Mencken at Rennert Hotel

The Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Baltimore, Maryland 1918-1933

Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401

Phone: (410) 260-6400


The constitutional enactment of national prohibition in 1920 and its progressive aim of uplifting American society only lasted until 1933. Public opinion evolved in those thirteen years from supporting national prohibition to denouncing the attempt at legislating morals. Prohibition has generally been ridiculed in American history as a failure. No other state defines the failure of prohibition better than the State of Maryland from 1918-1933, especially in the defiant urban center of Baltimore.

Maryland was unique in its reactions to prohibition. It was the only state to never pass a state enforcement act, proudly labeling itself as a wet state. Prohibition in Maryland was seen as an infringement on states’ rights to enforce and control liquor traffic within its borders. Therefore, national prohibition would not be supported by the infringed upon state.

Between 1920 and 1933, the U.S. was legally a dry nation. Prohibition attempted to outlaw the manufacture and distribution of alcoholic and intoxicating beverages. Historians have generally agreed that those who led the prohibition movement were the middle-class reformers who were often the activists in the progressive movement. Since alcohol was deemed by these people to be one of the most prodigious evils that plagued the lives of Americans, the eradication of alcohol was initially a colossal victory.

Calls for temperance and prohibition existed before the United States was a nation. Paradoxically, Maryland is credited with starting the anti-liquor movement in 1642 when the colony punished drunkenness with a fine of 100 pounds of tobacco. The modern temperance movement had its roots firmly planted in the early- to-mid-nineteenth century. In 1826, the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance was organized in the city of Boston. Ironically, the Washington Temperance Society was formed in April 1840 at a tavern in Baltimore, Maryland by reformed drinkers. Repeated attempts to pass local and national prohibition laws were made during the mid-1800s through the early twentieth century.

In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Most historians agree that this international conflict was vital to the prohibition movement. The need to ration and regulate materials such as food and oil on the home-front provided the window of opportunity for the drys in Congress to usher in legislation that ensured national prohibition, created and regulated by the federal government. The drys argued that one way to conserve food would be to disallow brewers from using grains in their breweries and distilleries. In August 1917, Congress passed the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act which effectively shut down the distilleries by claiming that the conservation of such materials would help the war effort.

On December 18, 1917, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment. The Senate approved the amendment by a vote of 65 to 20 and the House of Representative approved it with a vote of 282 to 128. On November 18, 1918, Congress passed the Wartime Prohibition Act even though the Armistice, which ended the war, occurred on November 8. This act banned the manufacture of beer and wine (if its alcoholic content was more than 2.75 percent) as of June 30, 1919. This act was passed even before the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by the states. On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. National prohibition would become the law of the land one year after ratification.

In between Nebraska‘s ratification and the date of official enactment, House of Representatives Bill No. 6810 was presented by Representative Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota. This bill, popularly referred to as the Volstead Act  defined what an intoxicating beverage was and also provided for the formation of the Federal Prohibition Bureau as the preeminent prohibition enforcement agency. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act in October 1919, but his veto was soon overridden by Congress. The Volstead Act would became law on October 28, 1919. On January 17, 1920, national prohibition went into effect across the United States.

Maryland’s importance during the era of prohibition has been largely ignored by those in the historical profession.  Public sentiment, especially in Baltimore, greatly curbed the efficiency of prohibition in Maryland. Prohibition was destined to fail in Maryland because most of its people, from the lower classes to the higher classes, did not endorse or desire such a law. Eventually, by the late 1920s, most Americans would feel the same way as most Marylanders, and they would campaign for the repeal of prohibition.

Maryland was a distinctive state in the 1918 to 1933 era. There is some irony that Maryland, which was seen as a pioneer in the temperance movement, came to be recognized as one of the wettest states in the union.  Maryland’s geography, especially the Chesapeake Bay, made it a prime port of call for bootleggers. Marylanders themselves were a diverse people stemming from various cultures, groups, races, and religions. These distinctive qualities, when grouped together, formed a volatile combination in which prohibition was doomed to be a failure in the State of Maryland.

State and local politics played an important role in dictating Maryland’s course of defiance during prohibition. Even though George W. Crabbe, superintendent of the Maryland Anti-Saloon League, felt that most Marylanders were in favor of prohibition, state and city political bodies clearly reflected an opposite point of view. Maryland’s Governor from 1920 to 1934, Albert C. Ritchie, was an ardent proponent of the wets and of Maryland’s right to determine its own laws and its own means of dealing with the alcohol traffic.

Finally, the City of Baltimore plays a major role in the prohibition annals of Maryland. Baltimore was viewed as a “center of resistance to prohibition.“ Undeniably Baltimore was a “wet” city, which meant that Baltimore continued the selling, distributing, and consumption of illicit alcohol, under the auspices of city and state government. While some rural towns in Maryland did indeed favor prohibition, the more cosmopolitan and urban Baltimore refused to yield to such stringent federal infringement upon one of their most preferred forms of recreation and relaxation. Baltimore was home to many immigrant groups and races and also had a large African-American population. These groups were greatly affected by prohibition, whether they were for or against the Eighteenth Amendment. The city’s economy was affected, especially since employment in the trafficking of liquor was halted due to the fact that the city’s breweries and saloons were shut down. 

Because of the reasons given above, the era of prohibition in Baltimore and Maryland is important to the history of prohibition. Maryland’s diverse population, especially in Baltimore- home to half of the state’s population-is a unique case study in why prohibition was ultimately unsuccessful. Prohibition failed in Maryland because most Marylanders never wanted it to succeed. Indicative of the general mood in Maryland is the juxtaposition of the general dispiritedness to the start of prohibition in 1920, versus an ecstatic, festive atmosphere when it was repealed in 1933.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7 : The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930) 

STANDARD 1: How Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption.

Standard 1B: The student understands Progressivism at the national level. 

5-12: Describe how the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th amendments reflected the ideals and goals of Progressivism and the continuing attempt to adapt the founding ideals to a modernized society. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision] 

STANDARD 3: How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

Standard 3AThe student understands social tensions and their consequences in the postwar era. 

7-12:  Examine the rise of religious fundamentalism and the clash between traditional moral values and changing ideas as exemplified in the controversy over Prohibition and the Scopes trial. [Examine the influence of ideas] 

Primary Resources

  1. TITLE:  18th Amendment-Prohibition of Intoxicating Liquors
    SOURCE:  The Constitution of the United States of America 

  2. TITLE:  The Volstead Act
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  19 May, 1919
    SOURCE: Sixty-Sixth Congress of the United States, First Session
    REPOSITORY: National Archives and Records Administration 

  3. TITLE:  Twenty-First Amendment: Repeal of Eighteenth Amendment
    SOURCE:  The Constitution of the United States of America 

  4. DESCRIPTION: Portrait of Albert Ritchie, Governor of Maryland 1920-1935
    ARTIST: Douglas Chandor (1897-1953)
    NOTES: Albert Cabell Ritchie was born in Richmond, Virginia on August 29, 1876, and was raised in Baltimore. He received his bachelor of arts degree from The Johns Hopkins University in 1896 and a law degree from the University of Maryland, where he later taught. He was serving as Attorney General of Maryland when tapped to run for Govenor by the Democratic party. First elected in 1919 by only 165 votes, Governor Ritchie went on to serve four terms in office. He was the first governor to be re-elected by popular vote. Among the many achievements of his administration was the improvement of state roads, reorganization of the public school system, and the revision of the Workmen's Compensation Act. Most important was the reorganization of state government begun under Governor Harrington, which Ritchie personally planned and implemented. After losing his 1932 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ritchie declined Franklin Roosevelt's offer of the vice presidency. Defeated for a fifth term in 1934, Ritchie resumed the practice of law in Baltimore where he died on February 24, 1936. He was married from 1907 to 1916 to Elizabeth Catherine Baker of Catonsville. They had no children.
    SOURCE: Maryland Commission on Artistic Property Collection, MSA SC 1545-1103
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. TITLE:  Prohibition 1922
    SOURCE:  Image/Photo
    REPOSITORY:  Maryland Historical Society 

  6. TITLE:  "State Rights Versus Prohibition Enforcement"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  6 March, 1920
    NOTES:  This article reveals the feelings of many African-Americans in the fight for and against Prohibition. Many African-Americans, as evidenced by this article, equated the wet forces with those who advocated state rights, which to many African Americans, was still a pro-southern view of government from the Civil War Era.
    MEDIUM: Newspaper
    SOURCE:  Ohio State Monitor
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  7. TITLE:  Senate Hearings on the National prohibition Law, April 5-24, 1926.: Statement of William Cabell Bruce, U.S. Senator of the State of Maryland.
    SOURCE:  Schaffer Library of Drug Policy 

  8. TITLE:  Representative John Phillip Hill of Maryland ... keep the country wet
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  20 April, 1926
    MEDIUM: Photograph
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress 

  9. TITLE:  John Philip Hill (left), outgoing congressional "wet" leader congratulating Rep. John C. Linthicum of Md., who was elected to succeed him as "wet" leader
    MEDIUM: Photograph  
    REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress 

  10. TITLE:  Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States, National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (The Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition)
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 7 January, 1931 
    NOTES: President Herbert C. Hoover established the Wickersham Commission in 1929 for the express purpose of studying and analyzing law enforcement, specifically the enforcement or lack thereof, of Prohibition in the United States. These are the conclusion and final report given to Hoover in 1931, which effectively states that the Commission opposes repeal of the 18th Amendment, but that enforcement of the Law needs to be applied  by state and federal authorities in a more effective way.

  11. TITLE:  Mencken at Rennert Hotel
    MEDIUM: Photograph 
    SOURCE:   H. L. Mencken Collection
    REPOSITORY:  Enoch Pratt Free Library
    : Mencken enjoys a legal beer on the night of repeal at the Rennert Hotel in Baltimore, 1933 

  12. TITLE:  National Prohibition Ticket
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Date Unknown
    MEDIUM: Ticket
    REPOSITORY: Maryland Historical Society 

  13. TITLE: "Mencken Sees Tranquility Arise in U.S. From Ashes of Prohibition"
    AUTHOR: Sheila Graham 

  14. TITLE:  Mencken, Henry L., celebrating the repeal of Prohibition
    MEDIUM: Photograph 
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives 

  15. TITLE:  Election Returns 255 Congressional Candidates, Sixty-Third Congress
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1912-1913
    SOURCE:  Maryland Manual Online, Volume 123, P. 255
    REPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives
    NOTES: Shows the election returns of Prohibition Party candidates in the voting districts of Maryland. 

  16. TITLE:  Chapter 522, of Maryland General Assembly Session Laws 1933
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 0421, Page 968
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives
    NOTES: This act repeals the liquor laws and codes of Baltimore County. 

  17. TITLE:  Alcoholic Beverage Legislation
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 0151, Page 302, Maryland Manual, 1934
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives 

  18. TITLE:  Liquor License Commissioners
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 0131, Page 169, Maryland Manual, 1921-22
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives
    NOTES: Document explains why the liquor license commissioner appointments were no longer needed due to the enactment of Prohibition in 1920.

  19. TITLE:  Beer Legislation and Licensing
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 0150, Page 98-99,  Maryland Manual, 1933
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives 

  20. TITLE:  "Arrests for Being Drunk Avg. Higher in U.S. this year than in 1924"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  16 October, 1925
    MEDIUM: Newspaper
    SOURCE:  Baltimore Evening Sun
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-470 

  21. TITLE:  "Speech of John Philip Hill of MD in House"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  9 April 1824
    SOURCE:  Congressional Record 68th Congress, First Session
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-470 

  22. TITLE:  "Revulsion Against Dry Law Apparent on Eastern Shore"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  13 September, 1922
    MEDIUM: Newspaper
    SOURCE:  Baltimore Evening Sun
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-470 

  23. TITLE:  Governor Ritchie's Letter to Jim Wright (Editor of New York World)
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  19 June, 1930
    SOURCE: Personal Papers
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-470 

  24. TITLE:  "Senator Blaine asks for Dry Law Repeal"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  16 January, 1930
    MEDIUM: Newspaper
    SOURCE:  Baltimore News
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-470 

  25. TITLE:  "Is Prohibition a Success After Five Years? No!"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  August 1925
    AUTHOR: Sen. William Cabell Bruce
    MEDIUM: Pamphlet (title page and p. 6-7-Arrest Violations) 
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-471 

  26. TITLE:  "Rennert Hotel Speech, 1922" (p.2)
    AUTHOR: Sen. William Cabell Bruce
    SOURCE:  "Three Addresses on Prohibition"
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-471 

  27. TITLE:  Letter to Governor Ritchie from Joseph Battaglia
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  6 January, 1930
    MEDIUM: Personal Papers
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-471 

  28. TITLE:  "Prominent MD Women Organize Dry Reform Group"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:   July 1929
    MEDIUM: Newspaper
    SOURCE:  Baltimore Sun
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-471 

  29. TITLE:  Invitation to the 18th Annual Anti-Saloon League Meeting
    MEDIUM: Postcard
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-471 

  30. TITLE:  Letter: Hill to Ritchie on Prohibition
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 28 September 1923 
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archive, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-471
    NOTES: This letter, from Rep. John Philip Hill to Governor Ritchie, both of whom are of the wet faction, raises the question of inequality in regards to Prohibition.  Hill very much feels that the 18th Amendment is unconstitutional. 

  31. TITLE:  Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, Maryland Division Newsletter
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  5 July, 1929
    MEDIUM: Newsletter
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives, Governor (General File) MSA No.:S 1041-471
    NOTES: The AAPA was very much active in Maryland. This newsletter is just one example of how the AAPA had hoped to garner support for repeal of the 18th Amendment.  The fact that such a newsletter exists in Governor Ritchie's files is further evidence on Ritchie's political stance on prohibition. 

  32. TITLE:  "Prohibition Repeal Is Ratified at 5:32 P.M.; Roosevelt Asks Nation to Bar the Saloon; New York Celebrates With Quiet Restraint"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  5 December, 1933.
    MEDIUM: Newspaper
    SOURCE:  New York Times on the Web 

  33. TITLE:  "The Uplifters Try it Again"
    AUTHOR: H. L. Mencken
    MEDIUM: Newspaper
    SOURCE:  Baltimore Evening Sun
    NOTES: Mencken uses this article to attack the moral up-lifters on their stance on gun control. Yet he also chastises them because of prohibition as well, drawing parallels between legislating morality in both cases. 

  34. TITLE:  Anti-Prohibition Sign in Fells Point - Baltimore, MD
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1995-2003
    PHOTOGRAPHER: Jim Forrest
    MEDIUM: Photograph 

Additional Media Resources

History Channel Classroom. Prohibition and Al Capone. 2001.

Kerr, Austin. Temperance and Prohibition, 1997.
NOTES: Professor Kerr, a history professor at the Ohio State University, is one of the leading scholars on Prohibition in the United States. He maintains this site and also publishes many books and articles on Prohibition.

Zywocinski, Joan Rapczynski Florence. Prohibition as a Reform. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 2003.

Anti-Saloon League, 1893-1933. From the Westerville Public Library which houses the Anti-Saloon League Museum.

Prohibition (Party) Cartoons

Before Prohibition: Images from the preprohibition era when many psychotropic substances were legally available in America and Europe

Additional Instructional Resources

Resources on Incorporating Primary Sources and Historic Sites in Classroom Instruction

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: The Volstead Act and Related Prohibition Documents

The Learning Page: Lessons by Themes, Topics, Disciplines or Eras

The Prohibition Era: The Dry Crusade. From A&E Classrooms.

The Prohibition Era: The Road To Repeal. From A&E Classrooms.

The Prohibition Era: The Roaring Twenties. From A&E Classrooms.

Secondary Resources

Brugger, Robert. "Searching For The Middle." In Maryland: A Middle Temperament. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the Maryland Historical Society, 1988.

Carter, Henry. The Gentleman From Maryland. New York, 1931.(Gov. Ritchie)

Chalkley, Tom. "Wet Stone", Baltimore City Paper, April 2-8, 2003.

Distelrath, Art.  John F. Wiessner & Sons Brewery, Baltimore Maryland, The American Breweriana Journal, issue #103,March-April 2000.

Dobyns, Fletcher. The Amazing Story of Repeal: An Expose of the Power of Propaganda. Chicago, 1940.

Hohner, Robert A. Prohibition & Politics: The Life of Bishop James Canon, Jr. University of South Carolina, 1999.

Johnson, Gerald, Frank R, Kent, H.L. Mencken and Hamilton Owens. The Sun-papers of Baltimore. New York, 1937.

Kelley, William J. Brewing in Maryland. Baltimore, 1965.

Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, 1979.

Levin, James Benesch. Albert C. Ritchie: A Political Biography. 1970 (UMCP Dissertation)

Mills, Eric Chesapeake Rum Runners of the Roaring Twenties. Centreville, 2000.

Olson, Sherry H. Baltimore: The Building of an American City. Baltimore, 1996.

Rose, Kenneth D. American Women & the Repeal of Prohibition. New York, 1996.

Thornton, Mark. Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure, 1991.

Timberlake, James H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement 1900-1920. Cambridge, 1963.

White, Frank F. Jr. The Governors of Maryland. Annapolis, 1970.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Enoch Pratt Free Library (Central Library)
400 Cathedral Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
NOTES: Home to the H. L. Mencken Room
H. L. Mencken House 1524 Hollins Street
Baltimore, Maryland
American Brewery
1701 North Gay St.
Baltimore, MD
NOTES: Building Closed to the Public


Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Michael T. Walsh.

An Archives of Maryland Online Publication
© Copyright, Maryland State Archives, July 14, 2005