If you happened to be travelling through Oklahoma on the Fourth of July this week, you probably noticed that you couldn’t buy any liquor for your Independence Day celebration.
America’s history of limiting alcohol sales and consumption is a long one – which, in 1919, led to an entire 13-year period during which alcohol was banned. Prohibition brought with it the Roaring Twenties, a time when underground parties and bootlegging gangsters ruled. This era left behind plenty of colourful history for travellers to explore today.
A pint of history
It was called “the Noble Experiment” but
in many ways, the Prohibition movement was anything but noble. America’s
Temperance Movement was fuelled in large part by anti-immigrant sentiment, explained author Daniel Okrent,
who appears in the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition. Particularly in
the religious southern region of the US known as the Bible Belt, people
believed that banning alcohol would keep out Irish and Italian immigrants, who
were stereotyped as drunkards, and German immigrants, who made up the bulk of
brewery owners. The racist Ku Klux Klan organization was a major supporter of
the anti-alcohol movement, Okrent writes in his book Last Call.
Klan members found unlikely bedfellows
with socialists and unionists who, under the organized banner of the Industrial
Workers of the World, supported the Temperance Movement because of the belief
that alcohol was a capitalist tool used to keep the working man down, said
At the core of the movement to ban alcohol
though, was the Protestant Church. The Anti-Saloon League, the main
pro-Prohibition lobby, garnered most of its support from Protestant ministers. And
this loose coalition of temperance advocates gained the momentum it needed to
ban alcohol nationwide for 13 years.
A shot more of history
Banning alcohol did barely anything to
curb drinking in America. In fact, the parts of society that kept the party
going did so in an even bigger and more boisterous
way. There were far more illegal speakeasies during Prohibition (Manhattan
alone had 5,000) than there had been legal saloons previously. “The parties
were bigger, the pace was faster…the morals looser,” wrote Jazz age novelist F
Scott Fitzgerald. According to Okrent, this new market helped nationalize
organized crime, and crime lords from different cities congregated in New
Jersey to “divide up” the country at the Atlantic City Conference.
Christian Temperance Movement, the South was not immune to the illicit alcohol
market either. The rural and mountainous Appalachia region was rife with hidden
pockets producing “moonshine”, illegal liquor made at night “by the light of
the moon” to avoid authorities.
The Roaring Twenties left behind a
tantalising trail for travellers today. Landmarks of the excess, revelry and
lawlessness that resulted from Prohibition make for exciting trips throughout
the United States.
A tipple of travel
For a Prohibition tour of America, start
in swinging New Orleans. Whet your palate at the Museum of the American Cocktail,
whose exhibits take you through America’s intoxicating past, showcasing vintage
cocktail shakers, “medicinal” booze and portable stills (which, according to New Orleans in the Twenties,
could be bought for $6 at any hardware store during Prohibition). While in the
city, take the Scandalous Cocktail Hour Tour to
such historic drinking sites as the Jean Lafitte Blacksmith Shop and Pat
O’Brien’s Piano Bar, and learn about the brothels of Storyville and the crime families
that ran the city.
Next, head northeast to Ellijay, Georgia.
There, perched on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest is Hillcrest Orchards, which
is comprised of an apple orchard, farm market and Moonshine Museum. The museum
displays working copper and groundhog stills and offers an education into 1900s
In Atlantic City, you can take the Roaring Twenties trolley tour to learn about the
city’s past of debauchery and crime, and the law enforcement agents who fought it.
Pick-up points include the Tropicana Casino, Wyndham Skyline Towers, the
Flagship Main Entrance and Gardener’s Basin.
In New York City, a former speakeasy crawl
could start at the 21 Club. During Prohibition the owners (and
cousins) Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns had an impressively complex system to
thwart the authorities. When bribed local police would alert the bar about a
raid, the bartender would warn customers and press a button to make the bar and
liquor shelves flip upside down, dropping all bottles down into the sewer
system. The crafty cousins, who were never caught, even had a secret passageway
to a room with canned goods and smoked hams that covered up a secret entrance
to a wine cellar.
The most notorious Prohibition-era crime
boss was Al Capone, the Chicago gangster who got his start in New York and made
most of his money smuggling and bootlegging alcohol. For more insight into
Capone’s crime reign, head to the Museum of the American Gangster, built
in a former speakeasy in New York’s East Village. Artefacts range from Tommy
guns and crime family portraits to bootleggers’ beer lockers.
New speakeasy-style bars in New York City
pay homage to the 1920s. In Chinatown, Apotheke
is a dimly lit, elegantly furnished lounge hidden behind an anonymous
storefront. In the East Village, Please Don’t
Tell has become a tourist attraction for its
entrance through a phone booth located in a hot dog shop.
Conclude your American Prohibition tour in
Chicago. Take the Untouchable Tour of
former shootout sites, brothels and gambling houses, led by costumed guides who’ll
immerse you in the city’s not-too-distant history. Learn about gangsters John
Dillinger and Bugs Moran – and about Al Capone’s transformation from a Robin
Hood figure with movie star status to a syphilis-plagued prisoner who went
crazy before dying in incarceration.
Next, head uptown to the Green Mill jazz club, formerly a
speakeasy run by Capone, and still a fantastic place to catch a jazz show.
Regular performers include the Willie Pickens Quintet and the Sabertooth Organ
Quartet. Like the Green Mill, the Green
Door Tavern, another former speakeasy in the River North area, has kept
much of its olde timey charm. The tavern hosts comedy events put on by the Speakeasy Improv Players.
Finally, if you find yourself in any major
American city on 5 December, we highly recommend seeking out a Repeal Day party celebrating the
day on which Prohibition was repealed in 1933. In America’s capital city of Washington,
for instance, the DC Craft Bartenders Guild hosts an annual Repeal
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