Bootleggers came into existence during American era of alcohol prohibition (1920-1933)

The Bootlegging Era in America

American popular culture has much celebrated the bootlegging era in America, the times when alcohol was banned and the illegal trafficking of alcohol was on a rise. The bootlegging era gave rise to some prominent names, gangsters to be precise; the most notorious of the lot is of course Al Capone. Movies such as Lawless, and Once Upon a Time in America have glamorised the bootlegging mafia, and shown the dark side of illegal trafficking on alcohol. Most recently you have the American TV show, Boardwalk Empire dealing with similar themes. The criminally laden era of course is much talked about, and is of massive interest for most, but what do we really know about the Prohibition Era of America? Let us take a closer look at this much exciting topic.

A still from Board walk empire. An American drama set during the prohibition era.
A still from Board walk empire. An American drama set during the prohibition era.

Living outside the law

The American Prohibition (1920-1933) was a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol throughout the nation. This decision was taken after alcoholism, and violence was on the rise, and all of this was politicised. The holy men and women of the Protestant church demanded that alcohol be stopped, and it was one of the most controversial moves by the government of America then. It was commonly believed that the ban on alcohol would improve law and order issues in the country.

The term bootlegging came into use in the American Midwest by 1880s so as to define the practice of hiding illicit liquor flasks in boot tops. Soon the term grew momentum, and became part of the American vocabulary. Thus, with Prohibition, the sale and creation of liquor stopped, at least in the legal manner. Soon the business of home-made liquor began, while a few brave-hearts began to smuggle foreign-made commercial liquor into the country. This was usually done from the Canadian or the Mexican borders, and some of the most common suppliers of illicit liquor were the Bahamas, Cuba, and St Pierre and Miquelon islands.

Yet another trick was the hoarding of old supplies and letting them out during the prohibition era at a much higher price. These practices were such a commonplace that the government had to deploy special police whose job was to monitor bootlegging, and illicit liquor sale.

Prohibition postcard. (Credits:
Prohibition postcard. (Credits:

The Medicinal Trick

One of the most interesting things that happened with the ban on alcohol was the opening of numerous drugstores and pharmacies across the country. This is because not all types of alcohol was illegal! Alcohol for medicinal purposes was still available, and one could distil and bottle whiskey only to sell it in a pharmacy for medicinal purpose. Of course you were require to have a prescription for the same, but these prescriptions could be refilled in every 10 days, and this was one of the most lucrative businesses.

The Rum Row

An interesting fault in the law was quickly taken advantage of by bootleggers, and the party kept going! So, according to the US government law of that time, the prohibition law did not count about 5 kilometres over the seas, and so rumrunners would comfortably park their ships 5 km off the coast of USA, and have a great time. Most of the job was done by word-of-mouth, and people would show up to enjoy their liquor legally.  These ships were bringing liquor in from Cuba and Europe. But of course the authorities did not like to be fooled, so they changed the distance in 1924 to 19 km off the coast. This made things much more difficult, and parties were definitely less frequent.

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