BALTIMORE – It was an era famous for its bootleggers, mobsters and hidden speakeasies. On Jan. 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution came into force, ushering in Prohibition.
A century later, the country has yet to fully turn the page on that raucous chapter in its history.
During Prohibition, two large owls adorned the bar of the luxurious Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Without anyone ever saying a word, clients of the hotel knew to keep a close eye on the birds.
If the owls were blinking, the party could start — that was the signal the bar had just taken delivery of a new stock of illicit booze, there were no police around and thirsty patrons could wet their beaks.
Prohibition left behind a plethora of such stories and has long been romanticized by Hollywood in movies such as “The Untouchables” and “The Road to Perdition” as well as any number of black-and-white gangster flicks, while U.S. literature was deeply affected by the era.
More recently there has been a revival of bars modeling themselves on the classic Roaring Twenties speakeasies, the concealed watering holes where clients could down bootleg liquor and beer away from prying eyes.
“There is a nostalgia for the 1920s. You’re talking about the mythology of it. Some of it was romanticized: the gangsters, the organized-crime aspect of things,” said historian Michael Walsh, sitting in the Owl Bar, which still features one of the famous owls.
Walsh said the significance of Prohibition went way beyond the need to tackle the era’s rampant alcohol abuse to touch on a whole range of facets of American life.
“It’s religion, politics, gender, ethnicity, race,” he said. “There was a huge amount of spousal abuse, so you have the women forming movements, one of them being the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, that really kind of spearheads this fight against alcohol consumption and abuse in America at the time.”
The “noble experiment,” as President Herbert Hoover called it, ended in 1933 after Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in the depths of the Great Depression.
The 18th Amendment, which banned the production, sale and transport of alcohol, is the only constitutional amendment ever to have been repealed. Organized crime had hit epidemic proportions across the country, led by mob bosses like Al Capone.
But for Walsh, who has written a book on the subject, Prohibition was far from being a total failure.
“It’s much more ambiguous than just saying it’s all black or white. There’s a lot of gray, as everything is,” he said. The “divorce rate goes down, which implies, hopefully, that the home life is getting better. Cases of liver cirrhosis go down, intakes at asylums are down during that decade.”
Phil Collins for president!
After repeal, the regulation of alcohol was left to individual states, which sometimes delegated rule-making to local jurisdictions. That resulted in a patchwork of laws that sometimes varied from county to county, parish to parish and even from town to town.
There are to this day hundreds of “dry counties” and “dry towns” across the United States, most of them in Bible Belt states like Kentucky and Arkansas, where sales of alcohol are banned or restricted.
That is even the case in Moore County, Tennessee, home to the distillery of the famed whiskey producer Jack Daniels.
Another hangover from that bygone era, though a less well known one, is the temperance movement known as the Prohibition Party. Founded in 1869, it is the third-oldest U.S. political party. It has a camel as its symbol, just as the Democrats have a donkey and the Republicans an elephant. This November it will field a presidential candidate, just as it does every four years.
“After Prohibition was repealed, there were still some people agreeing with the party’s principles of trying to remind people that alcohol can have harmful effects on people, diseases or drink-and-driving-related deaths,” said the party’s presidential candidate, Phil Collins.
Collins — not to be mistaken with the British singer who gave up the sauce after developing pancreatitis from excess drinking — hopes to beat the 5,000 votes won by his predecessor in 2016, far behind the successful candidate Donald Trump.
Trump, whose elder brother, Fred, died of alcoholism, says he never touches the stuff. He has not, however, suggested reintroducing Prohibition.