The Volstead Act was activated on January 17th 1920 bringing with it a new 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution and nationwide prohibition.
Written with the aim to help dictate the terms, definitions and liabilities of the new constitution amendment. While the succinct 111 words of the 18th Amendment easily outlined the intention to prohibit the “production, sale and transport of intoxicating liquors”, it would neither define the term “intoxicating liquor” nor use the word “alcohol” anywhere within its text. Over the subsequent 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours and 32.5 minutes of its empowerment, the Volstead Act would be dissected over and again for any and all loopholes exploitable by criminals, politicians and public alike. In a world newly divided into various shades of “Dry” and “Wet”, it was a perfectly grey legislation for an ambitious new world.
Officially entitled with the verbose;
“An act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries.”
– the definition and guidelines of this highly daunting new act was left to the responsibility of self entitled Andrew John Volstead – Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (1919-23) and member of Congress since 1903. Described as a quiet man publicly but very driven privately, Volstead with his characteristic heavy eyebrows and even heavier mustache had a great understanding and belief in law and the justice system from his time as a practicing lawyer and Mayor in Granite Falls Minnesota (1900-1902). Despite becoming the personification of the Act, his actual role was closer to that of sponsor than author – a position greatly credited to Wayne Wheeler (aka “Dry Boss” ), the de facto leader of the powerful Anti-Saloon League and key player in bringing about constitutional reform. Once the completed Volstead Act was presented to the House of Representatives on October 28, 1919, it was quickly passed despite being vetoed by the then President Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) – an action swiftly overridden by both the House and Senate alike.
Divided into 69 sections and across 25 pages, the Volstead Act needed to do more than just define prohibition, but more importantly the limits of its reach and effects of its breach. The Act began by defining its three primary roles;
- Prohibit intoxicating beverages.
- Regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor.
- Ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals*.
The Act also needed to define the less obvious involvement of intoxicating liquors in society such as whether international vessels with alcohol on board for their crew, could pass through the United States controlled Panama Canal. Most important however was the legal definition of the term “intoxicating liquor”, described as “Anything ingestible that contains more than 0.5% alcohol by volume”. If this new term was to be taken in its most literal form, Americans would have to miss out on more than just their favourite libations as some popular foods (such as sauerkraut, a serving of fermented cabbage) can easily exceed this alcohol limit. For the Wets or would-be bootleggers amongst the population, the act offered three opportunistic exceptions which presented the first rays of light into how to remain quenched in an otherwise dry world.
One of the first exceptions of the Volstead Act stated that any liquor which was purchased prior to the implementation of the Act, could be legally consumed for personal use. This therefore became a question of simple logistics. Seeing this loop-hole early, a member of the Stratford Club in New Orleans custom built and stocked two new huge cellars with over 5000 bottles of wine. As long as his stock was in place prior to the activation of the 18th Amendment (January 17th 1920), the stock could be slowly consumed over the next 14 years without penalty. Even President Warren G. Harding (1921-23) didn’t miss out on this opportunity transferring $1800 worth of alcohol to his Presidential quarters in the White House. Over the remainder of his term, Harding was well recorded sharing his haul with many other key members of parliament such as US Senators, the nation’s Chief Legal Officer, the future Speaker of the House, US Chairman of Shipping and even the Secretary of the Treasury whose department it was to enforce the new amendment. Well done that man!
A more random yet even more influential exception was made for cider and other “fruit juices” that might find themselves naturally fermenting into an intoxicating liquor. These alcoholic juices did not need to adhere to the 0.5% ABV limit but instead would be legally judged whether “intoxicating in fact” by a jury in a court of law. Section 29 of the act specifically allowed for 200 gallons (the equivalent of about 1000 standard bottles) of “non-intoxicating cider and fruit juice” to be made each year per household so long as it was claimed as a natural bi-product of “preserving fruit”.
The third major and possibly greatest exception to the Volstead Act was directed at industrial manufacturers and medical practitioners who relied upon alcohol in their day-to-day professions. In manufacturing, alcohol was a necessity in the production of felt hats, photographic film, smelling salts, pencils, perfume, paint and antifreeze (an all too often cocktail in its own right). Unlike the mostly unpalatable industrial alcohols used by manufacturers, Doctors were granted rights to stock pile and prescribe “medicinal spirits”** such as whiskey and brandy to their patients as a remedy to what ails them. A replacement to the modern call, “Take three aspirin and call me in the morning” was a commonly prescribed dose of three tablespoons of liquor every two to three hours. Doctors were issued specific prescriptions pads on behalf of the US Treasury Department with which a patient could legally purchase liquor from a distributing pharmacist or physician. Despite restrictions on the amount of medicinal spirits prescribable per patient, this was a simple system to exploit.
As with the 36 states which voted in support of the 18th Amendment and prohibition in 1919, Utah added their name to the final list in support of repeal on December 5, 1933. With the passing of the 21st Amendment officially ending nationwide prohibition, the Volstead Act was rendered no longer constitutional.
Instead of successfully regulating the law of the 18th Amendment, the Volstead Act ultimately lit the way for America’s first national organised crime syndicate*** to thrive on a new industry where corruption and hypocrisy would infuse into every level of the public, political and enforcement communities. From managing distribution rackets outside of Americas 3 mile coastal limit (aka the Rum Row) to mainstream medicinal and industrial alcohols fronts or the classic state to state Rum Run’s – this new industry would also help redesign the modern bar, redefine the cocktail and rewrite service standards. And all this from the illegal Speakeasy’s and Blind Tigers which would host them.*Because the temperance movement taught drinking alcohol as sinful, they were forced to confront the contrary fact that Jesus drank wine. The solution was to insist that Jesus drank grape juice rather than wine. **The first arrest made under new constitution of prohibition was on the same day the governing Volstead Act was activated (January 17th, 1920) and consisted of two truck loads of “medicinal whiskey” from a warehouse in Peoria, Illinois. ***The US Federal Government would record USD$443, 839, 544.98 of tax revenue from the production and sale of alcohol in the last year before prohibition, a large majority of which would now fund America’s new organised crime network.
- Last Call – The rise and fall of prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Scribner Inc, 2010
- Libraray of Congress, Digital Archive