100 years ago today the Volstead Act went into effect leading to Prohibition around the USA
“I am just a businessman giving the people what they want. All I do is satisfy a public demand”
— Al Capone on bootlegging illegal liquor and operating Chicago speakeasies during prohibition (1920-1933)
It might not sounds strange that during the so called Roaring Twenties, the Progressive era, the Jazz Age, the era of speakeasies, fast cars, industry, luxury, Art Deco, the lost generation without morals, the flappers, the crazy finance that led to the 1929 crash … - a group of moralist and fundamentalist such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union led the United States to vote for prohibition in 1920. Their main aim was to set moralism and temperance back. The Anti-Saloon League, the American Temperance Society, the Daughters of Temperance, the Prohibition Party, the Scientific Temperance Federation and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice were just a smal portion of groups created to fight against the social degeneracy of the time. These temperance societies were composed by very religious people organised in groups of influencers travelling across the United States to promote religion and family values among people. They were just small groups at the beginning but at the end of IX century they became well organised with their own newspapers, by which the temperance and moral values were promoted, and became a national phenomenon.
Among the many religious purposes of these groups there was the complete prohibition of every sort of alcoholic drinks and gambling, as well as a strong chastity of morals towards many topics: from prostitution to the length of the skirts (in some states they even managed to forbid improper and lascivious sexual affairs even among married couples), erotic magazines of the times were strictly banned. They even tried to ban nude statues and paintings showing nudes from museums, but fortunately, they did not succeed with this last one.
They denounced the lack of moderation of their times and their crusade against the society excesses had only begun to carry their message to the people.
These religious groups looked at the saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin. They thought the alcohol should have been banned to eliminate crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America. A true Prohibition movement who got a foothold during the end of 1800s and it was able to seduce very influential people both in the industry than among the establishment at the beginning of 1900s. They went so far spreading their dry crusade that at the beginning of the 20th century it became popular thought that the use of alcohol would lead to deficiencies at work. That’s why among top names declared themselves in favour of the prohibition of alcohol were John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Henry Joy, who joined the Anti-Saloon League investing huge amounts of money in their campaigns.
With the support of such influential people it was easy for them to get till Washington to introduce their anti-alcohol sentiment, with the WWI as a new justification for prohibition: the money spent on alcohol could be used to cover the war expenses. Temperance laws and anti-alcohol legislation were made across the United States and in December 1917 a Constitutional amendment (aka the Eighteenth Amendment) to carry nationwide Prohibition laws was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses. Subsequently, in 1919, the Amendment was ratified by 36 of the 48 states needed and passed then into law, known as the Volstead Act, which provided enforcement to the XVIII Amendment when it was ratified in 1920.
The National prohibition of alcohol had officially started in 1920 and it would have last until 1933. The Temperance Society and all the anti-alcohol groups won their cause and USA went dry.
By introducing the Volstead law, the government thought that this would have helped to establish moral values and temperance back, creating a crime and violence free society. But they were wrong, as prohibition did not curb crime at all. It rather fed it. Banning the alcohol consumption did not improve the quality of lives but it caused an increase in criminal activities. The clandestine market of alcohol became a billion dollar business for criminals who started to import it illegally or producing it in their own poor quality distilleries and breweries. A real underground economy was created, with organised crime having the monopoly on liquors trade and smuggling, supplying poor quality and over inflated price whiskey to illegal bars and saloons which number increased consistently after the prohibition law.
With the coming of Prohibition all alcohol related industries closed. Some companies converted to other activities, always in the food industry, but most of them were not enough bold to reinvent themselves from one day to another and quit the business. Many people became unemployed all of a sudden and without their wages they soon fell into poverty. The only people who did benefit from this chaos was organised crime. As a true business company they used to recruit their employees among these poor devils, who thought that becoming a criminal or being a gangster was dangerous but was not too bad as long as it could provide a fast way to make money.
On the night of January 16 1920 an armed gang attacked a train and robbed a cargo of whiskey of the value of 100’000 USD, the bootlegging had officially begun as well as the myth of Gangster, whose most prominent exponent was Al Capone. The turnover of the black-market business of liquors reached several billion dollars and social degradation exploded.
The business related to illegal alcoholic beverages trade, due to prohibition, contributed to the beginning of the era of Gangsters. The XVIII Amendment was recognised as one of the greatest mistakes in the history of the United States afterwards.
The Bootleggers were people who distributed liquor illegally on behalf of their bosses. They were trade mediators between the producers (or the importers) and the illegal bars or eventually end consumers. They were called bootleggers because originally they used to hide the flasks of liquor inside their boot legs. Then they would hide the flasks in hollowed out canes, in false books and under their winter coat.
The greater was the load of alcohol to carry to the customer, the larger was the space needed to contain (and hide) it. It is funny nowadays to see the crazy things they invented to protect their cargo from the police!
The Speakeasy Clubs
Organised crime made a lot of money, by distilling liquors in their illegal breweries or importing it illegally in the US. This distilled liquor they sold to illegal bars, called Speakeasy clubs. They were so called because everybody had to speak quietly about such spots in public so that the police would have found out nothing about the existence of clubs serving alcohol. They were not so hidden like the breweries were, they were just simple bars (most of them operated by organised crime) that everyone could find on the street but just a few knew they served more than orange juice inside. Therefore, while the police officers of Bureau of Prohibition were busy in looking for illegal stills, these unsuspected bars operated in the full light of the day. However, how could these pubs work undisturbed and why was so hard for police agents to find out them? The truth is that they were just normal street pubs or clubs (the same you could find before the Prohibition) and normally not everybody could come inside and ask for a shot of whiskey. Speakeasy Clubs were a bar in a bar. That means customers had to use a password to get it and eventually pass through a false bookcase to step into the Speakeasy. So tricky!
At the beginning of prohibition they were a few bunch, relatively small with little or no entertainment in it, but through the 1920s they gradually became more popular and expanded to different areas of the country and live shows involved. The Speakeasy Clubs became one of the most source of income for criminal bosses. By 1925, in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.