The Real Impact of Prohibition in 1920s New York City

February 12, 2017

Before we walk down Orchard Street, I want to set the stage for the time period in which we will view it.  My current work in progress tells the story of a young woman in the 1920s whose life is greatly affected by Prohibition.

Prohibition Agents
Prohibition agents pouring out alcohol
Photo credit: dewarsrepealday via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND (Click for license)

Quick explanation of Prohibition: alcohol was outlawed by the Volstead Act (18th Amendment) making it illegal to have it, drink it, or make it.

Here’s what I found fascinating about my research on the topic.  When you think Prohibition, you think gangsters and shoot outs, raids from Prohibition agents, jazz, and night clubs.  It all seems sparkly and daring.  But actually, Prohibition was pretty terrifying, and in our current political/social state, I find it even more terrifying.

Prohibition was the first time the federal government attempted to control the moral edicts of private citizens.  This was huge.  America was founded on the very belief that the federal government didn’t have the power to do it, and yet they did just that.  This went against more than a hundred years of democracy.  Didn’t that make us look stupid.

But there was more.  Alcohol was demonized as this really bad thing, and dry supporters wanted to get rid of it because of this.  But what they didn’t notice was the very real, important role alcohol played in everyday citizens’ lives.

First, you had immigrants.  Immigrants went to the local pub frequented by folks from their home country.  In the pub, they would find people who spoke their language who would help them to assimilate.  They would find friends and camaraderie as they grappled with the transition to a new life.  The pub was where they learned English and American customs.  It’s often where they found jobs and community support.  When the alcohol dried up, it endangered this critical social institution.

Second, alcohol production, distribution, and sale were all very much legal professions before the Volstead Act.  Folks built careers on it.  Brewing it.  Distributing it.  Selling it.  This industry meant good paying jobs in a legal activity.  But then came the Volstead Act, and suddenly, you were committing a crime by going to work everyday.  Bartenders who worked their whole life to take over the pub from a previous owner suddenly lost everything.  EVERYTHING.  Can you imagine working hard your whole life, doing a decent life’s work, and suddenly it was gone because the federal government said so?  Scary, right?

Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 145 June to November 1922      Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual hunt /  No known copyright restrictions
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 145 June to November 1922
Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual hunt / No known copyright restrictions

Third, let’s talk about customs.  America is and always has been a melting pot of immigrants, and those immigrants bring with them traditions of the Old World.  For the Germans, this meant beer.  For the Italians, it meant wine.  These were time honored traditions and customs, and suddenly, the government told you your traditions are evil and we’re taking it away.  What if I told you, you can no longer dye eggs at Easter?  What if I told you, you could no longer eat matzah at Passover, because unleavened bread is dangerous.

Prohibition really happened.  The federal government really intervened on a moral subject in the lives of private citizens.  It pains me when young people are ignorant of history.  The point of studying history is to see what happened and learn from mistakes.  It’s terrifying when you see history repeat itself, because history has been ignored.

Okay, this historian will get down off her soapbox and have some wine.

Source:

Lerner, Michael A., Dry Manhattan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

This is a fantastic look at Prohibition.  Highly recommend it.

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