Prohibition: A Global Phenomenon of the Twentieth Century

Prohibition. Invoke the word, and people automatically think of 1920s America, bootlegging, Al Capone, and the rise of criminality in the face of a seemingly impractical policy decision. But what often gets lost in the noise of the American speakeasies of the Roaring Twenties is that the United States was far from the only country which tried to prohibit the sale and supply of alcohol, whether in the shape of beer, wine, or hard liquor, in the early twentieth century.

Alcohol Consumption and Clean Water

To understand the prohibition movement which emerged in the early twentieth century, we have to go back further in time to examine the social conditions which allowed for it to develop. Before the eighteenth century, no European or American state could consider a broad-based prohibition on the sale or consumption of alcohol.

People drank alcohol daily, imbibing large amounts of beer, cider, ale, and wine. And the reason that they did so is apparent. Water was dangerous to drink. In cramped cities like London, Amsterdam, or Rome, it was often a petri dish of bacteria and viruses that could make people ill if consumed. Thus, people drank beer, wine, and cider instead.

How much alcohol they drank is still a matter of fierce debate. On the lower end, some historians argue it was probably three or four pints per day of low-strength beer. Still, other studies in recent years highlight it could have been an average of about six or seven pints a day, and this was quite possibly a strong beverage of 6% or 7% ABV. Indeed, the total amount of alcohol consumed per person increased in places like England at specific times, such as the Restoration Period (1660–85), as French wine became increasingly fashionable amongst the nobility and the gentry.[1]

The Rise of the Temperance Movement

The rise of the French wine industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become the world leader coincided considerably with changing sociological patterns surrounding alcohol consumption. For instance, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century had seen several new Christian religious denominations emerge in Europe, particularly in Britain, which questioned excessive alcohol consumption.

These groups, such as the Puritans, Baptists, and Quakers, did not expressly call for a prohibition on alcohol consumption but did argue that overt drunkenness was morally wrong and called on good Christians to ‘temper’ how much they drank.

Two developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to calls for restraint morphing into outright calls for abstinence from alcohol. Firstly, there was a major shift in European diet and consumption during these centuries. Coffee and tea became extremely popular, which involved purifying water by boiling it. There was now an alternative to drinking alcohol that didn’t carry the risk of illness associated with dirty water.

Secondly, even the water supply was improving in many parts of Europe. Much of this came about owing to massive urbanization. London’s population, for instance, increased from about 50,000 people in 1500 to over 600,000 by 1700. As this occurred, governments had no option but to start developing water sanitation methods. In the 1720s, the Chelsea Waterworks Company was set up and began delivering fresh drinking water to London’s inhabitants. As this occurred, switching from beer and wine to water, tea, or coffee became more plausible.[2]

The final stage in the drift away from daily alcohol consumption occurred between about 1750 and 1900. There was now little excuse for drinking excessively on health grounds. Indeed the Medical Revolution provided extensive new information that daily alcohol consumption was damaging to one’s health. Moreover, the Temperance Movement began to emerge as a social phenomenon, particularly as Revivalist Christian movements, such as the Methodists, Quakers, and Seventh-Day Adventists, inspired people to be more godly in the United States, Britain, and other countries during the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s.[3] [Text Box 1]

By the mid-nineteenth century, abstinence and teetotalism were growing movements against the consumption of beer, wine, and spirits. Then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, they were transformed into mass movements such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Much of this was driven by women tired of dealing with drunken husbands and social concerns about the growth of industrial slums where drunkenness and lawlessness were growing problems. By the 1890s and 1900s, these organizations had become such a powerful lobby in many countries that their calls for the prohibition of some kind could no longer be ignored.[4]

Prohibition in the Faroe Islands, 1907–1992

While the United States is known as a significant example of a country that prohibited the sale and supply of alcohol in the early twentieth century, the first place where Prohibition was introduced was in the remote Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. In 1907 this constituent part of the Kingdom of Denmark voted to prohibit the sale and supply of alcohol of all kinds. Given the small population of the island archipelago, only 7,374 men and women were eligible to vote, and of these, only half did so. The just over 3,600 votes came down in a 96% landslide in favor of prohibiting the sale and supply of alcohol, beer, wine, and spirits.

Prohibition had such broad-based support in the Faroe Islands for a number of critical reasons. One of the principal ones was that alcohol sales had increased considerably in the late nineteenth century, leading to several injuries and deaths while the male population, most of whom made their living from the sea, were out fishing. As a result of the 1907 referendum, Prohibition came into effect here in 1908. However, exceptions were made for alcoholic beverages with an ABV under 2%.[5]

Prohibition would last in the Faroe Islands for much of the twentieth century, though it was gradually watered-down (pun intended). Even in its early years, illicit consignments of alcohol would arrive on the islands from Denmark before Christmas, and the authorities made no effort to crack down on these breaches of the law for the festive season. Then in 1928, a rule was made whereby residents could legally import beer or wine for their private consumption and a set amount of spirits.

It was not until the 1980s that the Faroese elected to dismantle the Prohibition laws altogether. The first two breweries were permitted to begin brewing and selling beer with a 4.6% ABV level. One of the unintended outcomes of this was that the Faroe Islands became a place where wine was barely consumed on any level as the islanders became reliant on this domestic beer, which was of very high quality and won several awards in Denmark. Eventually, in 1992 the Faroese voted to remove the Prohibition on alcohol altogether after 85 years of a very qualified restriction on its sale and supply in the small island nation.[6]

Prohibition in Russia, 1914–1925

For a time after they prohibited alcohol sales in the Faroe Islands, the residents of the North Atlantic archipelago were alone in their decision to do so. They were finally joined in 1914 by a nation that we do not typically associate with temperance. This was the Russian Empire, which had already developed a reputation for consuming huge amounts of vodka by the early twentieth century.

In 1914, Tsar Nicholas II introduced a prohibition on alcohol consumption and supply following the outbreak of the First World War. This was geared primarily towards curbing vodka consumption, and wine production continued in regions such as the Crimean Peninsula, which was under Russian rule at the time. Following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the nascent Soviet regime continued the prohibition of alcohol in Russia throughout the Civil War, but in its aftermath, Prohibition in Russia came to an end in 1925.

Prohibition in Iceland, 1915–1989

Just months after the Russian Prohibition was introduced, a third nation decided to ban the sale of alcohol. Iceland’s decision to do so in 1915 was based on the example set by their neighbor in the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands. They voted in 1908 in a referendum to prohibit the sale and supply of alcohol. However, this did not come into effect until 1915.

Curiously, the blanket ban on alcohol in Iceland lasted until 1922. That year Prohibition was partly eased when wine was made legal again. The motive for doing so was a threat by the Spanish government, which country was a significant trade partner of Iceland, that it would not buy Icelandic fish if Iceland did not recommence buying Spanish wine. Thus, wine was legalized again in Iceland in 1922.

The strange parameters of Icelandic Prohibition continued in the years that followed. In 1933 a new referendum was held in which Icelanders voted to allow the sale of spirits again. This meant that from the mid-1930s onwards, the only alcohol banned due to Prohibition in Iceland was beer which was stronger than 2.25% ABV. And it remained illegal for another half a century. Eventually, beer was only legalized again in Iceland in 1989. Beer Day was celebrated on the 1st of March to celebrate the end of the last vestiges of Prohibition in Iceland, three-quarters of a century after it was initiated.[7]

Prohibition in Norway, 1916–1927

A third nation that prohibited alcohol during the First World War was Norway. The country was officially neutral during the conflict, though it favored Britain, with whom its trade was extensive. Nevertheless, it, like other neutral European countries, was severely affected by trade disruptions. A decision was taken in the weeks following the outbreak of the war to ban the sale of liquor and spirits. Wine and beer continued to be sold and consumed.

The original ban on spirits was justified based on supply issues, but this was a surface justification for what was effectively a lobby by the Norwegian temperance movement. In 1914 10% of Norwegians were members of abstinence groups and the war provided a smokescreen to allow them to force through prohibition without a referendum. This was extended during the war to cover beer and wine, so there was nearly a blanket Prohibition by 1916.

With the end of the war, the government in Norway could not justify continuing Prohibition without a referendum on the matter. Thus, in 1919 a plebiscite was held. It resulted in a vote in favor of continuing the ban on alcohol, with 62% voting against a resumption of alcohol sales. There was a significant geographical disparity, with people in the north and west of the country overwhelmingly supportive of Prohibition. Still, people in the south around Oslo generally wanted Prohibition to be brought to an end.

Wine was central to the failure of Prohibition in Norway. As with Iceland, several of Norway’s main trading partners, France, Spain, and Portugal, began threatening Norway in the early 1920s with trade sanctions if it refused to buy wine from them. This was a time before Norway’s vast oil resources had turned the country into one of the world’s richest nations, and the threat of the French refusing to buy Norwegian fish if the Norwegians did not believe their wine was a severe problem for the government in Oslo. When Norwegian vessels were blocked from entering European ports, the government decided to lift the Prohibition on wine and beer in 1923. A complete abandonment of Prohibition followed in 1927.[8]

Prohibition in Canada, 1918–1920

One final nation which imposed a national ban on alcohol in the course of the First World War was Canada. However, in the case of the North American state, its Prohibition history extended much further. The Canada Temperance Act was passed in 1878, setting up a framework through which Prohibition would be introduced on a region-by-region basis. For the next several decades, but particularly from 1900 onwards, many Canadian regions introduced Prohibition.

A national ban on alcohol only arrived in Canada in 1918 in response to ongoing shortages of supplies brought about by the First World War. It was one of the briefest experiments at national Prohibition in history. Within two years, the government rowed back on its decision, and in the 1920s, the various Canadian states generally repealed their proscriptions on the sale and supply of wine, beer, and spirits. However, as in the United States, some small regions and municipalities decided to maintain the ban for decades, resulting in dry towns and counties.[9] [Text Box 2]

Prohibition in the US, 1920–1933

Little needs to be said in a general account of prohibition movements worldwide in the early twentieth century about what happened in America. Following the passage of the Volstead Act, the sale and supply of alcohol were banned across the United States. Prohibition would remain in place for thirteen years, which, contrary to what the Temperance Movement had been aiming for, became synonymous with jazz, alcohol, parties, and endemic violence in cities like Chicago caused by bootleggers.

Some exceptions were made under the prohibition laws. For instance, alcohol could be made and used for medicinal purposes. The wine was also somewhat loosely regulated because it was viewed as more culturally acceptable and for religious reasons. As such, people could legally make wine in their own homes during Prohibition and lots of it. Nevertheless, Prohibition was still a disaster for the American wine industry, and it took until after the Second World War for California to get back on its feet.[10]

Prohibition in Hungary, 1919

The end of the First World War in Europe also led to several new Prohibition movements. Undoubtedly the most short-lived was that which occurred in Hungary. Here a Communist state called the Hungarian Soviet Republic was briefly created between March and August 1919 as the country entered a state of civil war following independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [Text Box 3]

The Hungarian Soviet Republic, which controlled Budapest and which for a time seemed like it could establish control over the entire country, introduced a ban on alcohol in imitation of the prohibition which was in force in the only other Communist nation in the world at the time, Russia. However, the ban in Hungary was never enforceable, and the Soviet Republic collapsed after less than six months.[11]

Prohibition in Finland, 1919–1932

Another of the Nordic nations, Finland, introduced Prohibition in a way that closely mirrored the experience in the United States. Both nations introduced the ban at the very end of the 1910s after decades of lobbying for a proscription of alcohol by powerful temperance movements. In both countries, it lasted for thirteen years, being established as law in Finland in 1919 and not repealed until 1932. In both countries, residual aspects of Prohibition survived for decades afterward.

As with most other countries which attempted a ban on alcohol, the experience of Prohibition was problematic in Finland, leading to enforcement problems and many members of society who had previously been law-abiding becoming criminals. Finland, like several other Nordic countries which prohibited alcohol at the time, also had pressure put on it by the wine-producing nations of Europe to continue buying their alcohol products.

Eventually, Finland held a new referendum on the matter in the last days of December 1931. The complete abandonment of Prohibition was backed by over 70% of voters, and as a result, the blanket ban was gradually wound down in the early 1930s. However, many restrictions remained in place after 1932. A state-owned distributor of alcohol, Alko, was set up and held a monopoly on the sale of beer, wine, and spirits in Finland for the next several decades. Shops in which Alko sold alcohol were only established in Finland’s cities.

Even when reforms were introduced in 1969 through the Alcohol Act, these still ensured that only alcohol products containing 4.7% ABV could be sold in grocery stores. Thus, Finns looking to purchase wine still had to go to a state-run Alko store. Incredibly, the more restrictive rules were only lifted following the passage of a new alcohol law through the Finnish parliament in 2017. However, this has only raised the permissible alcohol content of beverages sold in shops and supermarkets to 5.5%. Consequently, Finns still have to visit an Alko store to buy a bottle of wine in Finland today.[12]

Prohibition in Recent Times – Bans in Countries During Covid, Islamic World

Of course, the first quarter of the twentieth century is not the only period in human history when nation-states have prohibited alcohol. Today’s most obvious example of alcohol prohibitions is found in the Islamic world, where alcohol is generally proscribed for religious reasons.

However, these can vary greatly, from extreme measures in countries like Afghanistan, where blanket bans are enforced, to countries like Bangladesh, where very limited prohibitions are maintained, and rice beer and wine are consumed in substantial quantities. In many other countries in the Middle East, the growth of western tourism and business activities has led to exemptions on the possession and consumption of beer, wine, and spirits for those with a license to do so.

Sometimes alcohol is also prohibited owing to emergencies. For instance, several countries banned the sale of alcohol at the very height of the Covid-19 Pandemic in the spring of 2020. These included South Africa, one of the world’s largest wine-producing nations. Other countries such as Venezuela and Thailand prohibit the sale of alcohol in the immediately time before a national election. Thus, limited prohibitions are still imposed from time to time in countries today. Still, the general failure of Prohibition in the early twentieth century ended the drive to create teetotal societies in the western world.

The Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening was one of the significant periods of religious revival in the United States. It occurred roughly between 1800 and the 1840s, beginning mainly in the southern states of America, around Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of Indiana and Ohio. It peaked in the 1820s and 1830s. It was primarily driven by communities of Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. They were responding to the growing drift away from religion within mainstream society due to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

Existing religious denominations became more pious and interventionist in society, while new religious groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Latter Day Saints Movement also emerged during this period. One of the most substantial long-lasting effects of the Second Great Awakening was that it led to growing calls for temperance and teetotalism concerning alcohol consumption, whether beer, wine, or spirits.

The temperance movements that this led to would become extremely powerful lobbies in America and other countries such as Canada and the Norse countries of Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, eventually leading to the Prohibition of alcohol in over half a dozen nations in the early twentieth century.[13]

Dry Counties and Regions of Canada Today

While Prohibition as a nationwide experiment in Canada only lasted for a brief period in the early twentieth century, much as in the United States, when Prohibition came to an end, some communities and regional governments elected to continue it. For instance, Prohibition was not repealed on Prince Edward Island until 1948.

Many communities in the thinly populated Northwest Canada region have maintained a ban on the sale and supply of alcohol down to the present day. Behchoko, Gameti, Lutsel’ke, Nahanni Butte, Tsiigehtchic, Wekweeti, and Whati are seven dry counties or communities in the Northwest Territories. The city of Steinbach, with a population of nearly 20,000 people and one of the largest urban centers in Manitoba, only voted to allow the sale of alcohol within the city limits in 2011.

The city introduced a new prohibition on alcohol in 1950. It maintained it for sixty years despite holding over half a dozen referendums on the matter in the intervening period. Thus, while nationwide Prohibition was a transient movement in Canada, temperance movements and dry counties are still a feature of some of the remoter parts of the vast country down to the present day.[14]

The Hungarian Soviet Republic

The Hungarian Soviet Republic was one of several short-lived Soviet states declared in Central Europe in the months following the end of the First World War. Soviets, for instance, were briefly established in Berlin and Munich in, Germany. The Hungarian Soviet Republic emerged due to the power vacuums in many regions like Hungary in late 1918 and 1919 following the collapse and disintegration of the Empire of Austria-Hungary.

The Republic was declared on the 21st of March 1919 and was a Communist state which sought aid from the Russian revolutionaries. It did control Budapest, but much of the country remained outside of its control. Ultimately the Republic could not survive owing to the unwillingness of the victorious powers in the First World War, Britain, France, Italy, and others, such as Romania, which occupied much of the east of the country in 1919, to allow a Communist state to come into being in Central Europe. As a result, in early August, the Romanian armed forces moved against Budapest, and the Soviet Republic collapsed. One of the most notable measures it introduced during its brief four-and-a-half-month life was the Prohibition of alcohol in Hungary.[15]

Also read: Justice and Injustice in Prohibition in the United States

Further Reading:

K. Gunnar Gotestam and Ola Rostum, ‘Alcohol Control Policy in the Nordic Countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland),’ in Peter M. Miller and Ted D. Nirenberg (eds), Prevention of Alcohol Abuse (New York, 1984), pp. 213–225.

Anne E. C. McCants, ‘The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ in The Economic History Review, Vol. 61 (August, 2008), pp. 172–200.

Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2011).

Per Ole Johansen, ‘Norwegian Alcohol Prohibition: A Failure’, in Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2013), pp. 46–63.

James R. Rohrer, ‘The Origins of the Temperance Movement’, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (August, 1990), pp. 228–235.

John H. Wourinen, ‘Finland’s Prohibition Experiment’, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 163: Prohibition: A National Experiment (September, 1932), pp. 216–226.

On this Day

May 10th, 1878 – The Canada Temperance Act, also known as the Scott Act, was given royal assent in Canada. This measure was designed to provide a national framework for individual municipalities across the country to enforce a Prohibition on the sale and supply of alcohol in the country. This was the earliest major response globally to the temperance movement of the nineteenth century. However, the Canada Temperance Act did not lead to an automatic Prohibition in Canada in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Rather individual cities, towns, and regions began opting into it in the following years. This gathered momentum in the 1900s as temperance movements became more popular in response to the excesses of the 1880s and 1890s. Consequently, alcohol sales had been banned in many parts of Canada by the 1910s. However, outright national Prohibition was only introduced in 1918 because the First World War disrupted world trade. It was completely unenforceable given Canada’s highly unusual political landscape, with overlapping jurisdictions and regional freedoms. It was quickly abandoned in 1920, though many of the major states of Canada, including Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, did not repeal Prohibition until the mid-to-late 1920s. Moreover, Prohibition was never absolute in many regions, and wine remained legal on certain grounds in some states, even at the height of Prohibition in Canada.[16]

November 6th, 1907 – A referendum was held in the Faroe Islands to determine if this quasi-self-governing region of Denmark should prohibit the sale and supply of all kinds of alcohol, wine included. The vote passed by an overwhelming majority of just over 96% in favor to under 4% against. As a result, the Faroe Islands became the first region of Europe or the Americas to introduce Prohibition in 1908. The laws were loosened twenty years later as Faroese individuals were allowed to import their own personal supplies of alcohol from Denmark from 1928 onwards. However, Prohibition was not fully repealed in the Faroe Islands until 1992. One of the knock-on effects of this was that wine consumption in the Faroe Islands became negligible, as once the laws were loosened in 1928 and again in the 1980s, they favored beer consumption over wine or spirits.[17]

March 1st 1989 – The first Beer Day was held in Iceland. This was held to celebrate the end of the 74-year Prohibition on beer which had been introduced in the North Atlantic island nation back in 1915. When Prohibition was first introduced in Iceland, it was a near blanket ban on alcohol, but this was gradually watered down over the next twenty years. Wine was effectively made legal in 1922 to avoid a trade war with Spain, while spirits were legalized through a referendum in 1933. Thus, only beer of more than 2.25% ABV was prohibited from the mid-1930s onwards. Consequently, for over fifty years, Icelanders could drink wine and spirits, not beer. It was a strange way to try to establish a more sober society.[18]


Want to read more? Try these books!

Communion Wine and Bible Temperance- Being a Review of Dr. Thos; Laurie's Article in the Bibliotheca Sacra, of January, 1869 (Classic Reprint) Thoughts for Christians on Bible Wines and Temperance


[1] James R. Rohrer, ‘The Origins of the Temperance Movement’, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (August, 1990), pp. 228–235; Anne E. C. McCants, ‘The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 61 (August, 2008), pp. 172–200.

[2] The Chelsea Waterworks Company’, in Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds.), The London Encyclopaedia (London, 1995); Phil Withington, ‘Intoxicants and Society in Early Modern England’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 54, No. 3 (September, 2011), pp. 631–657.

[3] Joseph Hirsh, ‘Enlightened Eighteenth Century Views of the Alcohol Problem’, in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring, 1949), pp. 230–236.

[4] Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815–1872 (London, 1971); Ian Tyrrell, The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880–1930 (Charleston, 1991).

[5] Scott C. Martin (ed.), The Sage Encyclopaedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives (Los Angeles, 2015), pp. 539–540.

[6] Beinta Jákupsstovu, Knowledge and power: Faroese health policy through 150 years (Tórshavn, 2006).

[7] K. Gunnar Gotestam and Ola Rostum, ‘Alcohol Control Policy in the Nordic Countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland)’, in Peter M. Miller and Ted D. Nirenberg (eds), Prevention of Alcohol Abuse (New York, 1984), pp. 213–225.

[8] Per Ole Johansen, ‘Norwegian Alcohol Prohibition: A Failure’, in Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2013), pp. 46–63.

[9] [accessed 28/7/22].

[10] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2011).

[11] Bela Menczer, ‘Bela Kun and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919’, in History Today, Vol. 19, No. 5 (May, 1969), pp. 299–309.

[12] John H. Wourinen, ‘Finland’s Prohibition Experiment’, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 163: Prohibition: A National Experiment (September, 1932), pp. 216–226.

[13] Clifford S. Griffin, ‘Religious Benevolence as Social Control, 1815–1860’, in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (1957), pp. 423–444.

[14] [accessed 28/7/22]; [accessed 28/7/22].

[15] Bela Menczer, ‘Bela Kun and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919’, History Today, Vol. 19, No. 5 (May, 1969), pp. 299–309.

[16] [accessed 28/7/22].

[17] Scott C. Martin (ed.), The Sage Encyclopaedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives (Los Angeles, 2015), pp. 539–540; Beinta Jákupsstovu, Knowledge and power: Faroese health policy through 150 years (Tórshavn, 2006).

[18] K. Gunnar Gotestam and Ola Rostum, ‘Alcohol Control Policy in the Nordic Countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland)’, in Peter M. Miller and Ted D. Nirenberg (eds), Prevention of Alcohol Abuse (New York, 1984), pp. 213–225.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , By Published On: March 6, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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