One hundred years ago, on January 17, 1920 at 12:01 AM, the United States collectively lost its mind.
Well, perhaps less dramatically... the 18th Amendment officially went into effect across the United States and its territories, prohibiting "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" for beverages purposes.
And as we all know, this ill-fated act ushered in a wild era filled with cocktails, flappers, gangsters, and a whole mess of problems before it was repealed thirteen years later with the 21st Amendment.
Of course, the actual 18th Amendment was completely lacking in clarity. The public raised many questions: "What constitutes an 'intoxicating liquor?'" "Will I be arrested for owning a case of 17th century bourbon?" "Can my grandmother still make herself some dandelion wine?" "What if I catch cold and only a hot toddy will cure me?" Burning questions indeed.
The National Prohibition Act (the Volstead Act) passed in 1919 sought to explain what was legal and what wasn't. Newspapers tried to break it down, and clearly everyone was trying to figure out the loopholes. Legally, you could:
•Drink liquor in your own home or in the home of a friend when you are a guest.
•Buy intoxicating liquor on a medical prescription of a doctor. (1 pint per 10 days)
•Consider any place you live permanently as your home. If you have more than 1 home, you may keep a stock of liquor in each.
•Keep liquor in any storage area if it’s for the exclusive use of your family or guests.
•Get a permit to move liquor when you change your residence.
•Manufacture, sell or transport liquor for non-beverage or sacramental purposes provided you obtain a Government permit.
On the other hand you could not:
•Carry a hip flask.
•Give or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
•Take liquor to hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining room.
•Buy or sell formulas or recipes for homemade liquors.
•Ship liquor for beverage use.
•Store liquor in any place except your own home.
•Manufacture anything above one half of one percent (liquor strength) in your home.
•Display liquor signs or advertisements on your premises.
From reading the Chicago Daily Tribune, it was clear that the tensions between the "Drys" and "Wets" were highly visible during those first two weeks of January. The Wets were doing all they could to procure, sell and consume alcohol before time ran out, preparing for one last big bash before it all went away. The Drys, it seemed, were calmly waiting it out. You can also imagine them tapping their batons, ready to start dumping barrels and pulling over trucks as soon as the clock struck midnight. (Although the Tribune tells us the everyday Drys basically said, 'hey, there's no way we're starting in on this without a full night of sleep. We'll start messing with everyone after we eat breakfast at 8 am, so have at it this last night."
While there was certainly a lot of terrible unintended consequences caused by Prohibition (ahem, rise of organized crime, massive gang violence, thousands of alcohol-related deaths, increased poverty for the have-nots), this was also a time of creativity and ingenuity in the manufacture, transportation and sale of illicit alcohol, the effects of which spilled over into art, music, fashion and song. Just imagine: Suits designed to hold hip flasks! New 'cocktail rings" to show off your wealth when you hold up your glass! Trucks built with false bottoms! Liquor-testing kits hidden in compacts to test your alcohol before you drink! (I mean, I'm sure that doesn't really balance at the bad effects...but it's definitely interesting to write about!)
By 1929, when my books are set, the effects of Prohibition--socially, culturally, economically etc--were well established (though not necessarily well-understood), and I try to bring in a lot of these tensions between Wets and Drys.
But on January 17, 1920, no one had any idea how everything was going to change...so cheers, I guess to at least the fun parts of this crazy venture!
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.