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The Bitter Aftertaste of Prohibition in American History

For many, Prohibition recalls a freewheeling era in American history with speakeasies, bootlegging, gangsters and G-men. But new scholarship shows that several factors beyond the obvious underlay the 1920 ban on the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages.

“They’re fighting over alcohol, but they’re also fighting over immigration and identity in the country,” says Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, who appears in the new two-part Smithsonian Channel documentary miniseries on the era, “Drinks, Crime and Prohibition.”

The American push to ban alcohol for health and moral reasons had been growing since the days of the temperance movement in the mid-19th century. While individual states and localities went dry, it wasn’t until 1917 that Congress passed a resolution to submit a constitutional amendment for a ban that was sent to the states for ratification. Thirty-six states needed to ratify, and in 1919 they did. Prohibition officially began the following year, bringing with it a number of changes to the country, from the rise of organized crime to the concomitant increase in federal policing.

But, as Grinspan says in the documentary, “alcohol is not the central story of Prohibition. There are people who are fighting alcohol, but what they are fighting about is a clash of two civilizations in America.”

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union with signs in their Seattle office (Courtesy of Ohio History Connection – AL07629)

The enemy is not just alcohol, but European immigrants, the documentary argues. Between 1892 and 1920 almost 12 million immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island.

“Organizing around alcohol is in some ways a politically correct way to go after other immigrants,” Grinspan says in the documentary. “It’s not entirely polite to say, ‘I want to get all of the Catholics out of America.’ But it’s very polite to say, ‘Alcohol is ruining society.’”

“That’s one of the big changes in recent scholarship,” says Peter Liebhold, a curator in the division of work and industry at the American History Museum, who is also featured in the series. “A lot of people are looking at the success of the temperance movement as an anti-immigrant experience. It becomes code for keeping immigrants in their place.”

Grinspan is first seen in the series displaying a cast iron axe meant to poke fun


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