"General Washington seemed to arrest fortune with one glance." - Marquis de Lafayette

Bathtub Gin and Lucky Strikes

A speakeasy crowd in the 1920sClandestine drinking establishments flourished through Prohibition. Unlike earlier saloons, they permitted women.

The enforcement of Prohibition went into effect on January 17, 1920, via constitutional amendment. It seemed like almost immediately, there were more young women drinking than before. Smoking went hand in hand with this. And what better place to drink and smoke than from the privacy of a moving automobile?

These all became ways for women to enjoy themselves that had not been available to the older generations. Sights that would have been unreal in the early 1910s became commonplace by the 1920s.

Prohibition and the fairer sex

Contrary to myth, Prohibition did succeed in reducing the amount of alcohol consumed in the United States. As with any substance of an illegal nature, the prices went up and the quantities went down. Working men were forced to forego their nightly stop at the local saloons. Many occasional drinkers did forego alcohol entirely, out of a general respect for the law that is found in any good society.

However, at the same time, it seemed that more women were drinking than ever in the 1920s. Traditionally, women were not even allowed to enter most bars, and their drinking had been frowned upon in private company as well. Now it became a mark of sophistication. Since money was plentiful and enforcement scarce, alcohol became more of an upper class phenomenon as Prohibition progressed. The youthful generation lacked the reserve of the older generation, and they ignored the complaints of anyone who disapproved. For their part, many young men came to realize that hanging out with girls who drank wasn't all that bad.

Speakeasies flourished as the 1920s progressed. Gin was the most common liquor, and not all of it was Seagram's. Quality was a constant issue, and about 10,000 people died from drinking bad alcohol during Prohibition. Bootleg whisky and rum from the Caribbean were also frequently smuggled. Consumption of beer and wine collapsed. With the harder liquor came the more riotous parties. Anyone who drinks is well aware of the difference between a couple of beers, and an entire flask of bootleg gin.

Woman with a flask in her garter belt, ProhibitionHard liquor and the flask were common means of evading Prohibition

Jazz music was big in those years. There was something in it that seemed to capture the mood of that era for many people. The refined nature of the rhythms and melodies. The wild improvisations. The dual thrills of watching black musicians in dark, basement clubs, and of flouting convention and the law. Many have come to call this entire decade the Jazz Age, though of course there were untold millions who never heard jazz music and wouldn't be caught dead in a speakeasy.

Smoking, mass marketing, and the flappers

Women also took to the cigarette in this decade. The fashion of the time was a long cigarette holder, held with one's chin tilted slightly upward. Technological innovations helped in this regard as well. Automated cigarette machines appeared in factories in the early 1900s, and the packaged cigarette started to replace the cigar and the hand-rolled version as the preferred manner of smoking.

Smoking also had the advantage of being an appetite suppressant. One could hide a few extra pounds within the more concealing clothes of the earlier era, and a corset compressed the torso in any event. When one was wearing a short dress that fit tightly around the arms, it was more important to be slim. The waifish ideals of the day reinforced this. The best and most sophisticated girls had slim legs, slim torsos, slim arms, and flat chests. Some women even bound their chests to make their breasts look smaller. "Dieting" entered the American lexicon, and restaurants complained about the decline in meat consumption.

The infant field of mass marketing turned its attention to cigarette sales. Edward Bernays got his start in the propaganda efforts of The Great War, working with Henry Creel and others to ensure the fantastic success of the Committee for Public Information. After the war was won, he turned his attention to consumer marketing. Eschewing fact and reason, he adapted Freudian theory to the realm of advertising, constantly searching for symbols and subconscious motifs that he could use.

While many women smoked in the 1920s they were still not able to do so in public in many cases, either through taboo or by law. In 1929, Bernays shattered this taboo:

Cigarette sales to women increased handily after Bernays' event.

Automobiles and the Roaring Twenties

In Henry Ford's greatest triumph, the sheer volume of cars on the road exploded in the 1920s. In 1919, about 6.5 million cars were in service in the United States, but by 1929 this had increased all the way to 23 million.

For people of a certain status in society, the possession of an automobile became near mandatory. Boys and girls could go two or three towns over and do as they pleased, without the supervision of anyone who knew their parents. The young adults could drive about town in the middle of the night, prolonging the party until sunrise. Bootleggers modified their cars to outrun the pursuit of law enforcement.

For the more established crowd, a system of national highways was put into place. Tourism to warm, southern places such as Florida and Arizona increased, and job transfers were not unheard of. It has been postulated that a national culture of sports heroes and movie stars helped an increasingly mobile population to find a sense of familiarity in different parts of the country.

Along with the rise of the automobile came the rise of the "date" as a method of courtship. Traditionally, young men would go to the home of their desired woman to be received, after she was announced at a debutante ball. The conversing would ensue in the parlor of the home itself, under the watchful eye of the girl's family. Such practices ensured that the courtship would proceed in an honest and upright fashion, and that rascals could be turned away before they had the chance to work their charms.

There were exceptions of course, particularly among the working classes. In the immigrant tenements it was hardly practical to cram another fellow into a tenement full of screaming children, and of boarders who were almost strangers in some cases. Thus, "dating" had been common among this group for some time. But for women of polite society, it was the automobile that made this practice possible.

Spread the Word

About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

comments powered by Disqus