Malkin Lecture: World War I, New York City, and the Enactment of Prohibition

In the 1910s, at the height of the Progressive Era, a national movement to prohibit the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol swept the United States. Prohibition, its supporters promised, would end the abuse of alcohol, curb the corrupt influence of the distilling and brewing industries, and usher in a new era of prosperity and “clean living.” But in American cities like New York, with large immigrant populations and deeply entrenched saloon cultures, the call for Prohibition was met with skepticism and resentment. Urban opposition to the dry movement was strong, and the “wet” sentiment in cities remained a substantial obstacle to the passage of a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. The United States’ entry into World War 1 in 1917, however, changed everything. Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on wartime patriotism, the dry movement used the war to paint its opponents as traitors who would support the German war effort, squander national resources, and undermine the war effort for the sake of a drink. For a time, it worked. The dry movement used World War I to push successfully for the passage of Prohibition. Once enacted, however, chaos ensued. As WWI ended and the 1920s arrived, New Yorkers entered the dry era determined to defy “the noble experiment.”

Michael A. Lerner is the principal of Bard High School Early College, a partnership between Bard College and the New York City Department of Education. He is the author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (2007) and served as a consultant on the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary Prohibition (2011). He lectures frequently on Prohibition and New York City history. He holds a Ph.D. in History from New York University and a B.A. in History from Columbia University.


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Monday, November 26

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