For those of you who are unaware, let me tell you that Sunday is an important date in United States history. Sunday is Repeal Day. 77 years ago on December 7, 1933 the 21st Amendment reversed the 18th Amendment enforced by the Volstead Act and referred to as the Noble Experiment, the Great Illusion, and possibly some other names I should not list here. The 21st Amendment ended 13 years of illegal activity related to the sale, distribution, and public consumption of alcohol. If the culture of New York City was anything like it is today, how could our pickled residents of yore have contributed to the passing of the Volstead Act?
Well, the first murmurings of banning alcohol started nearly 100 years before Prohibitionwas actually passed. The Temperance Movement formed groups that abstained from consuming alcohol for various reasons and educated their communities with their doctrine. Here in Brooklyn, the evidence of a Brooklyn Temperance Society in our archive exists in the form of the Address of the Board of Managers of the Brooklyn Temperance Society, to the Inhabitants of Brooklyn together with the Constitution and List of Officers published in 1829!
Its purpose was to define “the real evil of intemperance” as “destroyer upon all that is useful – all that is noble – all that is virtuous in man . . . with what an insidious progress it creeps, as a deadly serpent, upon the unsuspecting victim, and then, when it has folded its giant embrace around his every limb, and tied up his every muscle in its hideous coil, crushes the whole constitution of the helpless being to a loathsome agonizing wreck.” Of course, the address doesn’t stop there, but goes on to state that intemperance is more prevalent in the United States than in England where the population is obviously much larger; leads to crime, pauperism, and death; and certainly imposes a burden on the rest of the temperate citizens to care for these blundering, lost souls. While no man seeks to become such a lost soul, addicted innocently to the ardently destructive spirits, the way to reform must then be “entire abstinence from ardent spirits, except when necessary as a medicine. For any other purpose, it is well certified that they can never be useful. They are useful neither for the labourer in the field, the mechanic in his workshop, the student in his office, nor the sailor amid the tempest. On all, we are assured by physicians, they operate as poison.”
In addition, 19th century society was full of philanthropic-minded people who cared about its fellow citizens whether they be rich or poor. However, they did want to make sure they had access to a proper moral influence. Rather than allow the drunkards to fill the streets and poorly influence the pious, homes were created to cure these folks. In 1866, The Inebriates’ Home in the Fort Hamilton neighborhood of Brooklyn (then Long Island) was incorporated “for the care and treatment of inebriates. . . for the seclusion, when deemed necessary, of new inmates from the convalescent patients, until they are sobered down and the sickness consequent on their late debauch has passed away” in “sound-proof rooms, specially adapted for the care and treatment of delirium tremens cases.”
Finally, within our Brooklyn Prohibition collection (1977.127), there are administrative records of the New York State Prohibition Party; periodicals and informational booklets; campaign materials, events materials, photographs of events, maps of the National Prohibition Park in Staten Island, and portraits of prominent figures of the New York Prohibitionist movement documenting the energetic activity of several groups here in Brooklyn: Prohibition Party of Kings County, The Young People’s Prohibition League, and the Women’s Christian Temperance League, to name a few. They held meetings, debates, distributed propaganda, and manufactured pins — all for the moral benefit of an abstinent life.
THUS, the 18th Amendment, also known as the Volstead Act, the Great Illusion, the Noble Experiment, and so on was passed on January 16, 1919 and went into effect one year later. What followed was a brief period of seeming drought until bootleggers got their bearings in this new world. Increasingly, liquor was smuggled in by boat, whiskey distilled in backyards and basements, politicians and policemen bribed, and speakeasies were born for the distribution and consumption of alcohol once again. This period also gave birth to organized crime. This period is well known as a brilliant time of debauchery and fantastic wealth.
With the Depression in full swing, though, more and more thought to question the validity of this experiment. If the country could receive taxes on the sale of alcohol, wouldn’t that pull some folks out of poverty? Were the ways of bootleggers and organized crime organizations infesting the nation with more evil than before Prohibition? A number of factors played into the decision, made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was elected President to finally rid the nation of Prohibition.
Many say the United States has never recovered from the effects of Prohibition. Please imbibe on Sunday to further reverse the effects of the 18th Amendment.