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D is for Drys and Wets (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)


I often wonder whether Prohibition was ever truly about alcohol.
True, one of the strongest arguments in favour of Prohibition was that alcohol changed the nature of men and made them more violent and lazier. This damaged their families and put the entire society in danger.
Well, even so, it doesn’t sound all that much about alcohol to me.

Temperance movements and prohibition laws had been enacted by different states throughout the history of the US and were nothing new. But the emergence of the feeling that eventually brought about national Prohibition was probably a direct product of the women’s crusades of the 1800s. These women, who belonged to the upper and upper-middle class, took upon themselves the task to help the less fortunate through establishing orphanages, schools, shelters, hospitals, distribution of food and such. To me, the crusade against alcohol sounds like part of this attitude, a means to try and better the lives of the working class – from an upper class’s perspective.
This impression becomes stronger when we look more closely to the characteristics of the two groups opposing each other over the issue: Drys and Wets.


Drys, who supported Prohibition, very often belonged to the more affluent part of society and were members of the professional and business elite. They tended to be native-born – that is, born in America as a second or third generation citizen. The majority were active church members of Protestant denominations, and it was their wives who strived to better the society.

Wets, who opposed Prohibition, were more likely to belong to the working or middle classes. A lot of these people belonged to minorities or were new immigrants. A lot belonged to religious denominations other than Protestant, including Catholics and Jews, who used wine for sacramental purposes.

This division shifted over time, especially during the last years of national Prohibition, but it was never wholly overcome.

The wet versus drys debate reflected a serious cleavage in American society that predated the 1920s and survived the decade. It was in part a country versus city cleavage, in part a reflection of the conflict between “Old Time Religion” and an evolving, looser modern morality, in part an aspect of old-stock American suspicion of ethnic Americans and the latter resentment of the former.

From “Cengage Advantage Books: The American Past, Volume II: Since 1865, Volume 2” by Joseph Conlin

Far from solving this cleavage, Prohibition actually worsened it, in many respects.
I find it kind of ironic that Prohibition largely had the opposite outcome to the expectation of people who tried to shape society by law and in accordance with their own desires.


The Clash Between Traditionalism and Modernism (PDF)

Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010
Behr, Edward, Prohibition. The Thirteen Years That Changed America. Penguin Group & BBC Enterprises, London, 1997

ROARING TWENTIES AtoZ - Drys and Wets - The confrontation between Drys and Wets characterised the whole of Prohibition... and it wasn't just a fight against alcohol (1920s, bootlegging)


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 01:31

    Problems worsen when governments gets too involved with individuals freedom to choose.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 07:24

      And that’s because society is more complex that people normally like to think. There is no easy way and no easy, clean solution to any social problem.

  • Sue Archer
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 02:08

    That’s quite the photo you’ve included there. It seems like there are a lot of social movements that are more than they at first appear. The layers of motives can be hard to figure out, but that’s why history is so fascinating to me!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 07:31

      I agree wholeheartedly.
      But the good news is that history always makes sense. I really believe that. Nothing happens by chance, there is a reason for everything and if you did deep enough, you’ll find an answer. Maybe not the one you’d have liked, but an answer nonetheless.

  • Ara the Booksnake
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 02:38

    We all know the saying, “Men like what they can’t have.”

    So prohibiting alcohol (among other things) gives off the impression of a big red button that says, “Don’t Push!” It makes one want to press it all the more,

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 07:32

      I love that simile 😉
      Thanks for stopping by.

  • Melanie Atherton Allen
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 03:54

    Great article, and you make several solid points about various societal divisions in the Prohibition era. Also, I love the We Want Beer picture! Classic!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 07:33

      Hi there, thanks for stopping by.
      I’m happy you’re enjoying my challenge. Let me tell you, I’m enjoying your a lot too!

  • Sue Coletta
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 13:44

    Fascinating info. about Prohibition!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 18:47

      Hi Sue. So nice to see you here. I’m happy you’re enjoying my posts 🙂

  • Sue Coletta
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 13:46

    Something’s up with your Twitter share button. I tried to share and got a message as if I was sending you a private message. Probably Twitter being wonky again. I’ll try again later.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 17:10

      Happened to me the too, not just with mine, but with another post starting with D too. I think Twitter understands the D as ‘direct message’. I delated that and it worked as usual.
      Stupid program! 😉

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 12:26

    Sounds like they were trying to put a band-aid on a much larger issue. Prohibition couldn’t possibly work if the people they were trying to “save” didn’t agree with the ideas behind it… It just led to a lot more crime.

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

  • Tasha
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 14:33

    Whenever I think of Prohibition I always think it was a very bad idea.When people want an escape they will find it be it legal or illegal and if it’s illegal it tends to play into the hands of the criminal element and if it’d legal at least it can be regulated and revenue generated from it.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 18:50

      Well, any way you look at it, there isn’t much good you can say about the noble experiment.
      But as is often the case with history, there is much we can learn from it.

  • Jeri Burns
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 14:43

    Oh Sarah, I love the Roaring Twenties! I didn’t connect to your blog until now and I’m glad I investigated this website. Yes, the complexity of social movements and social groups is unbelievable complex. Thanks for such a lovely post. — Jeri of the ghosts… 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 18:55

      Hey, Jeri of the ghosts, I hope you’ll feel at home here 😉

  • Sabina
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 14:44

    I never thought about the religious implications. Very interesting & a great read! Thanks 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 19:05

      Oh, there was a lot of religion involved in Prohibition… one way or another.

  • LaShaunda
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 16:24

    Love the we want beer signs.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 19:10

      It’s kind of weird, seeing it today, isn’t it?

  • Anabel Marsh
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 18:47

    I think this kind of divide also exists in many movements today – change should be from the bottom up, not imposed.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 19:15

      I think change is one of the more complex dynamics of social life. Not easy to handle, not easy to accept, not easy to asset when it happens.

  • Barbara Hollyfield
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 22:27

    I do very much believe that alcohol abused is a doorway to allow the devil to rule your life. But I also believe very strongly that morality cannot be legislated, but must come from the work of God in the Holy Spirit in a life.
    Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I am Ensign B ~ One of Tremp’s Troops with the
    A to Z Challenge

  • Sharon Marie Himsl
    Posted April 5, 2015 at 05:46

    The outcome of prohibition was definitely ironic. It’s interesting too the class division you mention. The more affluent had more time on their hands apparently, while the working class did just that…they worked…that’s all they had time to do! Interesting too if you look at student war protests in the 1960s…most were kids from upper middle class families. Blue collar kids were working their butts off trying to get ahead. Interesting post!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 5, 2015 at 06:13

      I think you’re right.

      Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s negative. For example, here in Italy, it was the middle class (bourgeoisie as we call it) that started the events which eventually lead to the indipendence of Italy. Not the upper or the working class (though this names don’t really apply to our situation, since we had noblily and proletarians, and I think this is different from having a class system).
      I don’t think there is a place in society where the idea of change is always right or always wrong, it’s the sharabily of the idea that metters, I suppose.

      Prohibition clearly wasn’t a shared idea 😉

  • Alex Hurst
    Posted April 5, 2015 at 11:24

    It’s really cool to get so much more info about something that I only had cursory knowledge of. As another commenter mentioned, it really did seem that the movement was trying to solve society like someone might try to “heal” a relative, dismissing the fact that 1) everyone has different needs and ways of healing, and 2) people have to be on board with your philosophy for it to work.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 5, 2015 at 18:42

      As I mentioned before, I think Prohibition was a far more complex matter than just ‘alcohol’.

  • Hannah G
    Posted April 5, 2015 at 15:51

    Quite right – It’s never about what it’s actually about.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 5, 2015 at 16:59

    I agree there were probably very noble roots at the start of Prohibition, but it eventually went beyond good intentions to trying to legislate a strict, narrow version of morality. I don’t think I’d ever thought of any nativism or xenophobia underpinning it before, though.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 5, 2015 at 18:45

      Xenophobia was a very important factor that lead to national Prohibition. There will be more posts about it later int he month.

  • Celine Jeanjean
    Posted April 5, 2015 at 18:56

    I hadn’t realised there was a difference in opinions between classes – although I’m not surprised to find that people more recently arrived from Europe or other countries were against prohibition.

  • Lanise Brown
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 06:56

    It makes sense that class division played a big role in prohibition. The way prohibition played out was even more interesting. It just goes to show, if men want beer then let them have their beer, lol.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 8, 2015 at 07:01

      Well, I’d rather say, if there is a problem, address that problem and don’t look the other way.
      Prohibition was a mess, but it was so because the issues that were takled were a lot more complex than people made them.
      Personal opinion 😉

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