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1920s in the News



"Mother's in the kitchen, washing out the jugs,
Sister's in the pantry, bottling the suds.
Father's in the cellar, mixing up the hops,
Johnny's on the front porch, watching for the cops."

the temperance movement
Throughout the 1800s, many people considered the consumption of alcoholic beverages to be America's biggest problem. Refraining from alcohol was known as temperance.

After the Civil War, women took up the cause with a vengeance. This resulted in the formation of the National Prohibition Party in 1869, the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League in 1895. During the 1890s and 1900s, Carry Nation lectured against alcohol and smashed saloons with her cane and hatchet.

gearing up for national prohibition
A town was dry if it banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within its borders. Between the 1880s and the 1910s, the number of dry towns and counties grew steadily. In the 1900s and 1910s, some entire states voted to go dry. When the Anti-Saloon League was formed, they weren't opposed to social drinking, just to the noisy, rowdy saloon atmosphere. In 1913, they changed their tune and began to push for national prohibition. This would make alcoholic beverages illegal everywhere in the United States.

prohibition begins
In 1919, the anti-liquor forces were triumphant. The 18th Amendment and Volstead Act were passed, which made the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal across the entire nation. The new laws went into effect in 1920. This era became known as prohibition, and it lasted for 13 years, until the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933.

This era also had another name: the noble experiment. Absolutely no one could have predicted what happened next.

alcohol consumption increases
Instead of destroying the liquor trade, prohibition managed to increase it. Establishments that couldn't sell alcohol legally resorted to selling it secretly. By 1928, New York's 15,000 legal taverns had been replaced with 32,000 illegal speakeasies.

(Visit my Nightlife page to learn more about speakeasies!)

Citizens who normally obeyed the law found all sorts of clever ways to hide their liquor. In addition to hip flasks and leg flasks, they hid bottles inside fake books and poured their bathtub gin into hollowed-out canes. Ladies went to dances with flasks hidden inside teddy bears. Even America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, had a concealed bar at Pickfair, the home she shared with husband Douglas Fairbanks.

prohibition slang
*got to see someone about a dog --going out to buy bootleg whiskey
*needle beer --filling a syringe with pure alcohol and piercing the cork on a bottle of "near beer"
*whisper sister, ladylegger --female proprietor of a speakeasy
*white lightning --whiskey
*giggle water --alcoholic beverage
*hooch, bathtub gin --illegal moonshine
*cutting --making counterfeit liquor by mixing it with artificial ingredients to simulate the real thing
*set-up --ginger ale or soda served by speakeasies, to which customers added their own liquor from hip flasks

-----the liquor supply
Of course, someone had to supply us with all this liquor. Since legal breweries and distilleries couldn't manufacture it, the job was taken over by moonshiners and bootleggers. Moonshiners made the alcohol and bootleggers transported it.

A moonshiner's still could be found in a cellar, shed or barn, but usually it was built in the woods. Because it was fueled by a wood fire, the tell-tale smoke often gave the secret location away.

Much of our illegal alcohol came from north of the border. Although Canada was dry, they capitalized on U.S. prohibition by legalizing the production of alcohol for export only. 75 percent of all illegal liquor entering the country came into Detroit from Ontario.

Getting the alcohol to the customer was the job of the bootlegger. Every spare inch of a bootlegger's car was used to hide bottles: spare tires, false ceilings, double gas tanks and fake battery compartments. It wasn't unusual for a hearse to contain a coffin full of moonshine. Remote country roads that weren't patrolled by police became rum-running routes.

Rum row was located three miles offshore, in international waters. Here, rum boats sold booze and torpedos filled with bottles of scotch were fired to shore from surplus World War I submarines.

crime increases
Many people who had previously worked in the alcohol industry turned to moonshining to survive. Suddenly, brewers and distillers were criminals. Making and selling bathtub gin and hooch was very profitable, and organized crime flourished. Murders increased by 80 percent and the number of jailed criminals increased by 500 percent.

From time to time, government agents raided illegal stills and speakeasies. If they found so much as an empty whiskey bottle on the back stairs, the place was shut down. All liquor was confiscated and dumped into the sewers. Prohibition agents were heavily overworked, poorly paid and easily bribed. Despite their best efforts, 95 percent of the illegal liquor went undetected.

hospitality industry affected
Not all businesses resorted to the bootleg trade. Some taverns sold root beer, Moxie and various malted cereal drinks that were promoted as alcohol substitutes. Other taverns converted to luncheonettes and cafeterias. Hotels converted their posh, male-oriented bars into female-oriented tea rooms. Other places couldn't compete, and simply went out of business.


The Stock Market Crash

On the surface, the 1920s appeared to be a very prosperous and optimistic decade. It all came to a screeching halt in October 1929, when stock speculation, margin buying and many other economic factors caused the stock market to crash. Visit my Stock Market Crash page to read about it!

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