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4. Wets & Drys

After decades of vehement debate, the "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition commenced on January 17, 1920, one year after the 18th Amendment had been ratified by the states. The debate did not end at that point, of course; it switched to the issues of efficacy, unforeseen consequences, popular support, and repeal. The division between wets and drys remained a staple of political campaigns, Sunday sermons, film melodramas, and media headlines. It wouldn't end until the repeal of Prohibition with the 21st Amendment in 1933.

    Should Prohibition Be Repealed? PDF file
  • Should Prohibition Be Repealed? In 1925 the North American Review invited essays on the status of Prohibition—its success or failure—from leaders in the law, government, public health, business and labor, education, and the church, titling the collection "Five Years of Prohibition and Its Results." Brief excerpts from the twenty-one essays are presented in this collection. What factors were central in the debate at this point? How did postwar tensions still influence the debate? What later factors entered the debate, especially in the 1928 presidential campaign? (11 pp.)

  • Political cartoons Prohibition PDF file
  • Political cartoons. Eight cartoons that examine Prohibition from wet and dry perspectives are presented in this collection—five wet, two dry, and one that illustrates the legislative status of Prohibition in 1930. Why the lack of balance? Most political cartoons were published by large-city "wet" newspapers, that syndicated their cartoons throughout the nation. In contrast, few "dry" newspapers in smaller cities and towns published original or syndicated cartoons. In any case, by 1930 most Americans saw more benefit in modifying or repealing Prohibition than in continuing to enforce the original law. What symbols and visual representations did the cartoonists devise to illustrate the wet-dry division in the 1920s? Study the cartoons with the five other cartoon collections in this Theme DIVISIONS, and complete the cartoon analysis chart. (Cartoons: 9 pp.; Chart: 2 pp.)

  • Edward Hopper, The Bootleggers, Internal Link to Discussing Art page oil on canvas, 1925. Edward Hopper's human landscapes are marked by insular brooding figures enveloped in stark, melancholy, or foreboding settings, as in Night Shadows (1921), Sunday (1926), and From Williamsburg Bridge (1928). Add the adjective "illicit," and this atmosphere defines his 1925 work, The Bootleggers. At dusk, two men in a motorboat approach a rocky shore of New England. A lone man, standing outside his isolated Victorian house, awaits the delivery of illicit liquor purchased from rum-running ships offshore. No faces or defining physical features are depicted; the men are anonymous. The darkening overcast sky and featureless woods cast an unsettling backdrop; the site is threatening. The churning wake in the still water conveys the necessity of quick delivery and departure; the risk of detection pervades all. What are the men thinking at this moment? What will occur in the next twenty minutes? What is Hopper's apparent comment on the situation these men have placed themselves in? on the predicament the nation has placed itself in? CURRIER MUSEUM OF ART
  • Newsreels. To conclude this section, view two sound newsreels produced for audiences in Britain (which never enacted Prohibition), reporting the confiscation of bootleg liquor by U.S. agents in Buffalo, New York, and in an unidentified port city. What is the tone of the newsreel titles and background music? What attitude toward U.S. Prohibition is conveyed? In the early 1930s, how would U.S. newsreels have presented the incidents? BRITISH PATHÉ NEWS

    - "The Dodgers! A Prohibition Sidelight from Buffalo," 1931 (2:41)

    - "Someone Is Going Short of Christmas Spirits!" 1932 (0.56)

Discussion Questions

"Five Years of Prohibition and Its Results"___
  1. Overall, what were the main issues addressed in the Prohibition debate by 1925?
  2. What evidence was presented to declare Prohibition a success or failure?
  3. What were the main arguments for and against repeal of the 18th Amendment or modification of the Volstead Act, the federal law that implemented Prohibition?
  4. What modifications to the Volstead Act were recommended by John Philip Hill, the U.S. judge quoted by Samuel H. Church, and others?
  5. How did Prohibition supporters respond to these recommendations? Why?
  6. How did both sides cite individual states' experiences with Prohibition to support their arguments?
  7. Compare the arguments for and against repeal or modification by the two physicians (Dana and Kelly), the two businessmen (Bourne and Scott), and the two labor representatives (Holland and Cooper).
  8. Compare the arguments presented by the spokesmen for the Anti-Saloon League of America (Wayne Wheeler) and the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (William Stayton). How did each characterize the position of the other? How did each emphasize statistics in his argument? Why?
  9. How might the discrepancy in drunkenness statistics cited by pro- and anti-repeal advocates be explained?
  10. How did Prohibition advocates argue that increased lawlessness and drinking among young women were caused by factors other than Prohibition?
  11. How did they address the increase in bootlegging, illegal saloons, and government corruption during Prohibition?
  12. What positions of Prohibition advocates did "workingmen" find objectionable? Why?
  13. Conduct research to identify arguments that entered the Prohibition debate after 1925, especially during the 1928 presidential campaign and the nation's transition into economic depression after 1929. (See the post-1925 political cartoons and consult the Supplemental Sites below.)
  14. How would Prohibition supporters have responded to these statements made in 1925 by pro-repeal spokesmen?
  15. How would anti-Prohibition spokesmen have responded to these statements made in 1925 by Prohibition supporters?
Political Cartoons____
  1. What arguments for and against Prohibition are presented in the cartoons?
  2. What benefits, harm, and unforeseen consequences of Prohibition are represented?
  3. How is "the public" depicted in the cartoons? the ardent wets and drys?
  4. What perspectives are expressed in the cartoons published in Kansas and Nebraska? in Chicago? in New York City? Why?
  5. Complete the cartoon analysis chart for this theme DIVISIONS to study the cartoonists' viewpoints and the visual devices they used to convey them.
Hopper, The Bootleggers Internal Link to Discussing Art page ____
  1. What is happening in The Bootleggers? What is depicted on the canvas? What is suggested? How?
  2. What are the three men thinking at the moment? What will occur in the next twenty minutes?
  3. What is Hopper's apparent comment on the situation these men have placed themselves in? on the predicament the nation has placed itself in?
  4. Compare The Bootleggers with other Hopper works from the 1920s, including Night Shadows (1921), Sunday (1926), and From Williamsburg Bridge (1928). How does Bootleggers resemble and differ from these woks?
  1. How did British Pathé News present U.S. Prohibition to its audience? Why?
  2. Considering the wet-dry debate in the early 1930s, how might U.S. sound newsreels have presented the same incidents?
  1. Complete the chart below using the primary resources in this section, including the political cartoons, painting, and newsreels.
    from Prohibition supporters
    Crime, corruption, and contempt for the law have increased under Prohibition.          
    Drinking and drunkenness have increased under Prohibition throughout the nation (not just in the northeast).          
    Law enforcement agencies has been unable or unwilling to enforce Prohibition.          
    Alcohol abuse cannot be solved by legislation alone.

    Prohibition was passed in postwar anxiety and distraction and is not supported by the majority of Americans.          
    The Volstead Act can be modified to reflect the majority will and reduce the harmful effects of alcohol.          
    from pro-repeal
    Prohibition has achieved remarkable success, amply proven by statistics.          
    Prohibition has brought sobriety and prosperity to the working class.          
    Due to human nature, Prohibition will take longer than five years to be completely effective.          
    The progress in enforcing Prohibition does not receive adequate press coverage.          
    The increase is lawlessness is due to the unsettling social effects of World War One, not to Prohibition.          
    Prohibition will never be repealed, and the Volstead Act will not be modified to allow wine and beer.          

Framing Questions

  • What factors precipitated and fueled the social divisions of the 1920s?
  • How did each division reflect postwar adjustments and the "modern age"?
  • What issues overlapped the multiple social divisions of the period?
  • How had each issue evolved by 1930 as the nation entered the Great Depression?


"Five Years of Prohibition and Its Results"
Political cartoons
      Cartoon analysis chart
Hopper, The Bootleggers
11 pp.
  9 pp.
  2 pp.
         View online.
         View online.
22 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Prohibition, documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2011 (PBS)
Teaching with Documents: The Volstead Act and Related Prohibition Documents (National Archives)

Prohibition in the states (Search for Prohibition and state name to research other states.) Prohibition: The Noble Experiment (David Hanson, State University of New York-Potsdam)
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina

Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York). "Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps," by Daniel Okrent, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010 (Smithsonian)

Temperance and Prohibition (Ohio State University)

Alcohol, Temperance and Prohibition (Brown University Library)

Edward Hopper, overview (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Edward Hopper Online (Artcyclopedia)

Analyzing political cartoons: guides from

– Destruction of an illicit still, Miami, Florida, photograph, 1925. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Image RC03392. Digital image courtesy of the Florida Memory Project.
– New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, photograph, 1921(?) (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, LC-USZ62-123257.
– Anti-Prohibition car ("Stamp Out Prohibition"), photograph by Sanborn Studio ca. 1930 (detail). Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware, 75.434. Reproduced by permission.
– Carey Orr, "Bullet Proof," political cartoon, Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1926 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the Chicago Tribune; digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Article headlines, The Washington Post, Jan. 16, 1925 ("Prohibition 5 Years Old"), May 22, 1927 ("Test on Prohibition"). Permission request in process; digital images courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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