The 1920s are considered to be an era of dramatic socio-political changes, that essentially embodied the beginning of modern America. World War I (1914-1918) had just ended, and the country had already been through and survived the worldwide influenza epidemic (1918) with an immense number of casualties. The new decade, widely known as “the roaring twenties” would be a time of transition and change for every citizen, wealthy and poor, having completely discarded even the slight remembrance of the ordeals and hardships that made up the majority of the previous decade. For the first time, a gradually increasing number of Americans started gathering in large cities (urbanization), leaving their rural lifestyles behind. This lead to a consequent boost and enhancement of the national economy, with the nation’s total wealth becoming more than double in the time period between 1920 and 1929. From the beginning of the decade, the formation of a consumer society was evident. People across the country would buy and consume the same goods, would listen and dance to the same music, and would use similar language (slang terms). Teenagers in the 1920s had a lot in common with teens today. They were celebrating the marking of a new beginning and a new century – a promising future for them. Despite the fact that the new decade of the roaring twenties was a time of change for everyone, it is important to remark that not all of it was good.
During this decade, the 18th Amendment was put into effect. Also known as Prohibition, this law had essentially prohibited and banned “the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating liquors” with the long-term aim that this would alleviate social problems and bolster the economy, but as things turned out, this plan backfired. Considered by many a “failed social and political experiment”, it altered the prism through which people viewed alcoholic beverages. It also underlined the fact and realization that the government could not always retain control and take the place of individual responsibility. Moreover, many criminal organizations saw the prohibition of intoxicating liquors as an opportunity for further growth and advancement. This no longer legal “market” would gradually provide the mafia and numerous other mobs, unimaginable power and wealth. From the very beginning, the nation’s gangsters had realized that this new law presented an incredible business opportunity.
Many were the Americans that despised the Prohibition, and with an immense demand for liquor, accompanied by their great frustration, they chose to give in to the temptation, go against the law, and continue their consumption of alcohol – this time, secretly. Illegal and carefully hidden sections of establishments where alcoholic drinks were sold, flourished in big cities during the period of Prohibition. They were, and still are, known as speakeasies, a term dating back to approximately the late 1880s. Historians estimate that there were more the 100,000 illegal speakeasies by the first half of decade in New York City, some tiny, crummy, filthy ones oriented towards the lower-middle class and the poor, while other more deluxe and luxurious clubs were catering to the rich and well-connected. The majority of speakeasies resembled today’s clubs and bars, as they provided singing and jazz music. In order to enter a speakeasy, the person was required to say a passport to the doorman so that he would know if they were secret agents or not. As it may be apparent, the majority of the alcohol, that was consumed illegally, was smuggled into the country. In Detroit, close to the Canadian borders, illegal smugglers would use “false floorboards in automobiles, second gas tanks, hidden compartments, even false-bottomed shopping baskets and suitcases, not to mention camouflaged flasks, and hot water bottles” to transport alcohol into the country.
Making the production, distribution, and consumption of alcoholic drinks illegal as corollaries of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), apparently did not limit the desire for liquor or beer. Such great demand and concurrent illegalization of alcohol en masse created a new illegal market for various gangs and individual gangsters to develop and consequently monopolize. The mob and the mafia held control and were responsible for the majority of the illegal liquor trafficking. At the beginning of Prohibition, several bootleggers running small operations, joined forces thus forming “gangs”. In order for these gangs to make substantial profits, they had to violently earn more and more territory. Not long after these mobs were formed, did they start committing organized crimes. Hence, gangsters were in charge of most speakeasies and bootlegging (the illegal distribution of alcoholic beverages) a fact that caused violence, anomie, and chaos. The federal government was essentially unable to enforce Prohibition, due to the lack of support. The nation’s gangsters were the obvious “winners” from the Prohibition. Having recognized the business opportunity available, gangs had already quietly been stockpiling liquor supplies for months.
The most celebrated gangster of the time by far was Alphonse Gabriel Capone, also known as Al Capone· a hoodlum who controlled the Chicago underworld in the mid-1920s. He lived in magnificence in the city’s Lexington hotel, and allegedly he was said to be earning approximately $100 million per year from casinos, speakeasies, and generally from the trafficking of illegal merchandise and liquors. In the eyes of many, he seemed like a “real-life Robin Hood”, opening new soup kitchens for the unemployed and offering large amounts of money to charity organizations. Additionally, he had a pronounced taste for a luxurious lifestyle, always wearing au courant suits and drinking expensive whiskey. “I’m just a businessman giving the people what they want” he used to say. But the sympathy of the public suddenly vanished in the blink of an eye when he ordered the brutal assassination of seven of his rivals in 1929. Since all of Al Capone’s activities had been deemed illicit by Prohibition, he had bought legal immunity by essentially paying off policemen and politicians surpassing any level of venality and corruptness. He had practically bribed every law enforcement he had encountered in the regions where he conducted his outlawed businesses. These bribes, even though sometimes were larger than a quarter of a million dollars, were still relatively easy for Al Capone to pay out bearing in mind that he was raking over 100 million dollars per year, as mentioned before.
Profits of such magnitude should not be surprising at all for a variety of different reasons. Initially, upon the implementation of Prohibition 1 year after the 18th Amendment was elected, Al Capone basically was left in charge of the hundreds of thousands of breweries and distilleries. Capone was completely and utterly unwilling to obey the law, and he already had control of numerous criminal organizations, therefore he was practically given a monopoly of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages and other illegal substances – he was the mastermind of the whole situation. The massive profits gained from this monopoly used to bribe even the highest governmental officials completely revolutionized and reframed the foundation of organized crime with respect to the total number of criminals involved, and level of complexity of political alliances. These unimaginably massive amounts of money were additionally used to create even more speakeasies, bordellos, and gambling establishments within cities and even the suburbs where the wealthy upper class resided. The notion that money can buy power was very lucidly promoted my wealthy criminals such as Al Capone himself. The money he earned from bootlegging and speakeasies alone were more than enough to gain him both physical and political power so that he could move on to find new avenues that he could possibly make more money off of, such as gambling and prostitution. He was powerful – but even powerful people can be defeated. In October of 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in jail for tax evasion, after his attempts to bribe the jury had failed. He eventually died in prison.
The rapid increase of organized crime was promoted by the fact that numerous politicians and police officers accepted and were tempted to accept bribes from criminals. Corruption of this level in the governmental system aided the immense growth of crime organizations, as any officer that attempted to impede criminal activities could eventually be bribed. Gangs and criminals saw this as an opportunity for growth and advancement since they could easily avoid arrest and prosecution. As mentioned before politicians could also be “bought out”, something that created the possibility for criminals and gangsters to gain access to law-immunity. As one of the consequences, multiple gangs amassed massive amounts of money from illegal activities such as bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, alcohol production and distribution so that they were able to pretty much bribe any politician or policeman. “It speaks volumes that when the Michigan state police raided one Detroit bar (speakeasy), they found the local congressman, the local sheriff and the city’s mayor all enjoying a drink”. Many did stay honest and true to their beliefs and responsibilities, but enough had succumbed to the temptation that the stereotype of the corrupt officer/ politician eroded the public’s trust in law enforcement.
The fact that the consumption of liquors was completely forbidden didn’t avert people from doing so, and speakeasies, where illegally imported alcoholic beverages were sold, grew more than ever in popularity and in numbers. Anyone found in a speakeasy was technically considered a criminal, subject to arrest for consuming illicit substances. This commonality among everyone abolished all social barriers, commingling both men and women from all classes of society.
There is little doubt that Prohibition failed to fulfil the goals that it was set out to achieve, and that the unintended consequences that emerged were more significant than its few and limited benefits. We ought to watch out for the solutions to an issue that end up causing worse additional problems than the ones they were set out to solve.
So, did the 1920s really roar? Maybe they did or maybe they did not. It’s all in the way we look at it! The Roaring Twenties, a decade with all of its plethora and new freedoms, can most certainly be described as a partial break from tradition of any sort. During this era womanhood was redefined for the first legitimate time, music underwent a distinct evolution (Jazz), and new innovations transformed the livelihood and everyday life of everyone. This apparent break from tradition was a clear representation of the ideals of this decade and an indication that this “first modern decade” would become the template and the starting point for a more modern and holistic culture. The Roaring Twenties, though there were ups and downs, corruption and erosion, was for sure a revolutionary time period in a wide variety of ways, precisely offering a glimpse of what would soon become modern America.