This year is the 94th anniversary of the start of Prohibition in the United States. This imposed national ban on alcohol remained in effect until 1933. The illegal activity that resulted, paired with the music, culture, decadence, and new technology of the raucous era known as the “Roaring Twenties,” make this an unforgettable period in American history. The 18th Amendment outlawed the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” as well the importation and exportation of booze to or from the country. The amendment was carried out under the National Prohibition Act (commonly known as the Volstead Act), which defined “intoxicating liquors” as any drink that contained more than .5% alcohol by volume.
Moving Image Research Collections contains a wealth of Prohibition era footage, including newsreels and outtakes from the Fox Movietone News Collection, as well as home movies. Several pieces from MIRC were featured in Ken Burns’ popular documentary series, Prohibition, and a variety of our materials from this remarkable period are available to view online at MIRC’s Digital Video Repository.
The alcohol ban proved difficult to enforce, but raiding the facilities manufacturing the illegal substance was a common publicity tactic. Newsreel outtakes filmed on June 19, 1929 document the outcome of a raid on a particular moonshine still. Bottles and barrels of whiskey are destroyed in the street while a crowd gathers and broken glass piles up on the curb. One bystander tries to use his hands to drink the liquor flowing down the gutter toward the sewer, but is almost immediately stopped by the sheriff.
In these outtakes from a staged Fox Movietone News story filmed in 1929, federal prohibition agents stop a vehicle on the road to search it for alcohol. The agents tear the Model T apart while looking for hidden contraband. Note the multiple takes of the agents “testing” the contents of a bottle found in the vehicle. Their efforts drain the jug almost completely.
An example of the maritime enforcement of Prohibition, these Fox News outtakes show the aftermath of the capture of a rum runner carrying scotch whiskey. Perhaps unexpectedly, there is a feeling of playfulness in this footage, as seen in the staged shot where a stevedore jokingly tries to drink from one of the confiscated bottles before an agent takes it away, smiling.
In contrast to the newsreels, amateur films at MIRC illustrate some of the more personal experiences of Prohibition. In this home movie from the Frederick C. Adams collection, shot sometime around 1930, Mr. and Mrs. Adams take a trip to Nova Scotia with friends. As the ship leaves Boston, a Coast Guard vessel designated CG-17 can be seen. This was one of several vessels loaned by the US Navy for Rum Patrol duties during Prohibition. These ships sought to prevent alcoholic beverages from entering the country by sea. While in Canada, the four travelers gladly partake in some Baty’s Glencastle Brand Scotch Whisky.
Also from the Adams collection, this home movie documents a private party from 1926, and was one of several MIRC pieces featured in Ken Burns’ Prohibition. In the footage (which starts at about 7:30 in the video), revelers drink, sing, and dance together. It is important to note that during prohibition the consumption of alcohol was not outlawed. It was legal to retain and privately drink any alcoholic beverage obtained prior to January 17, 1920, and many took advantage of this loophole. Especially in the upper classes, individuals stocked up on wine and liquors before the ban went into effect. In some cases, the stock was enough to last throughout the entire dry period.
These are just a few of the many examples at MIRC that illustrate the far-reaching effects of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. For more information, or to view additional footage, email email@example.com.
*This post was written with input from several sources, including Last Call, by Daniel Okrent.