The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote for the first time, came none too soon in the panorama of freedom in America. The 18th Amendment of 1919, banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, and the Volstead Act that gave it enforcement power, turned into a governmental and societal disaster. Prohibition came into effect just at the time American society was beginning to loosen up after a frightening war. Poverty was still endemic in the United States, especially among farmers, but big business was flourishing, and the stock market kept on moving along due to speculation. These were the “roaring twenties,” the “jazz age.” To listen to the jazz, and to have a good time, the pubic might patronize the local “speakeasy,” one of the thousands of establishments that sprang up in order to serve illegal liquor. In some segments of society, alcohol consumption and attendant social ills declined with Prohibition, but in many others it continued with little restraint.
One of the flourishing businesses of the era was, of course, the illegal manufacture, importation and sale of alcoholic beverages, accomplished for the most part by organized crime, leading to the era of the American gangster. Crime and associated violence increased to nearly legendary levels. The most iconic gangster of the era, if one must choose, was Chicago’s Alphonse “Al” Capone. Although Capone’s henchmen were responsible for hundreds of murders, the most famous was the February 14, 1929 “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” of seven rival gangsters by gunmen dressed as police officers. Capone eventually went to prison not for murder, but for tax evasion. Public disgust at the massacre marked the turning point for the “great experiment” of Prohibition. The passage of the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, but not before it crippled the American beer, wine and spirits industry for generations. Today’s labyrinthine state-by-state system of alcoholic beverage laws is one of Prohibition’s lasting legacies.
That same year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in October of 1929, the crash of the New York Stock Exchange dealt a severe blow to the American economic system. The worldwide economic depression that followed marked the end of the high times, and brought the country into its worst crisis since the Civil War.
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