Prohibition in Washington State

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 11/20/2010
  • Essay 9630
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In Washington -- as in the rest of the country -- the question of who, if anyone, should control, manufacture, import, possess, and consume alcoholic intoxicants has been contentious and complicated by other social issues such as race, religion, education, and gender. The issue of alcohol control influenced territorial and state politics and elections on the county and town level, especially with regard to individual community decisions to incorporate and thus gain control local of liquor laws. And just as saloons were important centers of social life for those who drank, groups devoted to temperance and anti-liquor agitation were social centers for many citizens who did not. Washington was among the 33 of the existing 48 states that had already adopted Prohibition laws at the state level before the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Prohibition amendment, was ratified in 1919.

Hudson's Bay Company

Controlling access to alcohol was a factor in the development of what would become  Washington state from the time of contact, when fur trappers and traders introduced alcohol to Indian peoples. Alcohol became an aspect of the social change the fur trade brought to the region. It contributed to the breakdown of value systems that had existed before contact. 

Under explicit direction from the British government, Hudson's Bay Company officials reduced the amount of alcohol the company routinely distributed to Indians in partial payment for pelts. The eventual goal was to withdraw payment with alcohol entirely.  The British objected to giving liquor to Indians because it debauched them, and also because intoxication rendered Indians more likely to rise up against the British.

But as American ships carrying alcohol began to play a part in coastal trade, and as American fur trappers penetrated the region by land, the task required of Hudson's Bay employees became increasingly impossible.  Nevertheless, in 1831 company officials in London forbade the sale of rum to all Indians.  Faced with direct competition from liquor-toting rivals, Hudson's Bay Company chief factor John McLoughlin (1784-1857) sold alcohol to traders, who then "gave" it to the Indians -- gift, it seemed, was not the same as payment.

Missionaries who reached the region -- then known as the Oregon Country -- beginning in 1834 strongly favored temperance. Temperance (with regard to alcoholic intoxicants) meant drinking in moderation. What constituted moderation was individually defined -- for some, temperance meant consuming moderate amounts of only wine or beer, but in any case not consuming any alcoholic beverage to the point of inebriation. Some temperance advocates defined the word more narrowly, and opposed intoxicants entirely.

Oregon Territorial Legislation, 1849

In 1849, legislators in Oregon Territory (which at the time included the future state of Washington) passed a licensing act regulating the manufacture and sale of alcohol.  The act forbade the sale or gift of alcohol to Indians, but established a liberal policy toward saloon licensure. 

As some settlers assembled the requisite $200 licensure fee and hung their saloon shingles, others began working for temperance. Many emigrants from the United States were devoted to temperance. Congress organized Washington Territory in 1853, and a Presbyterian missionary from Indiana, the Reverend George Whitworth (1816-1907), immediately organized the new territory's first temperance society, calling for total abstinence.

Territorial Legislation, 1855

The second session of Washington's Territorial Legislature took up the Prohibition question, placing on the 1855 ballot a territorial referendum outlawing the sale and manufacture of liquor. Voters (all male) defeated the issue with 564 votes for, and 650 against.

Over the next decade, the massive influx of intemperate gold miners into Washington Territory (which at the time included the future state of Idaho) made Prohibition legislation a doubtful prospect.  In 1863, Congress organized Idaho Territory, tipping the balance of political power away from more transient residents like the gold miners, since much mining activity was now outside Washington Territory's boundaries.

Territorial Legislation, 1879

On November 14, 1879, state legislators prohibited the sale of liquor within a mile of the Northern Pacific Railroad during its construction in Spokane, Stevens, and Whitman counties.  As noted by Jon Owen Nuxoll in a 1989 University of Washington master's thesis, territorial legislators may have been "mindful of the 'hell on wheels,' the tent towns of saloons, prostitutes, gamblers, and hooligans which had accompanied construction of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific some years earlier" (p. 5). 

Historian Norman Clark called this law "an effort to protect workers from the saloon keepers, who were as eager to debauch the railroad gangs as they had been to debauch the Indians" (The Dry Years, p. 32).

Territorial Legislation, 1883-1888: Woman Suffrage

In 1883, women in Washington Territory gained the right to vote, which they immediately exercised, generating consternation and outrage among liquor advocates because (as a whole) they supported prohibition measures.  Women lost their right to vote on February 3, 1887, regained it on January 16, 1888, and lost it again on November 14, 1888. 

Not until 1910 would Washington women regain the vote for good. Distancing the cause of woman suffrage from Prohibition was one important strategy leading to this victory.

Territorial Legislation, 1886-1889: Local Option

In 1886, the Territorial Legislature passed a local option law. This allowed residents of a town or precinct to petition for elections on the licensing of liquor sales within their community. The territorial Supreme Court outlawed local-option prohibition in 1888, although a modified version of the law was later reinstated.  The modified version returned the power to grant or refuse applications for saloon licenses to city councils and county commissioners, and gave these bodies the right to set license fees between $300 and $1,000 annually -- enriching local coffers.

This modified version of local option remained in effect through 1909, and led to wide variations in alcohol availability from town to town, and from county to county.  Since only incorporated towns and cities had city councils with the power to render their community wet or dry, on the saloon question unincorporated settlements were at the mercy of their county's commissioners. In most communities, a saloon had been one of the first businesses established -- from the seedlings of a saloon, an eating house, a blacksmith, and a few industrious families, many towns grew and prospered. The cost, however, often included drunkenness, crime, and job absenteeism.

Even in dry towns, pharmacies were allowed to sell alcohol for medicinal purposes.  Lemon extract with high alcohol content could be purchased in grocery stores. Some customers used it by the teaspoon to flavor cookies; others swallowed it straight from the bottle.

Constitutional Convention, July-August 1889

In 1889, during the creation of Washington's state constitution, delegates to the constitutional convention had the opportunity to include total, state-wide prohibition in the document.  A voter-approved constitution was one of the conditions that the United States Congress had established in order for Washington to gain statehood. 

Prohibition, woman suffrage, and the location of the state capital were the three most controversial issues that convention delegates grappled with. Fearful that including these questions within the body of the constitution might spur voters to reject the document, the delegates crafted a ballot that offered Washington Territory's (all male) voters the chance to vote the four questions -- the constitution, Prohibition, woman suffrage, and the location of the capital -- separately. 

On October 1, 1889, voters ratified the constitution, rejected Prohibition, and rejected woman suffrage.  The vote on Prohibition was 19,546 for, and 31,487 against.  Olympia garnered the most votes in the race for state capital, but did not win the majority, necessitating a run-off in the next general election, held November 4, 1890. In that election, Olympia emerged victorious.

Temperance Advocacy Organizations

National temperance organizations with a vigorous presence in Washington included the International Order of Good Templars (founded in 1851), the Prohibition Party (founded in 1869), the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (formed in 1874), and the Anti-Saloon League (formed in 1893).  Towns across Washington had active chapters of these organizations, and of the Washington Territorial Temperance Alliance (formed in 1874). Some counties also formed temperance leagues.  One of these was Whitman, where the Whitman County Temperance League was established in 1883. 

Historian Norman B. Clark described these temperance advocates:

"These 'radicals' at the hard core of the Washington prohibition movement were dedicated alcohol fighters, absolutely convinced of the evil of all intoxicating drink.  To these men and women, the saloon was evil institutionalized, at once a symbol and an instrument of Satan's work among God's unfortunate creatures" (The Dry Years, p. 64).

Wine and Beer

The arrival of transcontinental railroads in the 1880s (Northern Pacific) and 1890s (Great Northern) coincided with the development of refrigerated rail cars, and with the so-called "crown" bottle cap (patented in 1892), the type with pointy edges that have to be opened with a bottle opener. These developments allowed beer to be bottled and shipped beyond the immediate area where it was brewed.  Washington brewers began shipping their product to saloons along the rail lines, which stimulated the establishment of more saloons. Large breweries from the Eastern United States established district sales offices in Washington, and competed with local breweries for the beer dollar, further stimulating saloon establishment.

Wine grapes were first planted at Fort Vancouver in 1827. Many overland settlers arriving in the 1840s and 1850s brought wine grape vine cuttings, establishing vineyards for personal and commercial use. Irrigation projects throughout the central and eastern portion of the state made commercial vineyards a lucrative proposition  and drew experienced winemakers to the region.

Washington Local Option, 1909

Under pressure from the Anti-Saloon League, in 1909 voters again passed local option legislation.  This legislation allowed voters in any town (not just incorporated communities) to petition to hold an election to decide whether or not to license saloons in their community. Once an election date was set, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union usually campaigned heavily, organizing voters, encouraging women to be sure their (dry-favoring) male family members were registered to vote.  The Washington Grange (temperance supporters because of alcohol's detrimental effect on farm laborers) did the same in rural areas. 

Once a community voted itself dry, temperance supporters from surrounding areas demonstrated their approval with their wallets, traveling to the newly dry town to patronize its businesses. 

State Prohibition Law, 1914

On November 3, 1914, after prodigious Anti-Saloon League lobbying efforts statewide, Washington voters approved Initiative Measure Number Three, prohibiting the manufacture and sale (although not the consumption) of liquor statewide.  Washington women had gained the right to vote in 1910, and their votes contributed to the passage of the initiative. Washington's 1914 prohibition law was statutory, not a constitutional amendment. The popular vote was 189,840 for, 171,208 against.  Initiative Number Three exposed a marked split between Washington's urban and rural voters. Even though the initiative failed in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, it won statewide. City people opposed it whereas smalltown and rural people were in favor.

Any saloons that had weathered Local Option closed as of midnight on December 31, 1915.  The only legal drinking from this point was via imported liquor that had been manufactured out of state -- the law allowed individuals with permits to import up to two quarts of hard liquor or 12 quarts of beer every 20 days. Among those without permits (or those who lacked the means to prepay and ship alcohol), illegal drinking surged, largely via illegal sales at soft drink stands and restaurants.  Drug stores, where prescription liquor could be obtained, boomed.  A 1985 master's thesis comparing the effects of Prohibition on various West Coast cities states that 65 new drug stores opened in Seattle between January and March, 1916.

Defeated Initiatives, 1916

In the immediate wake of saloon closures, Washington voters apparently saw the benefit of restricting access to alcohol. In 1916, voters rejected two measures that would have eased restrictions. 

The Washington Hotelmens Bill, which would have amended the prohibition law to permit the sale of liquor in hotels, was defeated 263,390 to 48,354. The Brewer's Bill, which would have permitted the manufacture of beer, and its sale directly to consumers, was defeated 245,399 to 98,843.

Federal Measures

On March 3, 1917, the United States Congress approved the so-called Bone-Dry Amendment to the 1917 Post Office Appropriations Act. This amendment forbade shipment of intoxicating liquors of any kind into states that had bone-dry laws, whether or not those states had permit systems.  The amendment went into effect on July 1, 1917.

In August 1917, the United States Congress adopted the Food Control Law, a wartime measure to conserve food, including grains that are essential ingredients in many kinds of liquor and beer. On September 8, 1917, the law went into effect, closing down all of the distilleries in the country. 

Additionally, the 1917 Revenue Bill banned importation of consumable distilled spirits, but not wine or beer. Although existing stocks of spirits could still be sold and consumed, many people viewed these war measures as a large step toward post-war national alcohol prohibition. Reduced alcohol import also meant reduced revenue from import tax.

Washington "Bone-Dry" Referendum, 1918

Washington's alcohol laws ran neck and neck with federal legislation during 1917.  In early 1917, the state legislature considered House Bill 4, which ended the permit system except for druggists and the clergy.  The bill passed both houses, and on February 19, 1917, Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) signed it. The law stipulated that Washington would go bone dry in 90 days unless the people demanded a vote.  Opponents of the law did so, circulating petitions that ensured the question a spot on the ballot.

On November 5, 1918, Washington voters passed Referendum 10 in favor of the bone-dry legislative act.  The vote was 96,100 for, 54,322 against.

Eighteenth Amendment, 1917, ratified 1919

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages, and their import into or export from the United States and all its territories.  The United States Congress passed the amendment on December 18, 1917.  In order to become operative, the 18th Amendment required ratification of three-fourths of the states.

The state of Washington was the 22nd state to do so, ratifying the 18th Amendment on January 13, 1919. The vote was unanimous in both the state house and senate.  The United States Congress ratified the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919. On October 28, 1919, Congress then adopted the National Prohibition Act (also known as the Volstead Act, after Andrew J. Volstead, Republican representative from Minnesota) to enforce the 18th Amendment.

The Volstead Act declared all liquors with more than half of 1 percent alcohol to be intoxicating, and banned their manufacture, sale, barter, transport, import, export, and possession.  Medicines exempted comprised those manufactured by approved processes, denatured alcohol, and a number of alcohol-containing toiletries, flavorings, and patent medicines deemed unfit for use as beverages, along with sacramental wine produced under permit. Private possession of alcohol purchased before Prohibition was also exempted, as was the home fermentation of juice to produce wine or cider for personal use. The Volstead Act became effective immediately. The 18th Amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920.       

Effects of Prohibition on the Wine Industry

Washington's wine industry was one of the major outgrowths of the state's irrigation projects in the central and eastern areas of the state.  When Washington went bone-dry in 1917, the state's fledgling wine industry disintegrated almost overnight. 

Because the 18th Amendment allowed the manufacture of small amounts of beer and wine at home for personal consumption, it actually stimulated a demand for wine grapes. Home winemakers in Washington could access many locally grown varieties.  Varieties such as Zinfandel that are not grown in Washington were shipped by rail from California vineyards at the rate of between 5,000 and 10,000 tons per year.  Concord grapes, used for non-alcoholic grape juice, grew well in Washington and were widely planted during Prohibition.

Home wine consumption ultimately stimulated the post-Prohibition wine industry because, for many middle-class Washingtonians, it brought drinking out of saloons and into the home, and substituted home-made wine for commercially produced hard liquor.  Expanding the market for wine beyond ethnic communities (such as Italian Americans) with a tradition of wine production and consumption boosted the wine industry after Prohibition's repeal. 

The return of professionally produced wine must have been a great relief for home winemakers. Lacking the skill to leave sugar in their wine without re-fermenting it, many produced wines that were high in mouth-puckering tannins. And these wines had little aging.

Best vs. Bogus Booze: Tippling During Prohibition

Even after the 18th Amendment was enacted, troubles patrolling Northwest waters for liquor smugglers persisted.  The Coast Guard offered the Prohibition Bureau only limited assistance until 1924, when Congress funded increased Coast Guard personnel and 20 reconditioned navy destroyers. Still, bootleggers managed to sneak liquor that was legitimately produced elsewhere over United States borders, supplying customers who could afford the best. 

Liquor fanciers who lacked funds -- or good connections -- made do with industrial alcohol that had been watered down, colored, and otherwise enhanced.  Congressional hearings on this subject found that one gallon of industrial/commercial alcohol, when watered, yielded at least three gallons of bogus booze.  Not surprisingly, commercial alcohol production rose steadily during Prohibition.

Washington's most successful (in other words, notorious) liquor smuggler was former Seattle police lieutenant Roy Olmstead (1886-1966). Olmstead learned the fine points of liquor smuggling during his years wearing the badge, pursuing and arresting rumrunners.  During the height of national Prohibition, Olmstead's extensive well-organized operation was delivering 200 cases of Canadian liquor to Seattle every day, and grossing $200,000 a month. Olmstead was biggest, but he was one of many.

The End of Prohibition: Washington, 1932

In January 1932, State Initiative Measure No. 61, to repeal all Washington's liquor laws except the prohibition of sale to minors, was filed in Olympia. Before the end of that month, more than 20,000 voters had signed petitions supporting the initiative's place on the ballot.  On November 8, 1932, voters passed Initiative No. 61 by a 62 percent margin (341,450 for, 208,211 against), sending Washington's Congressional Representatives a clear mandate to support the repeal of the Volstead Act.

In April 1933, after passing the 21st Amendment, but before its ratification by the states, the United States Congress modified the Volstead Act to permit the sale of beer up to 3.2 percent alcohol. Since Washington had already repealed Prohibition in the state, such beer immediately became legal in Washington.

The End of Prohibition: The 21st Amendment, 1933

On February 20, 1933, the United States Congress passed the 21st Amendment to the United States constitution, repealing the 18th Amendment. The state of Washington ratified the 21st Amendment on October 3, 1933. 

On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1881-1945) issued a proclamation repealing the 18th Amendment. As of 2010, the 18th Amendment remains the only amendment to the United States constitution to have ever been repealed.

Post-Repeal Alcohol Legislation

On January 23, 1934, Washington Governor Clarence Martin (1887-1955) signed the Steele Liquor Act establishing the Washington State Liquor Control Board into law. The Liquor Control Board was authorized to establish strict controls over how alcohol could be sold and consumed, including limiting the sale of wine and hard liquor to state-run liquor stores. Whether or not to limit alcohol sales to state-run stores had been highly controversial during the state legislature's debate over the bill. 

In 1935, legislators modified this law to permit Washington wines to be sold by private distributors.  On July 1, 1969, this was extended to all wines, no matter where they had been produced.  This reduced the consumer price on out-of-state wines.

On November 2, 1948, Washington voters rejected Initiative 13, which would have limited the sale of (in state) wine and beer to state liquor stores. The vote was 208,337 for, 602,144 against. On the same ballot, voters approved Initiative 171, permitting the sale of liquor by the drink, with some restrictions. The vote was 416,227 for, 373,418 against.

On November 8, 1966, Washington voters passed initiative 229 repealing the Blue Laws that had played a role in the prohibition of the sale of liquor on Sundays. The vote was 604,096 for, 333,972 against. In the following year, the Liquor Control Board took the first of a series of actions that eventually allowed Sunday liquor sales on the same basis as the rest of the week.

On November 7, 1972, Washington voters narrowly defeated Initiative 261, which would have privatized liquor sales and ended their restriction to state-owned sales outlets. The vote was 634,973 for, 779,568 against.

On November 6, 1973, Washington voters narrowly declined to reduce the state's drinking age from 21 to 19. The vote was 495,624 for, 510,491 against. (In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution had lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, so Washingtonians who voted this ballot included those directly impacted.)

On November 2, 2010, Washington voters rejected two initiatives -- I-1100 and I-1105 -- each of which would have privatized liquor sales and ended their restriction to state-owned outlets.  However, a year later on November 8, 2011, voters approved a new initiative, I-1183, privatizing liquor sales statewide.  Grocery and warehouse stores (including COSTCO, the $22.7 million initiative campaign's top donor) were scheduled to begin selling liquor on June 1, 2012, and all state-run liquor stores were to cease operation by that date.


Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition & Social Change in Washington, revised edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); Abigail Scott Duniway, Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States (New York: Schocken Books, 1971); Roger Sale, Seattle Past To Present (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); Don Brazier, History of the Washington Legislature 1854-1963 (Olympia: Washington State Senate, 2000); Charles Merz, The Dry Decade (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969); New York Chamber of Commerce, Sixtieth Annual Report of the Corporation of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York for the year 1917-1918  (New York: Press of the Chamber of Commerce, 1918), 34-41; Jon Owen Nuxoll, "A Comparitive Study Of The Liquor Question In Whitman And Skagit Counties, Washington, 1855-1917" (master's thesis, University of Washington, May 30, 1988); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington State Constitutional Convention delegates frame a constitution stipulating that voters must be male, but append separate woman suffrage and Prohibition amendments, on August 17, 1889" (by Paula Becker) and "Olmstead, Roy (1886-1966) -- King of King County Bootleggers" (by Daryl C. McClary) and "Wine in Washington State" (by Peter Blecha)  and "Blue Laws -- Washington State" (by Peter LeSourd) (accessed October 22, 2010); Ronald Simonds Green Jr., "Prohibitions And The Historians" (master's thesis, University of Washington, August 1970); Kenneth David Rose, "Prohibition In Disarray: The Liquor Issues of 1924 In Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles And the National Democratic Convention" (master's thesis, University of Washington, May 29, 1985); Ronald Irvine, The Wine Project (Vashon: Sketch Publications, 1997),  122-127; "Washington Bone Dry Act, Referendum 10 (1918)," BallotPedia website accessed October 29, 2010 (; W. J. Rorabaugh, "The Origins of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, 1934"  Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Fall 2009. p. 159; J. W. Gilbert, "Gilbert Says: State Liquor Stores Seem Certain; Revenue May Be Disappointing," The Seattle Daily Times, January 5, 1934, p. 2; "Steele Law O.K.; Regent, Insurance Bills Killed," Ibid., January 24, 1934, p. 1; Laws of Washington Territory Enacted by the Legislative Assembly In The Year 1879 (Olympia: C. B. Bagley, 1879), p. 249; Melissa Alison, "Liquor: 1 Down, 1 Still Alive," The Seattle Times, November 3, 2010, p. A-6; Melissa Alison, "Second liquor-sales measure defeated," Ibid., November 4, 2010, p. A-4; Allison, "Costco 'Grateful' $22.7M Campaign Paid Off; Distributors, Smaller Businesses Aren't Happy," The Seattle Times, November 9, 2011 (
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject. It was emended slightly on November 22, 2011, and updated on March 5, 2012.

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