Featured Article: “100 Years Ago, the Booziest January Suddenly Dried Up”
One hundred years ago, Prohibition began — outlawing the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol in the United States for more than a decade.
In this lesson, you will learn about how Americans prepared for and adjusted to life during Prohibition. In a Going Forward activity, you will connect the lessons of Prohibition to today’s war on drugs.
What do you know about Prohibition? What key words, names and phrases do you associate with the era?
Use this graphic organizer to create a K/W/L chart with everything you know about Prohibition and any questions you might have.
Next, watch the video below from the History Channel to learn more.
Afterward, add what you learned about Prohibition to the last column of your chart. What are three things you learned about the era that you didn’t know before? You might also add to the center column: Now that you have some more information, what other questions do you have about Prohibition?
(If you are in a classroom setting, you might share your chart with a partner or the class.)
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. What were the historical roots of the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919? What role did women play in its ratification? What social ills did supporters of the amendment believe it would eliminate?
2. How did Americans prepare during the final months for the end of legal drinking? Give at least three examples. Which did you find most surprising or memorable?
3. Once Prohibition was in effect, how did Americans try to get around the alcohol ban? Why did access to alcohol during the Prohibition era often relate to a person’s economic status? How did businesses like saloons or breweries try to adapt to the dry age?
4. How did rural and urban Americans differ in their views of Prohibition?
5. What was the Volstead Act? Why does the article refer to government enforcement of the 18th Amendment as a “yearslong game of Whack-a-Mole”?
6. What does the author mean by her statement that while Prohibition officially ended with the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, “the legal change was mostly a formality”? What evidence from the article supports this claim?
7. What else have you learned about Prohibition that you can add to your K/W/L chart? On the whole, do you believe that Prohibition was a success or a failure? Give evidence from article to support your argument.
Choose one of the following activities:
1) Analyze a photograph featured in the article.
Look through the photographs in the article: What can you learn about Prohibition from these images? What story do they tell about the period? Which photo do you find most interesting, surprising or memorable?
Choose one image and write about how it illustrates life during the Prohibition era.
2) Make an argument about Prohibition.
Was Prohibition a success or a failure? Did Prohibition do more harm than good? Was it a “noble experiment” or a failed idea from the start?
Review the ideas, information and facts you included in the K and L columns in your chart to help you formulate your viewpoint.
Feel free to use the additional sources below:
“Actually, Prohibition Was a Success” | New York Times Op-Ed
“Why Prohibition Failed” | Newsweek
“Why Didn’t Prohibition Work? You Asked Google — Here’s The Answer” | The Guardian
“10 Things You Should Know About Prohibition” | History Channel
(Teachers note: You might consider doing this activity as a whole class debate rather than as an individual writing assignment. For a variety of great debate formats, see our lesson on great sports debates here.)
3) Connect the lessons of the Prohibition era to today.
Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have now legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults over 21. And 33 states have legalized medical marijuana.
However, the use, sale and possession of marijuana is still illegal under federal law (as are many drugs like heroin and cocaine), and in 2018 there were 663,367 arrests involving marijuana, up from 659,700 in 2017, nearly 92 percent of them for possession.
Should marijuana be legalized? Do you think the current federal prohibition on marijuana is good public policy? Why or why not? Use the lessons of the Prohibition era to make your argument.
Here are some specific questions to consider:
What similarities, if any, do you see between Prohibition and the federal ban on marijuana? What are some differences? What similarities do you see between the Volstead Act and its enforcement and the war on drugs?
What do you think might be the dangers of legalization? Do you think it will increase the number of people abusing drugs? Will it lead to more traffic accidents or unproductive workers? Will it lower educational achievement or deepen family problems?
What do you think might be the benefits of legalization? Do you think it will reduce drug violence or keep more nonviolent people out of prison? Will it expand individuals’ rights and allow the government to regulate marijuana, as it does alcohol and tobacco?
Need more information? Here are some more resources to help:
“Repeal Prohibition, Again” | The New York Times’s editorial board’s call for marijuana legalization in 2014
“The Arguments For and Against Marijuana Legalization in The U.S.” (Infographic) | Forbes
You might consider writing your ideas in the form of an editorial, and then submitting your final draft to our Seventh Annual Student Editorial Contest. Or, writing about the connections between Prohibition and today’s war on drugs, and then submitting your essay to our Third Annual Connections Contest.
4) Create a slide show on the present-day war on drugs.
The article features many informative, fascinating and powerful photos from the Prohibition era. Imagine 100 years from now, The New York Times is putting together an article on the war on drugs period in America that roughly began in the early 1970s.
Find five to 10 photos that characterize our age of illegal drugs. Curate a slide show that informs future audiences: What did it look like? How was it enforced? What were the costs — social, political, economic? How did people get around the legal prohibition on drugs?