation that ended Prohibition. .p> Prohibition lasted 13 years, 10 months and 18 days. This period was fifty-odd days less than the 14 years’ supply of wine laid down by the Yale Club in 1920.

Prohibition is the only amendment to the Constitution to have ever been repealed.

* Largely excerpted from DRINK, A Cultural History of Alcohol, Iain Gately, Gotham Books, 2008. ߐ

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