The prohibition movement called for the adoption of laws to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The adoption of prohibition in Utah followed a course that paralleled that of other states throughout the nation in many respects and yet encountered issues and obstacles that were unique to Utah. Utah did not enact prohibition legislation until 1917, when it became the twenty-fourth state to adopt statewide prohibition; however, since most of the other twenty-four states already had passed local option laws, Utah was one of the last states to pass legislation regulating the manufacture and consumption of alcohol. In 1919 Utah quickly ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors . . . for beverage purposes." But in February 1933 Utah became the thirty-sixth and deciding state to approve the Twenty-first Amendment abolishing prohibition through repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were advised against the consumption of alcohol as early as 1833, when Joseph Smith received a revelation known as "The Word of Wisdom," which advised against the consumption of wine and strong drink. Smith's revelation came the same year that the United States Temperance Union with one million members was established to campaign for total abstinence from liquor because of the social and economic ills created by drunkenness. By 1855, thirteen states had adopted "dry" statutes restricting the manufacturing and consumption of alcohol. This early temperance movement was stalled by the Civil War, during which time most of these early laws were repealed; however, the issue was not forgotten.
By the first decade of the twentieth century various groups including the National Prohibition party, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League of America, and local civic and religious organizations were pushing for enactment of prohibition laws in almost every state. Concerned about charges of church interference in politics, Mormon Church President Joseph F. Smith did not pressure Utah lawmakers to enact prohibition laws in Utah. Nevertheless, other prominent Mormons, including three who later became church presidents--Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, and David O. McKay--actively participated in the prohibition campaign. They and other prohibitionists were opposed by Mormon apostle Reed Smoot, a United States Senator and leader of the Utah Republican party. Smoot and other Republicans feared that the prohibition issue would erode their political base and revive the bitter clash between Mormons and non-Mormons in the state.
By 1909 prohibition advocates were arguing that Utah was among less than a dozen remaining "saloon" states--that is, states which had not restricted alcohol statewide or through a local government option. That year the state legislature considered two "dry" bills. One was killed by Republican senators and the other, which passed the legislature, was vetoed by Republican Governor William Spry. In 1911 Republicans still opposed a statewide law prohibiting alcohol, but they did go along with legislation that provided for a local option. With the local option, most rural towns passed "dry" laws, but urban centers like Salt Lake City and Ogden did not. Prohibitionists were not content, and in 1914 various temperance groups organized to form the Utah Federation of Prohibition and Betterment League. During the 1915 legislative session, the League helped push through another statewide prohibition law; but once again it was vetoed by Governor Spry.
By 1916 the Republican party had adopted prohibition as part of its national platform. Utah Republican leaders followed the national lead and included a dry plank in the state Republican platform. During the state Republican party convention, Governor William Spry was defeated for renomination by Nephi L. Morris, whose record in support of prohibition was untarnished. Democrats also included a prohibition plank in their platform and nominated for Governor Simon Bamberger, a non-Mormon, German-born Jew who had voluntarily ended the sale of alcoholic beverages at his Lagoon resort and who offered to pay $1,000 for a portrait of any better prohibitionist than he.
In his first message to the state legislature, newly elected Governor Bamberger identified enactment of prohibition legislation as the first duty of the legislature. Contending prohibition bills were introduced during the session. One, modeled on an Oklahoma law, called for a prohibition commissioner to enforce the law, banned all beverages containing in excess of one-half of one percent alcohol by volume, and allowed, under certain circumstances, for the search and seizure of alcoholic beverages without a search warrant. The other bill provided for enforcement by the governor and attorney general through the existing law enforcement system, raised the allowable alcohol content to two percent, and did not provide exceptions to the need for a search warrant. An uneasy compromise was passed with only one dissenting vote. The compromise legislation retained the one-half of one percent limit, but did not include the prohibition commissioner or the exceptions for search warrants. The law, signed by Governor Bamberger, went into effect on 1 August 1917. The law recognized that some products containing alcohol were legitimate; they included patented medicines, flavoring extracts, pure grain alcohol for scientific and industrial purposes, and sacramental wines.
Persons could be convicted under the law for consuming, manufacturing, or selling alcohol. Newspaper reporters estimated that the law would affect four thousand persons in Salt Lake City alone who were dependent on the liquor business. As 1 August approached, liquor was sold at bargain prices and finally given away at any price. The Salt Lake Tribune estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of liquor were acquired and stored in the cellars of Salt Lake residents, while the Deseret News maintained that prohibition "will be the greatest blessing we have known since Christ." National advocates like evangelist Billy Sunday believed that prohibition would solve all of the country's social and economic problems. The movement grew, and in 1919 the Utah State Legislature joined with forty-five other states to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Although both Utah law and the U.S. Constitution outlawed alcohol, it was still produced, sold, and consumed during the period of prohibition from 1917 to 1933, and public officials were often frustrated in their attempts to enforce the law. As what had been the legitimate businesses became illegal, the enterprises became part of an underground institution of bootleggers and speakeasies. People in many different occupations were identified with the illegal trade. In their study of prohibition in southeastern Utah, Jody Bailey and Robert S. McPherson found that "Mormons and gentiles, miners and cowboys, farmers and businessmen, Mexicans and Navajos all trafficked in liquor." Many, but certainly not all the violators of prohibition were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe for whom moderate alcohol consumption was a long-established way of life. In some communities, even local law enforcement officers were involved in the illegal alcohol business.
Between 1923 and 1932, Utah law enforcement officials uncovered 448 distilleries, 702 stills, thousands of pieces of distilling apparatus, 47,000 gallons of spirits, malt liquor, wine, and cider, and 332,000 gallons of mash. Yet this was only a small percentage of what was actually being produced, as practically every community and every neighborhood in the larger cities housed an illegal still. One of the easiest types of bootleg alcohol to produce was known as sugar whiskey. It required a 100-pound bag of sugar, a sack of cornmeal and a sack of yeast, which were mixed together and boiled in fifty-gallon drums.
Although Utah did not witness the development of gangs and gang warfare associated with prohibition as it did in some eastern cities, there were still instances of violence as bootleggers were shot and undercover agents attacked.
The violence accompanying prohibition, the rise of gangs and gangland warfare in large cities like Chicago, the failure of the Eighteenth Amendment to end alcohol consumption, the realization that prohibition would not solve the nation's social and economic problems, and the crisis of the Great Depression were all factors that led to the repeal of prohibition. However, repeal did not bring a return to the old practice of open and unregulated sale of liquor. In 1935 the state of Utah began selling liquor through state-operated stores, a practice that has continued to the present.