PBS’s Prohibition

January 13, 2012

Next week, on January 16, 2012 mark the 92 years since the Volstead Act was ratified and became the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, being about the beginning of a 14 year era known as Prohibition.

Last October, PBS aired Prohibition by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It took me a little bit to get around to watching the 5 ½ hour show, which was available at my library. It kind of covers the era from about 1840s through the 1930s from all angles.

Interestingly, in the 1800s, there were saloons, where only men went to drink. As a result, women were very instrumental in having Prohibition come about, partly as a safety measure for their security, safety, and the wellbeing of the family. Men would take their wages and spend it all down at the saloon, and perhaps come home drunk and beat on everyone. The battered family would starve because he spent his paycheck in an age where women did not work outside the home. There were other sides to the debate, such as Anglo-Protestant Americans being against alcohol, trying to save the drinking immigrants, but the idea of a space where only men went and how women protested is interesting to me. In addition, when Prohibition was in place, women actually began to go places to drink. It created a shift creating more gender equality, while creating a shift in space by closing saloons and opening female friendly speakeasies.

Prohibition was actually an amendment to the Constitution, as people at the time believed that this was the only way, since no other amendment had ever been overturned. Historians, however, talk about how it is ironic it is that the Constitution is about limiting government for the sake of personal freedoms, and Prohibition limits personal freedoms. One historian commented something to the extent that, “If you wanted people to brush their teeth, outlaw toothpaste. People will then start secretly brushing their teeth.”

Ultimately, Prohibition failed because people who supported it thought people would obey just to obey. Very little money was actually set aside for the enforcement of the law. People still wanted their alcohol, which created an illegal black market. This black market paid off a lot of officials, which really created an age of uncertainty and corruption.  Police would turn a blind eye to the distilling distribution wars that were happening, powerless to stop them. Also, once you have people breaking one law, it makes them less likely to follow others. And if you cops are corrupt and not enforcing one law, they may not enforce others.

I am obviously simplifying this era too much, but the show Prohibition walks you through all this and more, talking about the times, specific people and events, terms, culture, politics, and much more. For instance, Prohibition actually brought about today’s modern system of lobbying. Most of it is historians talking with black and white photos being shown and ragtime music in the background. I also like it how a few people are interviewed who lived in the times, or whose parents were somehow involved in either side of the battle. Prohibition is a well done, informative show about America’s history with alcohol during the 1840-1930s.

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2 Responses to “PBS’s Prohibition”


  1. […] so I believe they don’t drink at all, so they would have only been dealing with sweet cider. In a post-Prohibition US, elected officials have to be careful regarding how much alcohol they consume. However, Resident […]


  2. […] then says apples became a victim of their own propagation success. With the beginning of the Prohibition movement in the 1830s, the apple was seen as a contributor. This then brought about a race to find the sweet tasting […]


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