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The Twenties are still Roaring

From international relations to art and culture, the 1920s made the world of today

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Today marks one of the least celebrated anniversaries in American history, the 100th anniversary of the day when the 18th amendment “to prohibit intoxicating beverages” came into effect. That day, after many years of campaigning, Prohibition had arrived.

Some sensible folks were prepared: the Yale Club laid on enough booze for its members to last 14 years. For normal people who wanted a drink, however, it meant liquor that made you go blind, mobsters and non-stop Charleston competitions. Pretty much everyone agrees that “the Great Experiment” was a total failure. Yet if you actually look at what its architects wanted, it’s not so clear-cut — because Prohibition wasn’t really about banning alcohol, it was a feminist crusade.

The roots of the temperance movement in both Britain and America lie in the campaign against slavery. Once this had been achieved, rather earlier in Britain (1807 & 1833) than America (1865), all that energy needed a new outlet, someone else needed saving. The new goal was to emancipate the working classes from the tyranny of the saloon bar where the men would spend all their wages before coming home and beating the wife and children. Spirits were cheap and Americans drank an astonishing amount. In his book The Alcoholic Republic WJ Rorabaugh estimates that the average American in the early 19th century drank a pint of spirits per day!

Mostly female-led and female-dominated organisations like the American Temperance Society, Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League fought the good fight, and fought it well. Women didn’t have the vote, but they could exercise their political muscles in other ways. Many of the techniques of the anti-slavery movement were used: religiously-infused public meetings, mass petitions, articles placed in the press and striking prints depicting the misery of alcohol. In Britain there was The Bottle by the caricaturist George Cruikshank showing the alcoholic decline of a family over eight prints. In America lurid novels like Ten Nights in a Bar-room and What I Saw There by Timothy Shay Arthur made the same argument.

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Some temperance campaigners were more forceful, among them Carrie A. Nation who used to smash up bars with a hatchet. “Hatchetation” she called it. She was born Carrie Amelia Moore but got her stirring name from marrying a Methodist preacher named David Nation. As you can imagine her antics made her very unpopular with America’s saloon keepers; on a visit to Britain, she was almost lynched by a crowd of 3,000 Glaswegians.

These organisations were not campaigning to ban alcohol per se. In his stimulating book, A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth writes: “They weren’t really against alcohol. They were against a pattern of behaviour associated with men in saloons. They absolutely did not care if a New York novelist had a glass of claret with her Sunday lunch.”

You will be familiar with this argument from people who are intensely relaxed about minimum alcohol pricing because it won’t affect their Sauvignon Blanc habit or junk food bans while quite happy to eat lardo on sourdough. People went along with the dry movement because they thought that it was aimed at drinkers of hard liquor in saloons, and, it has to be said, the Irish. Yes, like “Whacking Day” in The Simpsons, there was a large anti-Irish element to the Prohibition movement.

Prohibitionists were largely Protestants who didn’t like the influx of whiskey-drinking Irish Catholics and wine-drinking Italians. There was even a whole school of theology like Reverend William Patton’s 1871 work Bible Wines “proving” that Jesus didn’t actually drink wine. It was also town versus country, and there are parallels with Trump here, with your God-fearing rural folk being in favour of Prohibition against city dwellers, often Catholic or Jewish, religions with no traditions of abstinence.

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America was divided into wets and drys, allegiances that cut across party lines. Both Republicans and Democrats had strong dry factions, and as drys tended to vote on the single issue, unlike wets, it was politically expedient to pander to them. Temperance was becoming a powerful political force, and before the First World War, 13 states had already gone dry with 31 others having dry counties. There are still dry counties today, including the one where Jack Daniel’s is made.

In America, the people who held things in balance were the Germans, who dominated brewing and provided most of the political capital against the temperance movement. But after the United States entered the First World War they lost their influence, since who would want to be associated with those nasty war-mongering Germans? With the Germans out of action, Prohibition became a shoo-in. But when it was finally passed in 1919, all those Americans who thought it wouldn’t apply to them were in for a rude shock. The Volstead Act, which was largely dictated by the Anti Saloon League, applied to anything over 0.5% ABV.

Prohibition lasted until 1933, and, it was a success in terms of the original aims of the temperance movement. The male-dominated saloon was no more. The new bars that emerged allowed women. This is one of the ironies of Prohibition, which curbed, to some extent, male drinking, but made it more socially acceptable for women to visit bars as they had been welcome in speakeasies. Drinking became an equal opportunities past-time. What could be more feminist than that? Yet many Americans stayed dry, and by 1939, 42% of the country still didn’t drink.

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It had some positive unexpected side effects. Many Americans discovered a love for Italian food when they realised that immigrant restaurants had access to wine either smuggled in or home-made from Californian grapes. White people mixed with black people in cities like New York where they picked up a love of jazz music. A newspaper columnist wrote: “the night clubs have done more to improve race relations than the churches, white and black, have done in ten decades.”

The Catholic Church became unusually popular as it was exempt from Prohibition for altar wine. Meanwhile, the rest of the world benefitted as bartenders went to London and Paris, spreading cocktails and jazz music. Hotels all over the world opened American bars to cater to tourists escaping Prohibition. It was boom time for Scotch whisky, since Scottish producers had no qualms, unlike their Irish cousins, of shipping vast quantities of booze to the Bahamas or Canada to be smuggled into the US.

Of course, it wasn’t all cocktails and Duke Ellington. American society at all levels was corrupted by making such a staple illegal and putting it in the hands of organised crime. Prohibition was the making of the American Mafia. And surely the curbing of America’s hard liquor habit could have been achieved with more moderate legislation?

It was also a disaster for the American drinks industry, one which it has not fully recovered from. Hundreds of regional brewers closed to be replaced after repeal by a few giants, Californian wine only took off again in the 1970s, and the American whiskey business, once the biggest in the world, was destroyed. Selling alcohol is still incredibly bureaucratic. Only now with the emergence craft beer and the rediscovery of classics like rye whiskey, is the industry returning to its pre-First World War vibrancy. One hundred years after the Volstead Act was instituted, Americans are still feeling the effects of Prohibition.