Things History Class Never Taught You About Prohibition


“Here’s to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned, 1922

On January 16, 1919, just months after the end of World War I, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified, stating that after one year, what we now call Prohibition would begin. It would last for thirteen years.  

War-weary, resourceful Americans would immediately begin to hoard available alcohol, and would soon be finding ways to trick the system. While this uproar and attempt at puritanical revisionism was going on, social mores and esthetics were changing. Following the ratification of the 20th Amendment in August of 1920, American women wanted to celebrate their hard-won right to vote for the first time. “Flaming Youth” became the catch-phrase for the young generation, the term taken the title of a then-scandalous 1923 novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams writing as Warner Fabian. 

“Flaming Youth” wanted to party. What F. Scott Fitzgerald described as a “restless generation” in his 1920 debut novel,  This Side of Paradise, would continue until the financial crash of 1929.

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published by Scribner’s in 1920. First edition dust jacket. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the Prohibition years, bootleggers (not to be confused with moonshiners) smuggled newly-illegal liquor from Canada and other countries and distributed it in the US. Alcohol could only be sold for religious ceremonies and for “medicinal” purposes. 

An old prescription for alcohol (Prohibition era)
A legal “prescription” for alcohol for 1928. (Collection of the author.)
Special Old Reserve Alcohol
100 Proof Kentucky Bourbon, sold by The American Medicinal Spirits Company. The bottles were ribbed to prevent counterfeiting. (Collection of the author).

Unlike bootleggers, moonshiners were the men and women who produced illegal alcohol, using homemade apparatus to distill their own corn liquor and “bathtub gin” in carefully guarded undisclosed locations. Albemarle County, Virginia, where I live, had its share of moonshiners and nearby Franklin County was known as “The Moonshine Capital of the World.”

A Prohibition-era moonshiner’s “Cow shoe,” designed to disguise footprints around an illegal still. Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

To a palate accustomed to brand name, barrel-aged bourbon or fine Champagne, drinking moonshine must have been like gas-station vending machine coffee versus Starbucks. While cocktails had been around for a while, mixed drinks became more popular in attempts to mask the raw taste of moonshine. 

Recently, Sotheby’s held an auction in New York to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Prohibition in America, featuring some fabulous barware from the era, such as these “Binoculars,” which were actually twin flasks. Hollow walking sticks and garter flasks were also popular. 

Flask disguised as binoculars
AN ENGLISH SILVER-PLATED BINOCULAR-FORM DOUBLE SPIRIT FLASK circa 1930's disguised as a pair of binoculars. James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, silver-plated and leather. Height 5in. Pre-auction estimate, 800-1200USD. Sold for $5250. USD, May 2020. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Throughout Prohibition, Art Deco design—with both streamlined and angular elements inspired by industrial design—was at its peak. With a wink at Prohibition, stylized cocktail shakers appeared in whimsical shapes, such as these featured in the Sotheby’s auction. 

AN AMERICAN SILVER-PLATED PENGUIN-FORM COCKTAIL SHAKER circa 1936. Designed By Emil Schuelke for The Napier Co., Meriden, CT. Height 12 1/2 in. Estimate, $1000-1500USD, sold for $7,500. Courtesy Sotheby’s.
Thirst Extinguisher
The “Thirst Extinguisher” cocktail shaker. Proclaiming to be “approved by fire eaters everywhere.” Estimate: 900 - 1,400 USD LOT SOLD: 9,375USD “AN AMERICAN ART DECO RUBY RED GLASS COCKTAIL SHAKER circa 1930's in the form of a fire extinguisher, the usual instructions for use have been replaced with a witty play on the bartender using it, executed in a gilt colored font. Ruby Glass and Chrome-plated metal height 12 in.” Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Chrome, beads, lamé—Americans, especially young Americans, wanted shimmer and sparkle after wartime rationing. “Flapper” style for young women became synonymous with “scandalous” bobbed hair, dancing the Charleston, smoking, driving automobiles, and petting. Clothing became more risqué, undergarments less restrictive.

 Dressing for a debutante ball in 1913, the teenaged American socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs and her maid improvised the first brassiere from ribbon and handkerchiefs. She would go on to patent the design and would later become one of the most scandalous figures of nineteen-twenties Paris society, re-christened by her husband Harry Crosby as “Caresse.” They had a whippet named Clitoris. And that’s all I’ll say about Caresse.

Patent 1914
Caresse Crosby’s brassiere patent, 1914. Wikimedia Commons.

Also in Paris, Coco Chanel was introducing her boxy, boyish knit dresses and (gasp!) trousers for women. The “Little Black Dress” would debut in 1926, made of wool knit used previously only for swimwear and undergarments. Chanel’s boyish “Garçonne” look would travel across the pond and influence American fashion, as would Madeline Vionnet’s bias-cut satins in the 1930s. No way could Greta Garbo wear a corset under there!

Prohibition Dress 1
Madeline Vionnet satin bias-cut dress, 1930. Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Prohibition Dress 2
Louise Brooks- dancer, actor, and the penultimate “Flapper” circa 1925. Photo from Bain News Service, Library of Congress.

The actress and dancer Louise Brooks personified the American Flapper style, with her sleek bobbed hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. The flapper winked a mascaraed eye at naysayers. Smugglers and party girls found a way, with flasks concealed in boots or garters, and even high heeled pumps with hollow heels. In 1933, Prohibition would be repealed, but American women and American style would never be the same.

Prohibition Dress 3
"Latest thing in flasks. Mlle. Rhea, dainty dancer who is now in the city as part of the Keiths program inaugurates the garter flask fad in Washington." Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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