The Roaring Twenties In USA History Essay
A period in American history in which people broke boundaries, went against tradition, and simply went to far. A new life style developed during this period, with money, jazz, gangster wars, the flapper, loose morals, speakeasies, and the abundance of liquor. The decade has also been entitled the New Era, the New Freedom, the Golden Era, the Lawless Decade, and the Jazz Age. The 1920s were given these names due to the lax view of the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act. The laws were literally ignored for the 13 years they were in effect. Prohibition was meant to cause nationwide revolution in morality. In actuality, it did the direct opposite. Prohibition and the general disregard that followed it has become a distinguished symbol of the Roaring Tweinties. In fact, the prohibition law itself was an extremely significant factor in effecting the culture of the 1920s, and the carefree lifestyle and feeling of rebellion and invincibility are also connections to the prohibition that took place.
The change in American lifestyle began even before the prohibition law was passed. Several months prior to January 16, 1920 (when the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act were scheduled to go into effect), there were warehouse robberies, cellar stock ups of liquor, and burglaries of these very cellars. Some called it the beginning of the age of hijacking as well (Chidsey 73). However, the law didn’t affect alcohol consumption or the brewing and distilling companies.
In the early 1900s, when Prohibition was imminent, brewers supported the saloonkeepers as much as customers did. A beer company would finance a saloonkeeper if he agreed to only sell his sponsor’s beer. Problems arose, though, when other saloons that were supported by other beer companies opened in the same area. Those saloons began to stay open on Sundays and after closing hours to make more money. If the first saloonkeeper wanted to stay open, he would be forced to pay off the police. His alternative if he didn’t stay open late: he would go out of business (Chidsey 59-60). During Prohibition, the same ideology applied to the speakeasies.
Usually Americans had always been viewed as a law-abiding people (Chidsey 79). This changed with the advent of Prohibition. For example, speakeasies were illegal saloons which caused crime, and a newfound immorality in people. As these speakeasies competed for business, they began to provide prostitutes and drugs. They served minors if the minors had money to spend, and they had also become places of gambling. This was new corrupt thinking in American society, and it contributed to the free-willed behavior of the Roaring Twenties.
Bootleggers were also common during Prohibition. These criminals seemed like normal men, because they had the idea that lawbreaking, in this case, was okay to do (Chidsey 80). In a short amount of time, the rest of the nation adopted the same mindset. They found breaking the Prohibition law (and inevitably other laws) to be painless, exciting, and comfortable. People, including women and teenagers, began visiting their local neighborhood speakeasy on a regular basis. The population of cities grew more than 1.5% a year due to “country boys and girls leaving the farm for the excitement of Sodom”, implying premarital affairs (Chidsey 63).
Women had been barred from drinking places prior to Prohibiotn, so they went without encouragement to the speakeasies. They were curious, and as eager to break the law and try out their new found freedom as the men were. Prohibition aided in the advancement of women’s rights in two ways. First, the drys (members of the Prohibition movement or party) tried to help women in their quest for suffrage because they believed that women would vote overwhelmingly dry (Perrett 177). Secondly, speakeasies welcomed women, like anyone else who had money to spend.
With this new freedom came the flapper and her unrestricted morals. Women began to drink and participate in wild and spontaneous behavior. Their appearance also changed: they wore silk in place of cotton, rolled their hose, wore short skirts (similar to T-shirts turned into miniskirts), bobbed their hair, went bra-less (and even taping their breasts down to appear more “boyish”), and applied more makeup. Due to their freedom in drinking, with a little encouragement for Frued’s writing, they loosened their sex morals as well. Petting parties were not uncommon. A couple described in a speakeasy: “The sheik [young man] carried a hip flask, his sheba [girlfriend] a cigarette holder…” (Perrett 152).
Women who came into the speakeasies with their boyfriend or husband were not the only girls that populated the bars. There were also less respectable women who sometimes rented rooms attached to the speakeasies and advertised their sales inside the saloons. The prostitution in speakeasies sometimes was condemned more than the selling and buying of liquor (Sann 195). Speakeasies purposely had girls for the use of their lonesome customers. They were knows as “cigaret” (sic) girls or checkroom girls.
Not only the women and the youth were defying Prohibition with their rebellious ways, but middle-aged and reputable people were also taking part in breaking the law. On November 22, 1926, Time published a formula for making gin that was decent tasting (Perrett 175). Even Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the wife of the speaker of the House of Representatives admitted: “We had a small still…” (Perrett 175). Also, the majority of middle-class homes offered their guests alcoholic apple-jack. In addition, Fiorella LaGuardia, a member of the House of Representatives, held a press confrence in the summer of 1926 to show how to make satisfactory beer safely and with four percent alcohol (Perrett 175). The fact that polica disobeyed Prohibition and “overlooked” speakeasies should not be forgotten either.
As the anti-Prohibition public ignored Prohibition, they also abandoned traditional churches that supported temperance or the Anti-Saloon League. Throughout the twenties there was a steady decline in religious belief. Individual gifts to religious charities dropped by 40 percent. Churches continually reported the decline in attendance (Perrett 205). Ernest Gordon said in his 1943 book The Wrecking of the Eighteenth Amendment that the anti-clerical image of the ministry found in the twenties, was due to their “wet” interests: “The Protestant ministers have for years been the ones to clean up after the distillers and brewers. They have helped the alcohol-sick at their own doors and in little missions,” and for this they have suffered “an attack… unparalleled in American history, in movie and theatre, in novel and magazine and newspaper” (Carter 94-5). United Mine Workers President Tom L. Lewis said, “There is no easier way possible to make the unfortunate man, or the oppressed worker, content with his misfortune than a couple of glasses of beer” (Carter 90). Also, “if the workingman in America of that period had largely left the church, as the statistics indicate that he had, then perhaps religion had been displaced by a more powerful- or at least more congenial- opiate for the people!” (Carter 90). It was true that religious faith became increasingly out of place in the new lifestyle and behaviors of the American people.
The new vivacity of the twenties was constantly being fueled by the illegal booze, which was acquired in many ways. Some prescription alcohol was stolen out of government warehouses to satisfy the need, although near the end of Prohibition, it was poisoned to prevent such occurrences. Many people made their own “bath tub gin” in glass gallon jugs or bottles, filled with one-third grain alcohol (bought from the neighborhood bootlegger), a few drops of glycerin and jumper juice, and bathtub tap water to fill the rest of the bottle. Viniculturists were also doing business with their grapes. Wine grapes were selling at twenty dollars a ton at the beginning of the Prohibition Era and within the next six years that price jumped to $175 a ton, and demand was steadily increasing (Chidsey 82). However, the bootlegger was by far the chief source of booze in the Prohibition years.
Organized crime didn’t begin with Prohibition; it became much better organized (Perrett 401). When Prohibition arrived, hundreds of mobsters went straight into bootlegging. They made millions on illegal traffic in liquor. Dion O’ Banion was a classic gangster of the times. He controlled liquor sales on the north side of Chicago. His rival was the Syndicate, headed by Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, who took the profits from liquor in all parts and suburbs of Chicago except the north side. Members of the Syndicate later killed Dion O’ Banion. Gangster killings were the result of the beer and whiskey feuds of the twenties. Murder rose dramatically in some areas in the twenties, but this was not entirely due to gangs. Gang wars such as these were ever present during Prohibition, especially within cities. The institution of gangsterism had been brought about by Prohibition (Chidsey 119). Without Prohibition, the bootleggers would not have come into existence, and nearly every gangster started with the illegal sale of beer and liquor (Chidsey 119). To some extent, the public didn’t protest against gangs, becahse they knew “that the modern crime gangs provided quality booze” (Chidsey 402).
The speakeasies that these gangsters controlled eventually evolved into the nightclubs that were also prime symbols of the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition ended the old-fashioned cabarets. The nightclubs replaced them, with small tables, hard liquor instead of wine, loud entertainment, and a tiny dance floor. A new form of prostitution also helped the boom of nightclubs. This was usually attributed to Prohibition (Perrett 154). The girls were forced of the streets and out of the brothels, but they prospered in the new nightclubs where they were now known as “hostesses” (Perrett 154). Nightclubs made their money by exclusiveness. The more aloof the nightclub, the higher the admission price, and the freer the spending inside (Perrett 176). This is one way that the Americans began spending more money, a characteristic of life in the twenties.
Prohibition also caused a class separation in the twenties. The upper class had supported Prohibition in order to save the workers by denying them drink. They didn’t intend for it to apply to them as well. Also, only the rich were able to stock up on liquor for the dry days. During Prohibition, illegal alcohol grew very expensive, and was sometimes out of the working man’s price range (Perrett 177). In this way, productivity increased during Prohibition, because it had “cut down sharply on absenteeism, especially on Monday mornings” (Perrett 337-8). This caused workers to turn to other, safer amusements besides drinking, like the radio, movies, and automobiles (Perrett 178). All of these amusements increased extremely rapidly during the Prohibition Era.
The Anti-Saloon League foresaw a much better America without liquor. However, both wets and drys agreed that Prohibition did not work. Prohibtion shaped the Roaring Twenties in numerous ways. It promoted the rebellion because people thought that it violated their rights to live by their own standards and do whatever they wanted to (and drink whenever they wanted to). By breaking the law frequently, American people developed lax morals, and felt that they were above and beyond the law. Women felt more freedom because they were also accepted in illegal bars. Jazz was created in the nightclubs that developed from the speakeasies. People also spent more money in these nightclubs. Gangsters and their beer wars developed as a result of Prohibition.
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