Prohibition Era November 19 2014


It is easy to forget in America today, where alcohol flows so freely, that Prohibition - the so called noble experiment - lasted full 14 years, and had actually started even earlier, with the wartime restrictions dating back to 1917. 

The 18th Amendment, passed by Congress in December 1917 and ratified by the majority of the states in January 1919, was the outgrowth of years of temperance crusading in America. While there was always a moralistic tone to the temperance movement, there was also a genuine desire to improve public health. In no era did Americans drink as much as they did in the late 19th century. Alcohol was cheap, it was served at saloons that acted as de facto community centers, and it was considered by most immigrant New Yorkers to be safer than water. In Tompkins Square Park, in the middle of Kleindeutschland Henry Congswell, a crusading dentist from San Francisco, set up a temperance fountain in 1888 to provide clean drinking water and convince the Germans there to stop drinking beer - and stop feeding it to their children. Similarly, a working dairy was planned for Center Park directly next to the German children's playground (called the Kinderberg), where children would be provided with fee, uncontaminated milk. ( The rustic Dairy was built, but no cows were ever brought tot eh park and it ended up as a restaurant. Today its the Park's gift shop and visitors center.) 


By 1919, enough Americans were convinced of the perils of drinking the give Prohibition a try. However, as soon as the law took effect in 1920, it was thwarted at every turn, and as the Roaring Twenties progressed, the speakeasy culture that flowered in New York completely altered its cultural landscape. Many people who had never been drinking started consuming because it was socially expected. Women, who in victorian America would never have entered a men's club, now found themselves on more equal social footing in the relaxing atmosphere of the speakeasies. And in Harlem, where whites went in droves to hear jazz and to give themselves a sense that they were doing something exotic and transgressive, white and black people drank together as equals for the first time.

Soon, places to drink fell into two categories: cabarets, which offered legitimate entreatment and served alcohol on the sly, and speakeasies, which, because they only served alcohol, were hidden from the view. Though linguist argue about the origins of the term, "speakeasy" likely comes from 19th century London, where "speak softly shops" were established to get around Victorian liquor licensing laws. 

In New York, speakeasies multiplied rapidly; every time the state or federal government tried to step up enforcement, more illegal bars opened. Within a decade the number of places to drink has had doubled, from 16,000 before the passage of the Volstead Act 32,000. Some were in the cellars of old homes; some were former bars that masked themselves as legitimate businesses while still serving alcohol.   


To relive this times see here