How Illegal Alcohol Made the Roaring Twenties Roar

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition.  Library of Congress
New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition. Library of Congress | Source

Everybody knows the “Roaring Twenties” as a time of great social fun. Jazz music became popular, clubs and parties gathered hundreds of people on a regular basis, cars became the preferred method of transportation, flapper dresses gave women a new beautiful style, movie stars were hailed as heroes, and the real heroes were returning from World War I. Overall, the 1920s was a time of great economic and social growth until the Great Depression in 1929. The question, however, is what caused this great boom, what caused the twenties to “roar”? The answer is actually very simple. Alcohol, made illegal by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, was the source of culture and prosperity in the 1920s in the United States.

The Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment began the prohibition of alcohol, but left many loopholes. Since the late 19th century, numerous groups in the United States began to call for the prohibition of alcohol. Groups such as the Anti-Saloon League were convinced by religious and domestic reasoning that alcohol was the cause for many immoral acts, ranging from disorderly conduct to domestic violence against women[1]. These groups pushed the idea of prohibition until the government finally enacted legislation against alcohol. The Volstead Act was enacted on October 28, 1919, and it called to “prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes…and promote its use in scientific research”[2]. The act later goes on to state that alcohol under “one half of one percent proof” is to be prohibited until the conclusion of World War I and any troop mobilization, which would be determined by a date set by the President. The problem with this act is that it states that alcohol is only prohibited during the war and troop mobilization, which only took a few months after the conclusion of World War I. Although the war ended in 1918 the President never actually set a date which would end troop movement, thus ending the Volstead Act, the possibility was still present. Also the act states that alcohol is prohibited for “beverage purposes”, which would still allow someone to basically do anything with alcohol that isn’t directly drinking it, such as cooking with alcohol. Lastly for the Volstead Act, it states that the use of alcohol in scientific research should be promoted, which could allow people to say that they are using it medically or scientifically. Many bootleggers and distillers discovered this loophole and set up pharmacies to sell their liquor, causing the number of pharmacists in New York tripled during prohibition.[3] The next piece of legislation to limit alcohol would be the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and set into effect on January 16, 1920. The Amendment caused “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States… [to be] prohibited”[4]. This Amendment only states that making, selling, and transporting alcohol is illegal, but it says nothing about consumption, which either a loophole almost everybody at the time found, or they all just drank, not knowing that technically the 18th Amendment has no power to stop. Eventually, prohibition would be repealed by the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933.

The desire for alcohol caused many to distill and transport their own liquor, which would lead to car races, and eventually NASCAR. Before people could enjoy their alcoholic beverage, they obviously needed to get alcohol. With the manufacturing, sale, and transportation now illegal, alcohol initially became hard to obtain. Overall alcohol consumption dropped 30 percent, which means, however, that 70 percent of drinkers were still able to receive their drinks, and hard liquor consumption dropped 50 percent.[5] However, with the desire to get buzzed, many people still wanted their liquor. Many people already knew how to distil their own liquor, but many also bought hardware and looked up instructions on distilling from the public library, which were distributed earlier by the Department of Agriculture.[6] People began distilling corn, which lead to corn liquor also known as moonshine. Once distilled they needed to get their product to a buyer, so they either moved it themselves or hired people, “bootleggers” to move it for them. This process became known as “bootlegging”. In order to avoid detection by authorities, bootleggers made their cars look normal, but on the inside they installed all the newest technology to outrun the law. They installed heavy shocks and springs to absorb the rough terrain, especially in the Application Mountains where moonshining was most popular, and also to prevent damage to the glass mason jars which held the moonshine and prevent the car from sagging. Finally they installed the newest and fastest engines which would give them an enormous speed advantage over the police. These new “stock” cars gave people a new form of entertainment, car races. Also people would begin modifying their own stock cars and racing them, which would eventually lead to the creation of NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, in 1947 where some of the first divers were actually bootleggers.[7]


A bootlegger's wrecked car after a high speed chase with authorities. 22 January 1922
A bootlegger's wrecked car after a high speed chase with authorities. 22 January 1922 | Source

After the alcohol was transported by bootleggers, it arrived at illegal clubs and bars, known as speakeasies, which quickly became the center for American social life. Speakeasies were a hidden club or bar that required a person to tell the doorman a password to allow them to gain entrance. Inside the speakeasies they also used secret code names to order their drinks. This process of secret passwords and codes required the person to “speak easy” as to not draw any attention to themselves, thus the name. Aside from bootleggers, people would try to smuggle their own alcohol in hipflasks, cut out books, water bottles, hoses, and many more creative ways, such as draining egg shells and filling them with liquor.[8] The hip flasks became very popular among women who were increasingly welcome in the new clubs, thus the invention of the flapper dress. The flapper dress was a short cut in the front which extended downward to the back. The dress covered the woman’s thigh, which is where she would strap on a flask to secretly carry her liquor.[9] The last and probably the biggest reason that speakeasies and clubs became the center of American social life and culture, was the introduction of jazz music. While people would drink their illegal drinks, they would want some kind of entertainment to go with it. The clubs quickly began integrating dance floors with live bands to spice things up. This trend quickly became enormously popular as people would flock to clubs to get a drink and dance to the newest form of music known as jazz. By 1925 there were over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone, and thus the Jazz Age was born. Women would dance the tango and the new “Charleston” and men would be lectured to not date the new rebels.[10] This new wave of illegal drinking and dancing to jazz would become the newest form of counter culture, which quickly became the majority of culture in the United States in the 1920s.

Lastly, the organized crime of the 1920s gave the era a very loud and literal “roar”. Legally enforcing prohibition would prove to be nearly impossible as the law was pretty tricky to enforce since it had to do with individual’s pastimes, many of which spent their drinking time in their own homes. Also, because alcohol was so popular it was hard to just stop, which is why many politicians and police officers either indulged in their own alcoholic beverages, or were even bribed to allow others to enjoy their beverages which led to great public distrust in law enforcement.[11] All this paved the perfect path for people to organize their gangs and mobs to profit around one highly desired and illegal item. These criminals quickly gained control of the illegal alcohol scene, from directing bootleggers to "protecting" and owning speakeasies. However, where there is money to be made there will naturally be competition. Rival gangs, mobs, and mafias fought to control the alcohol, which would lead to the 1920’s also being remembered as the beginning of a bloody era of organized crime. Most famously would be Al Capone and his St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where Capone and fellow gangster Jack McGurn organized a group of bootleggers to lead a group of rival gangsters into a garage to buy whiskey. Once inside McGrun’s men opened fire with two machine guns, killing all seven of the rival gangsters.[12] Also, the new invention of the Thompson sub-machine gun in 1918, widely known as the “Tommy Gun”, quickly became the weapon of choice for the gangsters as it provided tremendous firepower that not only out gunned their rivals, it also out gunned the police. The Tommy gun allowed gangsters to flourish as it gave the Roaring Twenties quite possibly the loudest, and most literal, roar as more than 1,300 gangs spread throughout Chicago alone. By 1926 there were more than 12,000 murders in the United States every year, which is tragic evidence that while illegal alcohol caused an enormous roar in popular culture, it also made a very deafening roar in a bloody fight to control the temporarily illegal substance.[13]


The grizzly aftermath of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. 14 February 1929
The grizzly aftermath of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. 14 February 1929 | Source

In conclusion, alcohol temporarily prohibited in the 1920’s made a great “roar” in society, from inspiring car races, night clubs, and gangsters. The “Roaring Twenties” is seen as a time of great social and cultural growth in the United States in the 1920s. This growth is directly related to the use of alcohol, which was illegal from 1919 to 1933. It began at the source of alcohol production as distillers and bootleggers would constantly modify and race their cars to be able to outrun the police. Once the bootleggers in their newly modified cars delivered their alcohol to clubs and speakeasies, people would flock to get a taste of the forbidden beverages. The desire for entertainment in the speakeasies would lead to the creation of jazz music, dance clubs, and new dresses known as flappers which allowed women to dance as well as conceal flasks. Lastly, due to the difficulty the police had with enforcing prohibition, gangsters and mafias rose to take over the illegal alcohol scene. From the roar of new car motors, to jazz and dance clubs, to the loudest roar from a gangster’s machine gun, alcohol was where the “Roaring Twenties” got its roar.

References

[1] Courtwright, David T.. "About-Face: Restriction and Prohibition." In Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. .

[2] "Act of October 28, 1919 [Volstead Act], 10/28/1919." Act of October 28, 1919 [Volstead Act], 10/28/1919. http://research.archives.gov/description/299827 (accessed April 21, 2014).

[3] Lerner, Michael. "Prohibition - Unintended Consequences." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/ (accessed April 27, 2014).

[4] National Archives and Records Administration. "The Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27." National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html#18 (accessed April 21, 2014).

[5] National Archives and Records Administration. "The Volstead Act." National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/volstead-act/ (accessed April 21, 2014 ).

[6] Lerner, Michael. "Prohibition - Unintended Consequences." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/ (accessed April 27, 2014).

[7] Collins, Cynthia. "NASCAR History, Moonshine and Prohibition." Guardian Liberty Voice. http://guardianlv.com/2013/09/nascar-moonshine-and-prohibition/ (accessed April 21, 2014).

[8] S., Jen , and Ceyana A. "History of the Roaring Twenties." : Prohibition and the Speakeasies. http://theroaringtwentieshistory.blogspot.com/2010/06/prohibition-and-speakeasies.html (accessed April 21, 2014).

[9] Anderson, Lisa . "Prohibition and Its Effects." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/roaring-twenties/essays/prohibition-and-its-effects (accessed April 21, 2014).

[10] "Riverwalk Jazz - Stanford University Libraries." Riverwalk Jazz - Stanford University Libraries. http://riverwalkjazz.stanford.edu/program/speakeasies-flappers-red-hot-jazz-music-prohibition (accessed April 21, 2014).

[11] Lerner, Michael. "Prohibition - Unintended Consequences." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/ (accessed April 27, 2014).

[12] A&E Networks Television. "Al Capone." Bio.com. http://www.biography.com/people/al-capone-9237536#st-valentines-day-massacre&awesm=~oCHsgcBXAm6fKv (accessed April 27, 2014).

[13] FBI. “The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-1938." FBI.gov. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/a-centennial-history/fbi_and_the_american_gangster_1924-1938 (accessed April 27, 2014).

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Comments 3 comments

paguilar profile image

paguilar 19 months ago

Nice. Don't forget about the trucks. Bootleggers used trucks too. Although the cars got the spotlight. Sometimes as decoys to draw attention away from the cars.


mactavers profile image

mactavers 19 months ago

Don't forget all those who drank illegal brews and were poisoned by them or went blind.


Chantelle Porter profile image

Chantelle Porter 15 months ago from Chicago

Great article. Well written. I really enjoyed it.

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