Set to commence on January 17, 1920, the great social experiment of Prohibition had already begun with a “dry run” for Americans adapting to the restriction of alcohol inspired by World War I. That was followed by a full year anticipating the event through the process of Constitutional amendment and the passage of enforcement legislation known as the Volstead Act. By the time the nearly fourteen years of Prohibition ended in late 1933, the country and New York City had experienced social upheaval marked by radical change in fashion and liberated roles for women, the popularity of jazz, and—alongside continued racial prejudice—integration in Harlem nightclubs. Prohibition’s role in the causes and effects of these major social shifts is still debated one hundred years later.
Cartoonist and cover artist John Held, Jr. links his prototypical “flapper” to the title of a traditional English sailor’s song. He routinely depicted the sophisticated or “smart” culture during Prohibition where middle class women came to frequent bars for the first time. Drinking and its sense of the forbidden became part of a flapper’s rebellion against traditional and restrictive roles.
Females were placed in the forefront of this 1921 parade, an early attempt to organize militant opposition to Prohibition. Women would become prominent opponents of the dry laws as hosts of nightclubs, journalists covering the nightlife in the newly published New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and as activists and lobbyists. In a reversal of political roles, women, such as socialite Pauline Morton Sabin, came to be the most active of repeal advocates by the end of the decade.
Even as they lacked the right to vote, women were conspicuous proponents of temperance and local prohibition laws in the nineteenth century. The Woman’s National Committee for Law Enforcement, founded in 1922, continued in that vein, maintaining that with resolve and proper enforcement, Prohibition could accomplish its worthy goals. Although dismissed as anti-immigrant and anti-urban, this largely Protestant organization could claim justifiably that alcohol consumption was greatly reduced, as were its ill effects on health and social welfare.
Published just at the close of the American Revolution, patriot and physician Benjamin Rush’s pamphlet attack on hard liquor challenged the drinking habits of Americans. It was soon supplemented by this “Moral and Physical Thermometer” identifying alcoholism as a progressive disease and social ill. Its arguments would fuel a powerful temperance movement in nineteenth-century America that advocated for moral suasion and state legislation and eventually provided the backdrop for the ambitious agenda of national Prohibition.
The Music Publishers Association urged respect for the new Prohibition laws, and some artists, such as Albert Von Tilzer—composer of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—responded with this salute to family values. For the most part, however, the lyricists of Tin Pan Alley could not resist an amused and cynical approach:
I’ve a secret hidden there
I’ll guard it with my life,
There’s only one mistake I made
I told it to my wife.
Now everybody wants a key to my cellar . . .”
As this liquor label and New York physician’s 1921 application suggest, the medical use of spirits was permitted during Prohibition. Whiskey was still viewed as curative and palliative in the medical practice of the day, but the intense pressure on doctors to prescribe, and the rapid growth of pharmacies during the decade, clearly suggest other, forbidden uses.
The Volstead Act outlawed the manufacture, transportation, and sale, but not the possession, of liquor. As a result, wealthier New Yorkers with both the means and the space to stockpile early did so. One such practitioner was the renowned architect Cass Gilbert. For his legal protection, he wrote this memorandum of a telephone conversation with the Federal Prohibition office about the “hypothetical case” of one who was changing residences in 1925 and wanted to transport a personal supply of wines and spirits in and out of storage.
The terms “bootlegger” and “speakeasy” predate the 1920s, but they came to define the Prohibition era in New York City. The city had more than 30,000 speakeasies that ranged from extravagant nightclubs to dives and “clip joints” that lured and robbed visitors. Most survived on protection graft that went to mobsters who claimed to act as middlemen. Meanwhile, cards, tokens, and passwords were issued to regular patrons. The Town Casino Club was known for the electric fountain behind the bar, and the Stork Club survived until 1965.
Some speakeasies were built into brownstones that had fallen out of fashion by the 1920s, while others eventually found their way to the tonier neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan. “Jack and Charlie’s” at 21 West 52nd Street soon became known and survived simply as “21.” It responded to raids with a complicated trick bar that dropped bottles down a chute; there, a basement pile of stones smashed the bottles and mounds of sand absorbed the liquor.
The selection of waters, tonics, and “near beers” listed at the bottom of this menu was common fare during Prohibition. Patrons also mixed ginger ales and juices into the bad-tasting illicit alcohol they surreptitiously carried into restaurants and clubs. Eager not to risk closure, hotels and higher class restaurants resorted to this standard warning, imploring diners to avoid the “embarrassing situation” of asking for empty glasses, ice, and other drinking “accessories.”
These flyers, at once brazen and prosaic, date from late in the Prohibition period. They demonstrate the seemingly ordinary way New Yorkers were exposed to bootleg liquor in “cordial shops” and storefront offices. Home delivery was common through the use of frequently altered telephone numbers.
Prohibition had become steadily unpopular in urban areas by the 1930s, and the onset of the Great Depression changed priorities. The adoption of the Twenty-first Amendment putting an end to the national ban on alcohol on December 5, 1933 was thus much anticipated. Public drinking began immediately that evening, but the Waldorf-Astoria waited until the next night for famed maître d’hôtel Oscar of the Waldorf to plan this invitation-only “Repeal Dinner.”
[The sign board across the top of this post comes from the Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera, PR-031, Series 2, Box 124, New-York Historical Society.]
This exhibition, curated by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian, is on view through June, 2019 in the library’s display cases, which were generously provided by funding from the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.