Roaring: On The Eve Of A New Era
Prologue To A Series On 1920s America
On January 15, 1920, crowds of prohibition supporters — “drys” as they were nicknamed — packed Washington D.C.’s First Congregational Church as the clock ticked closer and closer to midnight to announce the turning of the calendar to January 16th, 1920. As soon as midnight struck, by law, the 18th Amendment to the U.S Constitution would be put into effect, making the purchase and consumption of alcohol illegal.
The packed church was filled with men and women with various reasons to support such a ban, including evangelical Christians who believed “the bottle” was poisoning the morals of their country or the women’s suffragettes who believed families were being broken apart thanks to drunken husbands spending too much time at the local saloons. Excitement built in the room as drys believed the end to a moral decline and a drastic reduction in criminal activity was about to take place with the single stroke of the clock. After about a century of seeking it, they would finally be ridden of that horrible liquid that had ravaged their lives so.
Leaders of the temperance movement addressed the crowd throughout the night as the clock ticked closer and closer to midnight, boosting their hopes and dreams with each oratory performance about what it would mean to see the entire nation go dry. Then-Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels made an appearance and declared “The saloon is as dead as slavery” to the sound of thunderous applause. Finally, Williams Jennings Bryan, the three time Democratic nominee for President and arguably the greatest orator of his time, spoke last. Just as his speech came to a close, almost as if ordained by the good lord himself, the clock struck midnight. As the announcement of the start of Prohibition rang with the church bells, Bryan, a passionately stringent Christian himself, quoted from the book of Matthew before shouting “Those who would have killed us and destroyed us, we have killed them!”
Jan. 16, 1920, was mostly met with celebration. Prohibition had become a popular action for the country to seek; by the time the Amendment had become law, almost every state had ratified it. Millions looked forward to this new era in America. Many believed that without alcohol around, the country would be better for it, so much so that some private jailers actually sold their jails in anticipation of seeing a drop in occupants. “Hell will be mostly rent free,” declared one evangelist.
“Wets” as Prohibition opponents were called, were in the minority. Some were even hypocrites who drank in private but knew it was politically expedient to support the drys. Because the law couldn’t be enforced on alcohol produced before the 18th Amendment went into effect, many started to stock up on their booze as the date of enforcement got closer and closer. There was one bar in New York rumored to have had enough in stock for 14 years — prohibition would last for about that same amount of time.
The success of defeating alcohol, wasn’t the only massive social change that was about to take place. Women who had been clamoring for a right to have the vote were now closer and closer to making it a reality. Some states had already allowed it, and support was growing to make it nationwide by ratifying the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. But it was not without sacrifice.
Suffragettes had suffered through horrible mistreatment as the costs of their protests. They were imprisoned and force-fed if they refused to eat. Some were even forced to have enemas if force-feeding didn’t work. Some protests even saw near-riots explode; such occurred at a planned peaceful march during the 1913 Presidential Inauguration. Some women died in their protest, including Emily Davison across the pond in the U.K.
But now they were getting closer and closer as the new decade began. And it would just be the start, as a women’s revolution was about to be underway. Women were about to become more independent, more “sexually liberated,” and the fashion of women was about to dramatically change.
It must have been awkward for the sitting president of the United States at the start of the decade to watch all of this unfold. He had attempted to veto the law that would have enforced the 18th Amendment, but he was overridden by the Republican Congress that had come into power with a 1918 midterm wave. He was against giving women the vote until finally relenting into supporting it in 1918. To add insult to injury, the president was now confined to a dark corner of the White House to be taken care of by his wife — his second after his first had died some years back — after being taken down by a stroke that would debilitate him for the rest of his life.
Woodrow Wilson was the former governor of New Jersey who had been nominated by Democrats to become president in 1912. With the Republicans tearing themselves apart between then-President William Howard Taft and Bull Moose progressive (and former president himself) Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson had skated to a landslide election — becoming the first challenger to oust a sitting incumbent President in two decades. He led the country through progressive reforms, including the introduction of the income tax and the popular vote of U.S. senators. He survived a very close re-election battle against a would-be U.S. Supreme Court chief justice and he guided the nation through World War I in his second term. (Incidentally, Taft himself would also go on to be a chief justice.)
Now coming on his final year in office, the former professor was bound to a wheelchair, out of sight, and was increasingly becoming a reviled and unpopular figure in the country. Congress had little desire to work with him, refusing to give much of a look into Wilson’s desired membership of the country into the League Of Nations. His vice president, thinking ahead to his own presidential aspirations, was busy thinking of 1920, and rumors persisted that the first lady was the one actually in charge.
And yet, Wilson planned a political comeback. No president had yet been nominated for, much less attempted to seriously win, a third term to the presidency. It was considered sacrilege, given Founding Father and inaugural President George Washington walking away after two terms. In fact, Wilson’s own Secretary of the Navy would precipitate the Amendment restricting presidential terms.
But Wilson, even in his state of declining health and diminished political influence, was planning a scheme to make him the Democratic nominee for the presidential election that was going to be held later that year, even if it meant having to back-stab his own family.
For their part, Republicans were excited to be the obvious favorites to win back the White House after an eight-year absence, and were especially hungry given how close they got in 1916. The senators were considered the power players and de facto leaders, and no figure had more power than Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, who was expected to have a say on whom they would nominate later that year.
The names being passed around were Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood of New Hampshire; Illinois Gov. Frank Orren Lowden; Pennsylvania Gov. William Cameron Sproul; U.S Sen. Hiram Johnson of California and various other dark horses — including a U.S senator from Ohio by the name of Warren G. Harding.
Another name among the dark horses was Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge, who had navigated the Boston Police Strike of 1919 with such effective leadership that he was re-elected in a landslide that year with more than 60 percent of the vote. Wilson himself was said to have liked the way Coolidge handled it, but it was known that he and Lodge never got along so he was probably not going to happen.
There was also Herbert Hoover, popular but without a partisan allegiance, being sought out by both parties. He was attractive enough that Wilson reportedly thought he would be a good successor, given Hoover’s support of progressive economic policies like raising the tax rate. However, Hoover’s split with Wilson on the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I led him to claim the GOP. Nevertheless, he decided NOT to run for president that year.
But, there was still plenty of time until the 1920 Republican National Convention, and regardless of whom they nominated, the GOP believed change was in the air to their favor.
Change wasn’t just among the political subjects. Something was happening with everyday life in the country as well. The cities and farms across the country were changing in population and makeup. Much in the same way that rural and urban America have diverged so extremely from each other in our modern makeup, the change back then would alter the typical way of life in the country for more than a century to come as things moved from a mostly agrarian lifestyle to a cosmopolitan one.
These changes lead to a spike in membership in groups like the Ku Klux Klan and nativist attitudes against immigrants grew. Some of America was not comfortable with these changes to “My America” and they wanted to wield political power to “take our country back.”
In California, an industry of moving pictures seemed ready to burst. Just eight years before the start of this new decade, the first feature film, a telling of “Oliver Twist,” debuted to the public. However, the “motion picture industry,” as it was called then, was still so new that plays were still the popular mode of entertainment. Radio started to have a presence as well, and electricity was literally about to light up the country. Music was about to see massive changes in popular styles, as ballroom dancing started to be overtaken by a style of music coming out of Harlem and other black communities: jazz. Just as social media has transformed our modern lives, various industries and new technologies were about to explode in the 1920.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, a young man by the name of Walt Elias Disney and his best friend Ub Iwerks had just been laid off by Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio as apprentices. They decided to take a risk and create a company called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The new company would not last a year, and yet within the decade, they would be behind possibly the most popular cartoon character in history.
A young man named Charles Lindbergh was starting out his college years. He would not finish his time there. Aviation, a new and risky mode of transportation, had caught his attention and he wanted to train to fly one of these new machines.
In sports, the American Professional Football Association (or APFA) was founded at the start of the new decade. This league would go on to such popularity that it would eventually own a day of the week and create an unofficial holiday for its championship game.
Baseball had just seen a controversial scandal in which the losing team in the World Series had been accused of throwing the game. (Nearly 100 years later, questions continue about certain teams getting caught cheating in various sports…)
Oh, and the Boston Red Sox traded away a man by the name of George Herman Ruth Jr. to the New York Yankees — a team that had never won a World Series.
And finally, as much we may want to believe that today’s murderous monsters are a new thing, two young men by the name of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb — just teens at the time — were casual acquaintances of each other but not yet close. That would change in the coming years, unfortunately. Meanwhile, Al Capone, a young man just married, moved to Chicago to become a bouncer at a brothel, the start of a long climb to immortal gangster fame.
As mentioned before, those souls who had packed the First Congregational Church to celebrate the coming of a new era with Prohibition’s start were looking toward a quieter and more peaceful decade to come. Little did they know the new era that was beginning would be one of bootleggers peddling illegal booze, sexually liberated women, numerous political scandals, changing cultural dynamics, sweeping new technology, a litany of infamous figures ready to emerge and gangsters’ wars in the streets.
The 1920s tend to be bypassed or maligned by historians, yet in terms of the country we have become — in terms of where the change began for us on a political and cultural level — it is an incredibly significant one. It may have not been what those drys thought they were going to get, but they were certainly right — a new era was coming. I have to wonder how they would have reacted if they were told the coming decade would be known as a “roaring” one.
In the coming months, I will explore the decade and its significant events, figures and cultural stepping stones, looking at where the past may link to the future and why it may all come from a time nearly a century ago.