The Road to Prohibition

By: Jill Beitz, Manager of Reference and Research, Cincinnati History Library and Archives

The Queen City is built on a foundation of beer, wine and whiskey. At its peak in the 19th century, there were 36 breweries and more than 300 vineyards within a twenty-mile radius of the city. Money was being made, not just by the owners of such businesses, but by the workers as well. German and Irish immigrants came to Cincinnati to work in the breweries and vineyards and finding success, invited their relatives to do the same. Much to the dismay of many citizens however, this rapid growth came with an uptick in crime, neglect and alcoholism. The social welfare rolls grew and tenements became overcrowded. In 1880 there were more than 1800 saloons in Cincinnati. Vine Street alone had 113! Many men were spending all of their free time and paychecks in the saloons, neglecting their families and contributing to the general decline of the city’s reputation.

As early as the 1840s various organizations began springing up to promote temperance. The Sons of Temperance and the Anti-Saloon League were but a few of the many organizations committed to nationwide prohibition. These groups were unsuccessful in Cincinnati due to push back from brewers, wine-makers and a city council that, in spite of election promises, continued to vote for saloon licenses in order to take in the revenue that these provided. After a number of setbacks and the beginning of the Civil War, the movement began to die down.

In the 1870s women’s temperance organizations began to awaken. Women and children were the most common victims of intemperance – unable to provide for their families without their husband’s paychecks and often becoming victims of domestic abuse. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1873 in Hillsboro, Ohio. It grew to be the largest woman’s organization in the world by 1890, eventually branching out to other subjects such as public health and suffrage. These organizations published pamphlets and propaganda, hosted meetings and conventions and made speeches in the hopes that people would see the “evils of alcohol.”

While the tide continued to turn toward prohibition, it was still a long journey. It was not until World War I when anti-German sentiment was running high and grain was needed to feed soldiers rather than making beer and spirits, that Congress ratified the 18th Amendment.

On January 16, 1920, prohibition went into effect nationwide. It was an ugly day for Cincinnati, but for others, like George Remus, it was the beginning of an amazing opportunity.

Don’t miss author Bob Batchelor’s riveting look at bootlegging kingpin George Remus at our Literary Event Series on Thursday, February 13, 2020.

Souvenir from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Convention 1903(CHLA Pamphlet collection)

“Eleven Years a Drunkard. The Life of Thomas Doner” Temperance propaganda, 1878. CHLA Pamphlet Collection

Souvenir of the National Prohibition Convention at Music Hall, 1892. CHLA Pamphlet Collection.

Posted in Cincinnati History.