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In 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, banning the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol in the United States. Just a year before the law went into effect, Minnesota could boast 37 breweries producing over a million barrels of fermented liquors and distributing them to over 3,000 retail liquor dealers. In Minnesota, as in the nation as a whole, Prohibition was hardly established through consensus.
At the turn of the 20th Century, about 70% of Minnesota’s population was either first or second generation American, so ethnic attitudes toward alcohol were very influential. Much of the state’s population favored moderation rather than total abstinence, but each group had some kind of temperance tradition.
The national temperance movement had been gaining steam in the United States since the 1870s, spurred by the growth of temperance organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Prohibition Party.
The Minnesota Prohibition Party first entered a State gubernatorial race in 1869 and saw a surge in popularity in the 1880s, when Minnesota began enacting licensing fees for saloons as a way to encourage temperance. The Party began gaining real momentum after the turn of the twentieth century, winning its first seats in the Minnesota House in 1906. By 1915 a “county option” bill was passed by the Minnesota legislature, allowing entire counties to vote themselves dry.
World War I also facilitated prohibitionists’ goals. Wartime rationing led to the Food and Fuel Control Act, passed in August, 1917, which prohibited the use of foodstuffs in the manufacture of liquor across the country. And anti-German hysteria fueled by the Great War was channeled against German brewers, including Minnesota’s own Schell’s, Hamm’s, Yoerg, and Schmidt. The Anti-Saloon league went so far as to declare that “German brewers [...] have rendered thousands of men inefficient and are thus crippling the Republic in its war against Prussian militarism.”
The War Time Prohibition Act was passed in 1918 in order to save grain for the war effort. Meanwhile, in December 1917, a constitutional amendment resolution was passed and sent to the States for ratification. Minnesota’s 1918 referendum on the amendment failed narrowly but on January 17th, 1919, the Minnesota Legislature ratified the federal Prohibition Amendment, making Minnesota the 39th State to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, which went into effect on January 17, 1920.
Congress passed the National Prohibition Act to enforce the 18th Amendment. The law was sponsored by Minnesota’s Republican Congressman from Granite Falls, Andrew Volstead. Volstead was not a radical prohibitionist but sponsored the Act because, as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he was expected to do so. The Volstead Act, while established the legal definition of intoxicating liquor and the penalties for producing it, was poorly enforced.
The ban on alcohol not only lacked popular consensus, but was difficult to enforce because of the public demand for illegal alcohol, which made criminals of producers and consumers. The nation would soon face the unintended consequences of prohibition: bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, organized crime, and corruption. While prohibition was in effect, Minnesota’s capitol city became a haven for gangsters such as John Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, Alvin Karpis, and the Barker gang. See the podcast “St. Paul: Gangster Haven” for details.
By 1933, widespread disrespect for the law led to the passage of the 21st Amendment, which remains the only constitutional amendment approved for the explicit purpose of repealing another amendment. Prohibition officially ended December 15, 1933, to the delight of many Minnesotans, who waited in long lines at local breweries to enjoy their first legal beer in thirteen years.
Sondra Reierson, Collections Assistant