Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

“Intoxicating Liquors”: How the Volstead Act led to Prohibition corruption

January 16, 2013 by Sarah Winski


Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Put away your lagers, your cocktail shakers, and your martini glasses. Prohibition is now in effect.


On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified. After decades of steadily growing in its political influence, the temperance movement had succeeded in prohibiting the sale, manufacture, and transportation of “intoxicating liquors” throughout the United States.


The nation had one year before the ban went into effect. During this time, Congress passed legislation to define “intoxicating liquors” that detailed how Prohibition would be enforced and the penalties for breaking the law. The National Prohibition Act—commonly known as the Volstead Act after then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Andrew Volstead, the law’s sponsor—would come to symbolize the dysfunction of an era that turned previously law-abiding citizens into criminals.


What were some of the aspects of the Volstead Act that led to widespread corruption and disregard for the law? Try answering the true or false statements below to find out.







Buying or drinking alcohol was never illegal





True. The 18th Amendment and subsequent legislation only made manufacturing, transporting, and selling “intoxicating liquors” illegal. Prohibition supporters thought this would encourage consumers to testify against their suppliers.

You could not own any alcohol during Prohibition

False. Alcohol purchased before January 17, 1920, and stored in private homes was legal. After taking office in March 1921, President Harding had $1,800 worth of personal liquor transferred to his living quarters at the White House.

Alcohol was legally prescribed for medicinal purposes during Prohibition

True. Doctors could get permits to write up to one hundred prescriptions for alcohol a month. Patients could fill prescriptions for one pint of liquor every ten days for a variety of aliments from headaches to “debility.”

Wine was legal during Prohibition

Partially true. There were two legal exceptions for wine under Volstead: limited home manufacturing of “fruit beverages” for family use and wine for sacramental purposes. Some wineries that catered to the Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Jewish communities did very well during Prohibition.

Sauerkraut was illegal during Prohibition

False, but it could have been since its alcoholic content was more than the 0.5% permitted. Many Prohibition supporters who believed beer and light wine would remain legal were dismayed by how strictly the phrase “intoxicating liquors” was defined in the Volstead Act.


Sarah Winski is an Exhibit Developer for the Center’s traveling “American Spirits” exhibition on Prohibition, which is now at the National Constitution Center. The exhibit is curated by Daniel Okrent, former public editor of The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the best-selling author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

About American Spirits

Admission to American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is $17.50 for adults, $16 for seniors and students, and $11 for children ages 4 – 12. Group rates also are available.


Admission to the Center’s main exhibition, The Story of We the People, including the award-winning theatrical production Freedom Rising, is included. For ticket information, call 215.409.6700 or visit


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