The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post Five – Prohibition

No More Booze! (Really?) Prohibition in the 1920s

In SIRENS, Jo Winter’s father is a bootlegger, a middle man for the sale of alcohol. That gets him into big trouble because it means he’s doing something illegal in 1925; and worse yet, he may be hiding something from the gangster he sells to, Danny Connor. Pops’ bad decisions pull Jo and her brother Teddy into the deadly world of gangsters and 1920s violence.

making moonshine during Prohibition

making moonshine during Prohibition

When in January 1920 the 18th Amendment to the Constitution took effect it prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol in America. (Not the purchase or consumption of alcohol – that’s important to note.) Prohibition supporters claimed it would create a society that was sober and therefore patriotic and prosperous. No more corruption, lazy workers, or violence.

Yeah, right.

Instead, almost overnight as alcohol became illegal, people searched for new and sometimes dangerous ways to find a drink. The romantic allure of something forbidden gave rise to a glamorous depiction of mixed drinks and drinking in general.

speakeasy with swellsAl Capone and other gangsters became efficient at transporting alcohol, which resulted in turf wars and deadly raids. Home distillers brewed up alcohol – dubbed “moonshine” – from almost anything, including toxic substances. And “speakeasies” – so called because you were encouraged to speak softly – sprang up all over the country.

Some clever entrepreneurs created bars known as “blind pigs,” where a patron could pay to view a blind pig (what a thrill!) and, oh, by the way, consume a “free” alcoholic beverage (remember, it wasn’t illegal to purchase or consume, just to sell.) Others created fancy jazz joints behind closed doors where admission was only gained by knowing the correct password.


Lois Long

Prohibition of alcohol made it romantic, glamorous, and exciting to drink. Some speakeasies were elaborate constructions. One New York speakeasy went by the name “County Fair,” and was pretty much a set decoration: it was made to look like a fairground, complete with a white picket fence and grandstand boxes for booths.

The exploits of the flappers and the gents who frequented speakeasies were documented by a New Yorker columnist who went by the pseudonym “Lipstick,” and who made speakeasies and their patrons sound enthralling. Lipstick was actually the writer Lois Long, and she was good at Cotton Clubher undercover job because she was the quintessential flapper: tall and thin, bob-haired, attractive, and dressed for the job.

Corruption among police and other officials was rampant, mostly because their salaries were so low they were easily tempted by cash offered by the bootleggers. When they did bust a gin joint, they let the patrons go and gave the owners a slap on the wrist, and (after exacting a donation to the “Policeman’s Benefit Fund”) the place would be back in business the next night.Prohibition cops dumping liquor

One of the main things that made the 1920s the “Roaring” decade was Prohibition. One of the others was the emergence of the liberated young woman. Lois “Lipstick” Long was the epitome of the modern young woman who went to speakeasies and stood toe to toe with the men around her, drinking alcohol as much as they did and staying out all night. Would she have emerged without Prohibition? What do you think?

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 4. Flappers

New York City in 1925: Up All Night

In one scene in SIRENS Jo goes to a New York speakeasy. She can see that Melody is “up all night” most nights. So were most young people in the cities, which is one reason they were the Roaring Twenties. What was that all about?

They were the “Roaring Twenties.” It was the decade of “anything goes.” Young girls were nicknamed “flappers” and danced and partied all night long.1920s flappers

We carry these images of the 1920s because they are true. And New York City was a hotbed of the activity that led to these images – it was, from the title of a forgotten silent film of the decade, “the city that never sleeps.”

So many things contributed to the party-on atmosphere of the 1920s that a complete discussion would take a book (and if you’re curious, check out Anything Goes by Lucy Moore.) But several key contributing factors were Prohibition, the rise of the automobile, the birth of the movies, and a reckless, self-indulgent attitude cultivated in books and movies and adopted by the youth.

The prohibition of the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol by the 18th Amendment that became law in 1920 had the opposite of its intended affect. Rather than preventing people from drinking, it encouraged gangsters to step iflappersn to traffic in or “bootleg” alcohol. Prohibition also led to the use of “speakeasies” – underground pubs (often literally underground, in basements) where one could buy a drink. Police officers corrupted by easy money looked the other way when alcohol was involved, and backyard distillers made their own “moonshine.”

Because alcohol was illegal and one had to be “in the know” to find it, the illicit activity was exciting and encouraged daring young people to seek out venues that proliferated throughout New York. One society column, penned by the anonymous “Lipstick” (Lois Long), detailed the shenanigans of all-night parties, speakeasy busts, and arrests. Few took Prohibition seriously, which led to a devil-may-care attitude.

And then there was the automobile. For the first time, a young man and young woman could drive away from parental supervision and spend plenty of tithe-great-gatsbyme alone. This led to a lot of…well, back then it was called “canoodling.” Old-fashioned Victorian attitudes toward sex gave way to uninhibited behavior, and “petting parties” were common.

Popular books and movies only reinforced these attitudes. From The Great Gatsby to The Sheik the code was “eat, drink, and be merry;” “live without regret.” Flappers adopted an almost uniform clothing style that not only set them apart from their elders but allowed freedom of movement and exposed a good deal of skin, and actresses like Clara Bow and Colleen Moore epitomized the flapper in a string of movie successes and in their off-screen lives.

flapperMany other things contributed directly or indirectly to the party-on atmosphere of New York in the 1920s: jazz music, rampant political corruption, increase in the divorce rate, the rise of advertising, the development of cosmetics. Even The Great War and the flu pandemic of 1919 had an impact on this devil-may-care behavior. Regardless of cause, the effect was one of abandoned fun.

And New York City was the epicenter of fun in the Roaring Twenties, all night long.

Check out my short video for more images:

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 3. The Women’s Fashion Revolution

A group of high school flapper girls pose for formal portrait, ca. 1925

Fashion really took a turn in the 1920s, due in part to the influence of Coco Chanel... Kicking Up Their Heels: The Women’s Fashion Revolution of the 1920s Flappers were defined in part by how they looked. When in SIRENS Jo meets her cousin … [Continue reading]

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know, Post 2

6 Suffragist Picketing(4)

The second in my series of posts about the 1920s... When Women Got the Vote and Left Their Corsets Behind Both Jo and Lou in SIRENS are conflicted about their roles as women. The men in their lives don’t value them as individuals. In fact, … [Continue reading]