The 1920s were scarcely two weeks old when the United States launched what some would later call the “maddest follies of a mad decade.”
On Jan. 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land, making the “manufacture, sale, barter, transport, import, export, delivery or furnish, all illegal acts throughout the country.”
Surprisingly, Prohibition had actually started earlier in Nevada. In Dec. 1918, Nevada’s Supreme Court certified the state’s vote and Prohibition became state law as of midnight Dec. 17, 1918.
As a result, the state went dry a little over a year before it became law nationwide in 1920.
However, in Nevada’s rough and tumble history, especially the mining towns, alcohol was a necessity.
Author Harold Smith wrote in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly in 1976:
Early Nevada legislatures regarded liquor, at least from a legislative standpoint, as a means of revenue. They established a system with few restrictions. Saloons and liquor traffic became an accepted part of the social fabric, especially in mining areas.
Mark Twain thought so too. Writing about life in the late 19th century, he said: “In Nevada for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker … and the saloon-keeper, occupied the same level in society … The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man … was to stand behind a bar …”
Nevada residents, as did many others nationwide, initially thought Prohibition would improve health, increase safety and reduce crime.
However, in the final analysis, the new law failed to accomplish any of those things.
Seldom has a law been more flagrantly violated. Not only did Americans continue to manufacture, barter and possess alcohol; they drank more of it.
The selling and consumption of alcoholic beverages might have been outlawed, but the demand for them was not.
On Jan. 16, 1920, saloons and licensed bars all around Nevada closed.
Since the federal government was tasked with overseeing the enforcement of Prohibition, local law took the opinion, “No need for us to do anything. If the federal government is going to do it nationally, let them.”
Yet in the early 1920s, Las Vegas did not have a federal building, court or office space for Prohibition agents. Violation cases were transferred for trial to Carson City.
At the current downtown Amtrak train station in Reno, built in 1925, it’s reported that “During the depot’s construction, workers found bottles of champagne inside a long-closed cellar. Despite rotted corks, crews still drank what remained of the sour liquid, all work halted.”
That didn’t last too long though, as Prohibition agents got wind of this, raided the cellar and smashed the remaining bottles.
In 1923, the Sparks Tribune reported the “biggest rum raid” ever in Nevada took place at a private residence on South Virginia Street. San Francisco agents seized more than $75,000 worth of beer, wine and liquor while the owner was out of the country. Most of the haul was hidden inside secret panels.
Reno Mayor Ed Roberts was quoted in the Sparks Tribune as saying,
“Prohibition is unenforceable.” He told the audience at a monthly men’s church meeting that he had long since instructed the city police to ignore liquor offenses unless specifically requested to assist federal agents. Roberts added,
If the city officials raided one joint and missed another, I would be accused of being as big a grafter as some Prohibition officers are accused of being. The only way to put the bootlegger out of business is to place a barrel of good corn whiskey on every downtown street corner with dippers attached and signs inviting passersby to help themselves to all they want, free of charge.
While Prohibition built the mob nationwide, the mob then built Las Vegas.
One author wrote, “The Strip was built by gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, (1946) who chose to erect their casino resorts outside of actual Las Vegas city limits to avoid the pesky city government.”
One of Prohibition’s biggest creations was the speakeasy; the underground town saloon. It was a place where patrons consumed Prohibition’s new potion – the cocktail.
In every state, illegal producers and sellers paid bribes to police, sheriffs and various other public officials. It was viewed simply as “the cost of doing business.”
Illegal drinking became the new status symbol.
Adults perhaps drank less often, but very heavily when they did so. People in Nevada didn’t go to a favorite speakeasy to spend a leisurely three hours. Instead, they went to guzzle the drinks quickly, as one never knew when a raid might happen.
How did the country come to this point?
Prohibition was enacted with the belief that it would correct corruption and reduce prison numbers, solve social unrest, lower taxes and improve hygiene and the overall health of people.
By the early 1900s, over half the states in the U.S. had passed Prohibition laws of some kind.
Finally, in 1917, the Volstead Act, the 18th Amendment, was enacted, passed by Congress in Oct. 1919 and went into effect Jan. 16, 1920.
Prohibition topics took up a tremendous amount of space in newspapers, magazines and books nationwide. Cartoonists had a field day dealing with such topics as smuggling, bootlegging, the sale of alcohol in drug stores for medicinal purposes, [which was allowed], and just plain drunkenness, which became more noticeable after Prohibition started than before.
And American ingenuity on how to get around the law knew no bounds. Hiding hooch in hip flasks, or a small flask just below the knee for the ladies, was common, as were books with false insides, coconut shells, hot water bottles strung from the neck and a garden hose wrapped around the waist.
Even lawmakers in Washington who had passed the law enjoyed social drinking. One author wrote, “Bootleggers kept the White House well stocked. When President Harding was not at the golf course, he hosted long poker games with his political friends where the liquor flowed freely.”
Moonshine liquor was a dangerous product, too. Some had lead toxins. Moonshiners were often known to add color using creosote. Sometimes embalming fluid was added to give “a little bit more kick.”
Tragic cases of consumer paralysis, blindness and even painful death were recorded.
Of all the evils to come out of Prohibition, by far the worst was the explosive growth of organized crime. Racketeering came of age. Prohibition fueled the jazz age and made the 1920s roar.
With the onset of the stock market collapse in 1929 and the Great Depression to follow, people realized more clearly that the results of the great anti-alcohol crusade were not what had been anticipated.
By 1932, when President Roosevelt was elected, most Americans who had initially supported the 18th Amendment no longer believed in its value. It was simply counterproductive. Prohibition did not bring about morality and health, but rather spawned corruption of all kinds, in every state, and huge law enforcement issues.
The 21st Amendment was passed into law in Dec. 1933, and Prohibition passed into the history books.
Adapted from a story in TIME-LIFE BOOKS, 1976, Harold Smith, Nevada Historical Society, 1976, and other contributing authors.