Archive Gallery: The Science of Prohibition, 1919-1933

At the dawn of Prohibition, the future of happy hour looked bleak, but PopSci's archives reveal that within every speakeasy resides a science lab, and within every bootlegger, an unlikely inventor or chemist

The future of breweries looked dim on January 16, 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment and the accompanying Volstead Act banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages. Unsurprisingly, the black market was more than happy to help people drink without getting caught.

Popular Science had some ideas too.

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Despite the Progressives’ intention to improve society by banning liquor, Prohibition became an era characterized by seedy glamor and organized crime. Between 1920 and 1933, we filled our pages with panicked headlines: “Poisons….Lurk in Bootleg Booze,” so naturally, “Millions of Americans Are Committing Slow Suicide.”

We weren’t exaggerating — thanks to the carelessness of bootleggers, thousands of people died after drinking liquor that contained traces of wood alcohol. Still, while the moonshine market certainly enabled social corruption, we’d argue that it also contributed to science by producing an unlikely breed of chemists and inventors.

Contrary to its depiction in pop culture, smuggling wasn’t just about joining the Mafia or running down Prohibition agents. Over time, bootlegging groups mastered formulas for manufacturing large (toxin-free) quantities of raw alcohol, while people running booze between Canada and Detroit invented contraptions that let them transport cases of the stuff undetected. Even certified scientists had fun getting around the law: noting that the amendment banned alcoholic drinks, but not solids, Dr. John C. Olsen, a Brooklyn chemist, cooked up “jellied cocktails” in his lab.

On the less illicit side of things, home-brewing became a popular pastime after the government permitted people to brew beverages measuring 0.5 percent alcohol. After examining the era through the lens of our archives, we’re proud to report that Popular Science taught readers how to appease their vices without dying or getting arrested.

Click through our gallery to learn more about the science of bootlegging and home brews.