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Maryse Lundering-Timpano and Alan Mattay


Can the federal government enforce morality? Imagine Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, as a massive social experiment in the regulation of vice.By the turn of the century, many Americans had come to see the consumption of alcohol as a social evil which needed to be eradicated. They viewed alcohol as the culprit for a number of social ills, including violence, poverty, and crime. Protestant concerns about drunkenness rose along with anxiety over the waves of largely Catholic immigrants –including the Irish, Poles, and Italians - who brought traditional drinking customs with them from Europe. [1]

The popular image of the 1920s woman is that of the flapper girl; the liberated woman who frequents speakeasies and dances the Charleston. While Prohibition culture did allow women the opportunity to participate in new social activities outside of the home, the campaign to prohibit alcohol was largely a women-led effort. Originating in the early-nineteenth century, the temperance movement drew women who saw alcohol as the culprit in spousal and child abuse. By the 1920s, The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had established itself as the largest women’s organization in the United States. At its peak, the WCTU counted more than 150,000 women as its members.[2] These women furthered the cause of female political activism by aligning the prohibition campaign with the women’s suffrage movement.

The Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the “manufacture, sale, [and] transportation of intoxicating liquors” went into effect nationwide on January 17, 1920. After the production and distribution of alcohol was made illegal, criminal gangs took over the liquor trade. Rum-runners smuggled foreign liquor from Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean into the United States to sell on the black market.[3] Bootleggers earned their name by slyly selling flasks of home-brewed spirits from their bootlegs.[4] Gangsters flouted the law by bribing countless politicians and law enforcement officials with their newly-generated wealth. [5] Some gangs operated secret bars called speakeasies. Enterprising entrepreneurs exploited loopholes in the law by setting up pharmacies which legally sold whiskey for a variety of bogus ailments.[6] Church attendance swelled as congregants joined to partake in communion wine.[7] Frequent raids on speakeasies and bootleggers by law enforcement, Prohibition was widely ignored throughout the country and seen as practically unenforceable.[8]

Las Vegas was still developing as a city at the turn of the century, and Block 16 became known as the town’s gambling, drinking, and prostitution hub. Legally, Block 16 and Block 17 were the only places allowed to sell alcohol when the city was being developed in 1905. Even though Prohibition passed a statewide referendum in 1918, it was largely disregarded in Las Vegas. The district’s saloons, including the notorious Arizona Club, dubbed the “Queen of Block 16,” defied the ban. Many of Block 16’s saloons rented out their backrooms to prostitutes and their clients. Speakeasy culture only served to strengthen Block 16’s unsavory reputation. In 1926, a majority of Nevadans supported a petition to Congress to repeal Prohibition.[9]

In 1932, Americans elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised to not only end the Great Depression, but also end Prohibition. The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was one of the sweeping changes made by Roosevelt’s new administration aimed to end the Great Depression. Prohibition, which President Hoover had once dubbed the “noble experiment,” officially ended in December of 1933 when the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified.[10] The end of Prohibition brought new meaning to Roosevelt's campaign song, "Happy Days Are Here Again!"

In Southern Nevada we live with reminders of Prohibition everyday. During the construction of the Hoover Dam, the Hoover administration worked hard to ensure that Prohibition was enforced in Las Vegas. The government wanted to clean up the city as well as keep workers at the dam from drinking and gambling.  As a result, Boulder City, the town south of Las Vegas where Hoover Dam workers were housed, did not have bars, liquor stores, or gambling.[11] Alcohol sales finally became legal in 1969. However, Boulder City remains the one of two places in Nevada where gambling is illegal.[12]

While Americans today generally view Prohibition as a failure, America’s “dry spell” had a considerable impact on the evolution of America’s cultural and political life during the 1920s. Vice regulation remains controversial in the twenty-first century. We can see echoes of the Prohibition battle in the contemporary debate over drug laws, their effectiveness, and their impact on society. In Nevada, voters will have the opportunity to vote for the legalization of recreational marijuana for individuals twenty-one and older on the 2016 ballot.[13]

[1] Annette Kassis, Prohibition in Sacramento: Moralizers & Bootleggers in the Wettest City in the Nation (Stroud: The History Press, 2014), 70.

[2] Ann-Marie E. Szymanski, Pathways to Prohibition: Radicals, Moderates, and Social Movement Outcomes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 156.

[3] Kassis, Prohibition in Sacramento, 101.

[4] J. Anne Funderburg, Bootleggers and Beer Barons of the Prohibition Era, (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2014), 32.

[5] Funderburg, Bootleggers and Beer Barons, 341.

[6] Michael A. Lerner, “Prohibition: Unintended Consequences." PBS presents Ken Burns:  Prohibition, http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/

[7] Lerner, Prohibition.

[8] Eugene P. Moehring and Michael S. Green, Las Vegas: A Centennial History, (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005), 90.

[9] Moehring and Green, 90.

[10] Cathrine Gilbert Murdock, Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 152-153.

[11] Moehring and Green, 90.

[12] Chris Kudialis, “Knowing Vegas: Why isn't gaming allowed in Boulder City?,” Las Vegas Review Journal, last modified October 1, 2015, accessed March 6, 2016, http://www.reviewjournal.com/trending/silver-state/knowing-vegas-why-isnt-gaming-allowed-boulder-city.

[13] “Nevada Marijuana Legalization Initiative,” Ballotpedia, accessed April 2, 2016, https://ballotpedia.org/Nevada_Marijuana_Legalization_Initiative_(2016).