To what extent did America roar in the 1920s?

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To what extent did America roar in the 1920s?

In the 1920s America was the land of golden opportunities. It has the reputation of being a glamorous decade where people lived in prosperity and happiness. Indeed, this period has often been described as the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and this name suggests a time of riotous fun, loud music and wild enjoyment when everyone was having fun. This essay will explore whether life in 1920s America really did ‘roar’ for everyone.

America joined the First World War on the side of the Allies in 1917 and made the deciding contribution that bought about the defeat of Germany. They came out of the war as the world’s leading economy and in 1926, the government announced that the standard of living in the USA was the highest it had ever been in the country’s history.

The 1920s was a decade of contrasts. On the one hand there was a booming economy which made cheap, mass-produced consumer goods available to people in a way that had never been seen before. It was the age of the car and mass-entertainment, which bought about major changes in the American way of life. Attitudes to women improved and people began to accept their wider role in American society.

However, on the other hand, not far below this seemingly perfect surface lay poverty, racial conflicts and violence. The 1920s saw the introduction of prohibition and the rise of gangsters and gang wars. Changes in industry and the introduction of new technological advances left many Americans in a poverty trap from which they could not escape and in the land of plentiful food, farmers could not earn enough money to support their families. The popularity of the Ku Klux grew, as did the number of immigrants, and the Wall Street Crash paved the way for worldwide depression.

This essay will investigate which groups found the 1920s to be a time of wealth and indulgence, and which groups found it a decade of poverty and intolerance.

From January 1920 to December 1933, it was illegal to make, sell or transport alcohol. Prohibition was written into the American Constitution by the 18th Amendment.


The idea of prohibition came from churchgoers since they believed that alcohol was destroying the behaviour and morality of the people and should be completely banned. They thought that alcohol caused violence, crime and abuse to children and women, and that prohibition would solve all of these problems, as well as health-related issues. They also believed that concentration levels at work would improve since hungover workers would not be able to fully focus on their section of the mass production line.

America introduced prohibition because the supporters of prohibition, or ‘dries’ as they were known, became stronger with the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. These organisations became very powerful and were popular with voters so the government was reluctant to ignore their demands.

There were many factors acting in favour of prohibition. The disadvantages of alcohol were that poor people spent a greater proportion of their income on alcohol than anybody else and so their children would be deprived of necessities. Poverty and crime were directly related to alcohol and alcoholics filled prisons and asylums. Alcohol was considered a waste of grain and even though America had not been badly affected by the 1st World War, Americans were still meticulous about their food supplies.

When America entered World War One in 1917, the ‘dries’ and anti-drinking propaganda received an enormous boost. The big American brewers such as Budweiser and Heineken were of German descent and Americans were made to believe that drinking beer would be to fill Germany’s pockets with their money. The ‘dries’ used this to their advantage by portraying drink as the cause of German’s aggression and they suggested that refusing alcohol was a patriotic duty.

National prohibition came into force on 16th January 1920 and the Volstead Act implemented the 18th Amendment. As soon as alcohol was banned, a black market developed since vast amounts of money could be made from the production, importation and sale of alcohol and because the consumption of alcohol was not illegal, drinking became a more secretive and expensive business.

Speakeasies were illegal drinking clubs and there were more speakeasies during the 1920s than there had been saloons before prohibition was introduced. Drinking alcohol was not seen as a crime and in fact the spread of speakeasies made drinking fashionable. The 1920s was the ‘Jazz Age’ and alcohol fitted in with the social life of dance, jazz and the cinema.

Millions of Americans were simply not prepared to obey the prohibition law and so bootleggers made vast fortunes. Bootleggers bought illegal liquor supplies into the cities from Canada and Mexico and it was soon big business. They organised themselves into gangs to transport the goods and organised crime dominated the alcohol trade.

By the late 1920s, most alcohol was made at home and this ‘bath tub gin’ was often deadly and caused serious illness. Alcohol was still needed for some industrial processes and although poison was deliberately added, much of it went missing and was resold. Deaths from alcoholic poisoning went up from 98 in 1920 to 760 in 1926.

When the Wall Street Crash occurred in 1929, people felt as though everything was going from bad to worse. No longer could the country's ills be blamed on 'the demon drink' as the temperance societies would try and have everyone believe. Enormous amounts of money could be generated from the sale of alcohol so it made sense to consider making it legal again as the country began to fall into depression. Legalising alcohol would create jobs and free up resources tied up in the impossible task of enforcing prohibition.

Prohibition ended because it was a failure. It was meant to stop the manufacture, importation and consumption of alcohol and improve the moral climate of America but it simply failed to do this. The act was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment.

Prohibition ‘roared’ for supporters of temperance because they got what they wanted and wives and children benefited because their husbands were no longer spending their money on alcohol. In addition, the 1920s was a great decade for the criminals who made money out of transporting, making and selling alcohol. Prohibition did not really have that big an effect on the general population because if you were desperate to have a drink it was easy to get hold of and the actual consumption of alcohol was not illegal

Prohibition did not ‘roar’ for breweries and saloons as alcoholic consumption fell by 30% and for those who liked a drink and a good time, prohibition was awful, as they could no longer get a drink easily. Prohibition was also bad for the government which brought in prohibition since US citizens resented them, but it ‘roared’ for the government campaigning for the end of prohibition as they won the next election on the strength of that argument. Furthermore, it was a bad thing for workers in the alcohol trade as there was mass redundancies and wages went down as a consequence.

The most common image people have of the prohibition era is the gangster. There had been criminal gangs before prohibition, but now their power increased. Estimates suggest that organised gangs made about $2 billion altogether out of the sale of alcohol.

Along with the introduction of prohibition, organised crime increasingly bought its way into the government, businesses and trade unions. One of the worst legacies of prohibition was the level of corruption it introduced to American society. This included not only Prohibition agents and the police, but also judges and government officials. The bribes were high but once they had been taken, the officials were under the control of the gangsters. This meant that scams like protection, prostitution and gambling could be run without interference from the police and courts. Corruption even extended to the federal government where some of President Harding’s advisers were involved. By the late 1920s fear and bribery made law enforcement ineffective.

Rival gangs fought viciously with one another to control the liquor trade and the speakeasies. They hijacked each other’s alcohol supplies and ruthlessly murdered the opposition. They took advantage of new technology and the Thompson sub-machine guns which could fire 1000 rounds a minute became their favourite weapon and helped gangsters to run their trade successfully. In Chicago alone, there were 130 gangland murders from 1926 to 1927 and not one arrest was made.

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The gangsters operated all over the USA but they were most closely associated with Chicago. The best example of the power of gangsters is Chicago gangster boss Al Capone. The story of Al Capone perfectly captures the role of the gangster in the period of prohibition. He came from lowly origins but became extremely rich and powerful by selling illegal alcohol and using violence. He undertook the systematic corruption of the city of Chicago, buying up policemen, judges and local officials, and even controlling Chicago’s major, William Hale Thompson. On polling days he stationed gunmen on the roofs of ...

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