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Prohibition for Kids and Teachers Illustration

Prohibition

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For Kids

1920, Prohibition started with the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment made it illegal to make, sell, or transport intoxicating beverages (alcohol.) The amendment was passed because Congress believed alcohol was responsible for a great deal of crime including domestic crimes against women and children. So obviously, if people were forced to stop drinking, they would stop getting drunk and crime would be greatly reduced. It was also a moral issue for some people. Woodrow Wilson, who was the U.S. President at the time, called Prohibition a "Noble" experiment. Perhaps, but Prohibition did not reduce crime. Just the opposite. Not only did people drink anyway, but Prohibition led to the development of organized crime. Here's what happened:

Speakeasies: Speakeasies were illegal bars. They sold illegal alcoholic beverages. Speakeasies sprang up in nearly every town in the United States. Some towns had many speakeasies. One of the most famous was the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City. Harlem was a black community. Slavery was over, but there were still black communities and white communities. The Cotton Club, in the heart of black Harlem, catered to rich, white patrons who loved jazz. The club was decorated like a pre-Civil War cotton plantation. At night, it came to life. One expensive car after another pulled up at the front door of the club. White patrons were eager to hear the wonderful black musicians who performed at the Cotton Club on stage, musicians like Duke Ellington. White spectators sat at tables close to the stage. They danced. They drank illegal alcohol. They spent a great of money. The police and Federal agents rarely bothered the Cotton Club with raids. They had been paid by wealthy patrons to stay away.

Bootleggers: Bootleggers were the people who made and transported alcohol during Prohibition. They smuggled it into cities and towns. They sold their jugs and bottles of illegally made alcohol to speakeasies. Some of the alcohol they made was very good. Some was not good at all. Occasionally "moonshine", homemade whiskey, could even be deadly. There were no laws controlling the quality of the alcohol made because making alcohol was illegal. You took a risk buying, selling, and drinking moonshine. Bootleggers had secret stills, equipment they used to make alcohol. Some of these stills blew up, causing all kinds of damage. Federal agents were tasked with the job of catching bootleggers. They were not very successful.  Some agents considered it nearly a game. There were many bootleggers and not nearly enough agents.

Organized Crime: Things changed when organized crime developed. Bootlegging and speakeasies were money makers for the owners, but when organized crime entered the picture, bootlegging and speakeasies became big business run by gangsters. One of the most famous gangsters during Prohibition was Chicago's Al Capone. It is estimated that Capone made around $60 million dollars a year selling illegal alcohol and running illegal speakeasies.

1933, Prohibition ended with the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which repealed the 18th Amendment. In 1933, Congress decided the "Noble" experiment was not working. It failed because bootlegging was everywhere, and because organized crime and gangsters took control of the distribution and sale of alcohol.

The Prohibition Press

Prohibition Interactive Map and Timeline

For Teachers

Prohibition Lesson Plans and Classroom Activities (pbs)

How Teachers Can Make the Most of Prohibition (lesson plans)