Ken Burns Classroom

Immigration and Prohibition

Materials Needed

  • Computers with internet access or an interactive whiteboard


This lesson will explore the issue of immigration and how Americans’ attitude toward immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries became linked with Prohibition. Students will view three video clips from the series Prohibition that explain how the 19th century controversy over immigration merged with the anti-saloon sentiment of the temperance movement.


In this activity, students will view video segments from the series Prohibition that explore concerns over immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its connection with alcohol, Progressives’ attempt to reform immigrants’ use of alcohol, and Americans’ growing antagonism toward German Americans at the beginning of World War I. Students will take notes and answer discussion questions to help clarify the information from the segments.

You can present the video segments to the entire class, in small groups, or as homework. After viewing the segments, students will meet in groups to discuss each segment.

  1. Divide the class into groups of 4–5 students.
  2. Distribute the handout “Immigrants and Prohibition Video Viewing Guide” to all students. Review the background and directions with the class.
  3. Show the first video segment to the class: Prohibition: Immigrant Invasion.
  4. Have students meet in their small groups to discuss the segment’s questions. After each small group has finished its discussion, review the discussion questions with the class. Then show the next video segment, and repeat the activity procedure for each remaining video segment.

Debrief Questions:

Summarize how the factors of increased immigration, immigrants holding on to traditions, and German connection to the brewing industry led to an revival of temperance forces in the later part of the 19th century.

  • Why do you think the increase in immigration from Europe in the 19th century caused prohibitionists and reformers to focus on restricting the use of alcohol?
  • How did the declaration of war with Germany in 1917 exacerbate the problems of German Americans? Why do you think native-born Americans transferred their negative opinions about Germans to American citizens of German descent?

Extensions/Adaptations (optional)

  • Have students explore anti-immigrant sentiments today. What are these feelings based on? How have various groups used anti-immigrant sentiment to promote various agendas?

Related Academic Subjects/Standards

This lesson fits the following academic standards as set by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (

United States History

Standard 17: Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity

  • Benchmark 1: Understands challenges immigrants faced in society in the late 19th century (e.g., experiences of new immigrants from 1870 to 1900, reasons for hostility toward the new immigrants, restrictive measures against immigrants, the tension between American ideals and reality)
  • Benchmark 4: Understands the challenges diverse people encountered in late 19th century American society (e.g., the role of new laws and the federal judiciary in instituting racial inequality; arguments and methods by which various minority groups sought to acquire equal rights and opportunities; experiences of African American families who migrated from the South to New York City in the 1890s)

Standard 20: Understands how Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption

  • Benchmark 1: Understands the origins and impact of the Progressive movement (e.g., social origins of Progressives and how these contributed to the success and failure of the movement; Progressive reforms pertaining to big business and workers’ and consumers’ rights; arguments of Progressive leaders)
  • Benchmark 3: Understands how the Progressive movement influenced different groups in American society (e.g., counter-Progressive programs of labor organizations compared to social democratic programs in industrial Europe, the response of mainstream Progressives to women’s issues, the changing perception of Native American assimilation under Progressivism, the founding of the NAACP, how African American women contributed to the movement, how the International Ladies Garment Workers Union provided alternatives, the success of the Progressive movement for groups outside the mainstream)

Standard 22: Understands how the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression

  • Benchmark 1: Understands the major social issues of 1920s America (e.g., the emergence of the “New Woman” and challenges to Victorian values, the purpose and goals of the “New Klan,” the causes and outcome of Prohibition, the ethnic composition of immigrants and fears these changes represented, the “Red Scare,” the Sacco and Vanzetti trial)


Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society

  • Benchmark 1: Knows how the racial, religious, socioeconomic, regional, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of American society has influenced American politics through time
  • Benchmark 3: Knows examples of conflicts stemming from diversity, and understands how some conflicts have been managed and why some of them have not yet been successfully resolved

Standard 13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity

  • Benchmark 1: Understands issues that involve conflicts among fundamental values and principles, such as the conflict between liberty and authority
  • Benchmark 2: Knows why people may agree on values or principles in the abstract but disagree when they are applied to specific issues such as the right to life and capital punishment

Behavioral Studies:

Standard 2: Understands various meanings of social group, general implications of group membership, and different ways that groups function

  • Benchmark 1: Understands that while a group may act, hold beliefs, and/or present itself as a cohesive whole, individual members may hold widely varying beliefs, so the behavior of a group may not be predictable from an understanding of each of its members
  • Benchmark 2: Understands that social organizations may serve business, political, or social purposes beyond those for which they officially exist, including unstated ones such as excluding certain categories of people from activities

Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions

  • Benchmark 1: Understands that conflict between people or groups may arise from competition over ideas, resources, power, and/or status
  • Benchmark 2: Understands that social change, or the prospect of it, promotes conflict because social, economic, and political changes usually benefit some groups more than others (which is also true of the status quo)
  • Benchmark 7: Understands that even when the majority of people in a society agree on a social decision, the minority who disagree must be protected from oppression, just as the majority may need protection against unfair retaliation from the minority


About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: Immigrants and Prohibition Video Viewing Guide

Directions: Review the Key Points from each video segment before viewing the video segment. After the viewing, discuss the questions below. Be prepared to share your findings with the class.

Video Segment: Episode 1 – The Immigrant Invasion

Background: From 1865 to 1918, an influx of diverse immigrants arrived in the United States. A total of 27.5 million people – mostly from Europe – immigrated to America, nearly 3.8 million from Germany alone. This video segment explores the tensions that emerged between the immigrants practicing their traditions and native-born Americans who saw these traditions as a threat to their understanding of being an American.

Key Points:

  • After the Civil War ended, immigrants came to America to find their “American Dream.”
  • The new immigrants were unwilling to give up their old ways, which included their traditions in consuming alcohol.
  • Among many immigrant groups, German Americans became successful industrialists. To protect their business interests, the German brewers formed a lobbying organization — the United States Brewers’ Association — and conducted its meetings in German.
  • Alarmed at the success of the brewery industry and the power of their lobby, temperance organizations began to renew their efforts.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In which instances immigrants’ commitment to keeping up their traditions create tension with native-born American citizens?
  2. Many German immigrants carried on their ethnic traditions by brewing beer, and in the process created a new industry. Explain how this action was similar to those of other immigrant industrialists like Andrew Carnegie (steel), Joseph Pulitzer (newspapers), and William Knudsen (automobiles). How was the brewing business different, from these other pursuits, to some Americans?
  3. Why did German brewers form the United States Brewers’ Association? Why did the formation of the association further perpetuate anti-immigrant and anti- alcohol feelings?

Video Segment Two: America: A Multi-Ethnic Nation

Background: Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the population of the United States increased tenfold. At the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of the population had shifted from rural to urban areas as a result of immigration and industrialization. Progressive reformers wanted to improve the living conditions in urban areas, especially for the immigrant poor.

Key Points:

  • By 1920, the demographics of the United States had shifted from one in ten to nearly one out of two Americans living in cities.
  • Much of this increase was due to large numbers of immigrants settling in the cities during the late 19th century.
  • Many came to find jobs in the cities, transforming America into an industrial powerhouse.
  • This change prompted a new type of reform, one that was gained through legislation rather than persuasion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Think about the images you saw in the video segment showing living conditions in some American cities. Identify the positive and negative effects that such a sudden increase in the population might have had on the quality of life in American cities.
  2. How might the population shift from rural areas to cities change the political strategies in the government?
  3. What were some of the issues addressed by the Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Why did many people feel reform had to be accomplished through law instead of social persuasion?

Segment 3: The Time Is Now

Background: By the first decade of the 20th century, the Anti-Saloon League had gained momentum and was able to persuade several state legislatures to ban alcohol. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, creating the federal income tax and reducing the government’s dependency on revenue from the tax on alcohol. The Anti-Saloon League took its message to Washington, D.C., in the first public demonstration held in the nation’s capital, asking for a constitutional amendment banning alcohol.

Key Points:

  • Before World War I, President Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party was split on the issue of alcohol and Prohibition, but two of his more prominent cabinet members took Prohibition stands.
  • After the United States declared war on Germany, the Wilson administration’s anti- German propaganda set off a wave of hysteria against Germany and anything German.
  • The anti-German sentiment boosted the Anti-Saloon League’s efforts to win adoption of a Prohibition amendment.
  • The German brewery-saloon industry was considered a threat to national security, as many people linked beer to treason.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why was there a great effort on the part of the American government to build up hatred for all things German during World War I? What are the possible costs and benefits of such an effort?
  2. How was the Anti-Saloon league able to depict the brewing of beer and the lobbying group that supported it as possibly dangerous to the war effort?
  3. How was the Anti-Saloon League able to get legislation passed to curb the production of beer? How was the success of this effort an indication that a Prohibition amendment could be passed?