SRU history professor reflects on 100th anniversary of Prohibition


Whiskey jug in a crate

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified 100 years ago, marking the start of the Prohibition era.

Jan. 16, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - When Aaron Cowan brings up the topic of Prohibition in his history classes at Slippery Rock University, some of the students are astonished. Cowan, an SRU associate professor of history, often shows propaganda decrying alcohol consumption from the time of the temperance movement and sarcastically shames any college students who would think of imbibing, especially with most of them fast approaching legal drinking age.

"That's always a topic that students enjoy," Cowan said. "It's something they can relate to because we can talk about the drinking culture, then and now, and how it functions beyond just drinking alcohol. It has this social meaning."

Aaron Cowan


"Then" happens to be 100 years ago today. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes," was ratified Jan. 16, 1919.

"It would seem unthinkable to us today that you can actually pass a national, constitutional amendment outlawing the production or the sale of alcohol," Cowan said. "But there were a lot of things converging at the time that led to enough support for Prohibition."

Cowan credits a temperance movement led by organizations such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as one of the catalysts for Prohibition. The WCTU, the largest organization of women at the time, was also part of the women's suffrage movement, which pushed for women's right to vote that soon followed with the passing of the 19th Amendment Aug. 18, 1920.

"Women were involved with this alcohol reform effort because they were often the most vulnerable to husbands who abused alcohol and became physically violent or lost their jobs," Cowan said. "They were becoming part of the voting bloc, which helped push (Prohibition) over the top."

Immigration and urbanization were also key factors. The decade leading up to Prohibition was the peak time of immigration in the U.S., and with a larger and more diverse pool of ethnic groups living in close quarters in the cities, this resulted in many immigrants congregating and sharing ideas in saloons that seemed to exist on every street corner.

"It's not just a bar; you're talking about a community center and centers of political power," said Cowan, who explained that talk about politics and the forming of labor unions didn't occur in homes but in the saloons, along with political campaigning. "Traditional, middle-class Americans had a lot of anxiety about immigrants and how they perceived they were corrupting American society. The one way they could prevent this, they figured, was to get rid of the saloons."

Cowan, the author of "A Nice Place to Visit: Tourism and Urban Revitalization in the Postwar Rustbelt," conducted research when he was in graduate school at the University of Cincinnati about the urbanization of American in the early 20th century. Part of his research was reading farm journals from rural areas of Indiana, and what was prevalent at the time was a growing resentment of young people leaving rural areas to pursue jobs in the cities.

"There's this rural-urban tension where people in the rural areas were thinking that cities were corrupting the young people," Cowan said. "The thinking was that young people were going there and drinking at these saloons and these places were corrupting their morals. Part of (Prohibition) was reasserting control over society, which people think was getting out of hand."

Control was also sought in the South, where most African-Americans lived at the time, and, like anti-immigrant sentiment, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant citizens of the upper and middle classes felt threatened.

"If you were a white, middle-class person in America and had access to a bottle of wine, no one was busting in your door and arresting you," Cowan said. "A lot of this comes down to power, who gets to have power and who gets to determine who is prosecuted."

Additionally, World War I was ending and there was negative resentment toward German immigrants as well, many of whom operated breweries in the United States.

"There was a culture war going on and in a lot of ways alcohol was a proxy for it," said Cowan, who added that Prohibition was a lot more than just a religious fundamentalist movement that college students often perceive. "This was only partially about people worrying about the consumption of alcohol. You had all these things coming together."

Another misconception by students in Cowan's classes, he said, is that Prohibition failed. Although the 21st Amendment was passed and ratified in 1933, repealing Prohibition, the movement was effective as research shows that it reduced overall alcohol consumption in America by half during the 1920s, and consumption remained below pre-Prohibition levels until the 1940s.

Cowan will be teaching a 200-level history class, U.S. History Since 1920, when the spring semester begins at SRU next week. Although most of the Prohibition era will be covered early in the semester, what happened in 1919, and the many contributing factors which led into the last 100 years of American history, will be anything but a "dry" topic.

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