Welcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27, I’m rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.
“…the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”
This is from the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, otherwise known as Prohibition. It went into effect in January of 1920, effectively heralding in the Roaring Twenties.
The reasons Prohibition came about are complicated, and I can’t really do all of them justice in a blog post, but here’s a quick summary: In the late nineteenth century, alcoholism was seen by some as a moral failing, and though alcohol has always been an integral part of American culture, organizations like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began campaigning to dry up the United States. In New York City in the 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt, as police commissioner, began to enforce the tremendously unpopular Sunday Laws, which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays in an effort to clean up crime in the city. But there were other factors contributing to the movement toward Prohibition as well. In part, the movement was xenophobic, a reaction to the immigrant cultures arriving in the U.S. in the latter half of the nineteenth century, primarily cultures in which alcohol played a key part (Irish and German mostly, but Italian and Jewish as well). In part, Prohibition was also an offshoot of the women’s movement. It was common in some pockets of society for a man to go to the local saloon after work, blow half his paycheck on booze, and then go home and beat his wife or otherwise mistreat and neglect his family. Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement took up the cause of temperance as well to prevent this very thing from happening. Some advocates of the suffrage movement got involved in the temperance movement as a kind of compromise position when full suffrage seemed unlikely.
In theory, after January 1920, alcohol was no longer available, though there were legal exceptions, among them sacramental wine and alcohol used for medicinal purposes. More to the point, though, the new law, known as the Volstead Act, did not provide for Federal enforcement of Prohibition. Instead, the Federal government was mostly reliant on local governments to enforce the new ban. Prohibition agents were hired, but most of them were poorly trained.
All eyes were on America’s biggest city, New York, as enforcement went into effect. Many of the poorly trained agents accepted bribes to look the other way as speakeasies popped up all over the city. In 1920, half the new agents had to be fired. With so much media attention focused on New York, the city was forced to divert police resources to enforcement, but many of the cops accepted bribes as well. (Hence Officer Hardy in Such a Dance, an old cop who happily accepts bribes not to raid and shut down the Times Square speakeasies.) Ultimately, Prohibition in New York City was a spectacular failure.
The unintended consequence, of course, was the rise of organized crime. Many of the Mob bosses you know from popular culture got their start as part of the gangs running rampant in lower Manhattan around the turn of the century, but trafficking alcohol turned out to be the sort of lucrative business venture that encouraged them to organize. Brooklyn’s own Al Capone made a killing (har har) in Chicago. (I want to talk about the Mob more in a future post, but for now, the relevant piece of information is that Prohibition essentially made the U.S. mafia.)
Drinking actually increased across the country during Prohibition, with speakeasies quickly replacing saloons as nightly gathering spots. Arrests for Volstead Act violations tied up the courts and jails, preventing them from dealing with larger crimes. Mob-related activity and other crime went up in the era. Prohibition was a failure, and an increasingly unpopular one at that. It was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment.
For further reading, I recommend Daniel Okrent’s excellent book on Prohibition, Last Call.