By Lisa Peterson
America’s prohibition period and the 1920s overlapped and created a decade known as the “Roaring 20s” or “The Jazz Age.” According to Amy Henderson, curator of the National Portrait Gallery, “F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the phrase ‘The Jazz Age’ in the title of his 1922 collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was the quintessence of this period of his work, and evoked the romanticism and surface allure of his ‘Jazz Age’—years that began with the end of World War I, the advent of woman’s suffrage, and Prohibition, and collapsed with the Great Crash of 1929—years awash in bathtub gin and roars of generational rebellion.”
During the first decades of the twentieth century, the women’s temperance movement—those wishing to ban the sale of alcohol—gained strength in America. Early groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Anti-Saloon League, with strong leaders like Susan B. Anthony, believed that “The only hope of the Anti-Saloon League’s success lies in putting the ballot into the hands of women.”
Ironically, the flapper—a young woman with bobbed hair, a cloche hat, short dress, who drank, smoked, danced, and engaged in unladylike behavior—became the most iconic image of the Jazz Age. Women had just been given the right to vote in 1920, and it ushered in a modern era of technology, social, and political change. Feminism was on the rise, and activities that used to be relegated to men only were now embraced by the female population. They could be seen driving cars, smoking in public, drinking, and dancing to jazz music. It appeared that the temperance and suffrage movements did not go hand in hand after all.
Most Americans wanted to enjoy themselves after World War I. There was a new economic upturn that gave most citizens access to income where they could buy cars from the everyman’s Model T Ford to the luxury Packard automobile. It was the first time in the country’s history that more Americans lived in cities than on farms and wealth among the wage earners doubled. Mass culture was born and soon everyone was listening to the same music—thanks to radio—watching the same films, and dancing the same dances, like the Charleston. A great melding of cultures began with Southern blacks migrating to Northern cities and bringing their jazz music with them.
All across America, especially in urban areas, thirsty people still managed to get illegal, bootleg alcohol in their neighborhood ‘speakeasy’, or unlicensed saloon. Prohibition law was hard to enforce due to the influence of organized crime and gangsters profiting from bootlegging. Gang violence around the bootleg industry escalated as the 1920’s wore on. The widespread consumption of alcohol and distribution though the speakeasies made a mockery of the Volstead Act, meant to enforce prohibition.
Simultaneously, the stock market expanded rapidly creating overvalued stocks. Production of goods in the U.S. had started to decline along with rising unemployment by August 1929, when the market hit its peak. Coupled with low wages, a mountain of consumer debt, trouble in the agricultural sector, and large unsecured bank loans, a perfect storm was coming. Almost to the day, on October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday, ten years after National Prohibition blanketed the land, the mountains of money that made Wall Street came tumbling down. There were sixteen million stock trades made, billions of dollars were lost, and thousands of investors found themselves penniless.
After the big crash of America’s stock market, stock prices continued to drop by as much as eighty percent. Global economic disaster soon followed and by 1933, half of America’s banks were closed. Unemployment reached thirty percent. The Great Depression, as historians later dubbed it, had hit the United States and the world. And finally, in 1933, the “Great Experiment” of Prohibition proved to be a failure. Congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. Alcohol manufacture, sale, and distribution was legal again in the United States.
Henderson, Amy. “What the Great Gatsby Got Right about the Jazz Age.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 10 May 2013, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-the-great-gatsby-got-right-about-the-jazz-age-57645443/.
Lyons, Mickey. “Dry Times: Looking Back 100 Years After Prohibition.” Hour Detroit, 30 Apr.2018, www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/May-2018/Dry-Times-Looking-Back-100-Years-After-Prohibition/ .
“Prohibition.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009,
“The Roaring Twenties.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010,
“Stock Market Crash of 1929.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010,
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“The Volstead Act.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives,history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1901-1950/The-Volstead-Act/ .