Prohibition’s Legacy in Pennsylvania

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This post has been adapted from an article featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Western Pennsylvania History.

The Keystone State is known for having some of the strictest alcohol laws in the U.S. If Pennsylvanians want to purchase wine or liquor, they must do so at a state-run store. Beer must be purchased at a distributor, a bar, or a brewery. Some grocery stores and gas stations are licensed to sell beer and wine from specific sections of the store. Where did Pennsylvania’s liquor laws come from, and why are they so strict compared to other states? A look at the gubernatorial administrations of Gifford Pinchot provides some answers.

Button from Pinchot’s campaign for the Governor’s office in 1922. Courtesy of the the Elaine B. and Carl Krasik Collection of Pennsylvania and Presidential Political Memorabilia.

By the time he ran for office in Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) had a successful career in the conservation movement, serving as the first Chief Forester of the U.S. Forestry Service formed under President Theodore Roosevelt. In this position, Pinchot worked at the federal level to preserve forests from destructive lumbering practices in the late 19th century, in a way that also benefited the members of society. This philosophy eventually transcended forestry and influenced his political career.[1] When he ran for governor in 1922, his Progressive Republican platform attracted union members, industrial workers, farmers, and newly minted women voters. This support, combined with a split in the state Republican Party leadership, paved the way for both of Pinchot’s surprising victories (he served from 1923-1927 and again from 1931-1935). His “dry” stance, or support of Prohibition, also contributed to his election.[2]

Prohibition, implemented by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, made the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” illegal.[3] Pinchot formed his unfavorable opinion of alcohol and its effects after witnessing drunken behavior as a young man in college and while studying forestry in Europe, an opinion he was not alone in.[4] By 1923, Prohibition enforcement in Pennsylvania was not going well. Pinchot’s predecessor, Gov. William Sproul, admitted as his term ended that Prohibition laws were not working, and that bootlegging had spiraled out of control. “We are raising a fine brood of criminals which it will require stern measures to suppress,” Sproul lamented.[5] Pinchot rose to the challenge; he believed that “proper enforcement of Prohibition will add uncountable millions to the wealth of the United States; will enormously increase the prosperity of our people and will raise happiness and welfare, especially of our women and children, to a new and higher plane.”[6] Shortly after his inauguration, Pinchot immediately began cracking down on lawbreakers. [7]

Ribbon from Pinchot’s campaign for the Governor’s office in 1922. Courtesy of the Elaine B. and Carl Krasik Collection of Pennsylvania and Presidential Political Memorabilia. The Prohibition Party was a major political force for many years before Prohibition was implemented.

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