As much as the idea of prohibition seems ridiculous to me now, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it was enforced in America from 1919-1933. In the 1820s, Americans drank about four gallons of 200 proof alcohol per capita.That is far too much alcohol, you guys! Yes, banning it and sending unregulated production underground was not a good idea, but it basically halved our alcohol consumption once it was legal again. Plus it paved the way for all sorts of innovation in cocktails since the bootleg liquor was so gross. It wasn’t for nothing.
In Perfect Behavior (a parody etiquette guide published 1922) by Donald Ogden Stewart, the chapter “The Etiquette of Dinners and Balls” suggests some opening lines to get conversation going. For instance, when cocktails are served, you may remark on how terrible the gin is, and then offer the tidbit “Senator Volstead [of the Volstead Act, aka The National Prohibition Act] was born Sept. 4 1869.” Stewart also jokes about alcohol consumption in “Etiquette for Dry Agents”:
In spite of the great pride and joy which we Americans feel over the success of National Prohibition; in spite of the universal popularity of the act and the method of its enforcement; in spite of the fact that it is now almost impossible to obtain in any of our ex saloons anything in the least resembling whiskey or gin,– there still remains the distressing suspicion that quite possibly, at some of the dinner parties and dances of our more socially prominent people, liquor–or its equivalent–is openly being served. . . .The main difficulty has been, I believe, that the average dry agent is too little versed in customs and manners of polite society. It is lamentably true that too often has a carefully planned society dry raid been spoiled because the host noticed that one of his guests was wearing white socks with a black tie, or that the intruder was using his dessert spoon on the hors d’oeuvres.
That’s just some beautiful backhanded insulting right there. He goes on to suggest that we need to attract a higher class of dry agent, which may be difficult, given that most preparatory schools teach young men to frown upon “pussyfooting and sneaking.”
Some etiquette books of the time suggested hosts obey the law and serve nonalcoholic drinks at parties, but according to Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933, most people treated hosts who didn’t serve alcohol as “uncouth, emasculating, or even cowardly.” Perfect Behavior suggests that alcohol consumption was a bit of an open secret. When I worked at the New-York Historical Society we presented an exhibition on beer and brewing in New York. During prohibition, many breweries were forced to close or make non-alcoholic malt tonics. One brewing company found a way to help get alcohol into the hands of consumers with a sneaky advisory on the label: “Caution: Do not ferment, do not add yeast, or you will create beer.”
If our depictions of the Roaring 20s are to be believed, Prohibition just made alcohol cool, along with creating a culture of concealment and necessity. If there was alcohol around, you better drink as much as you can, because you don’t know when you’ll be drinking again. According to No Nice Girl Swears by Alice-Leone Moats (published in 1933), this actually meant that learning how to deal with drunk people became part of common culture. “When our mothers came out, learning to handle a drunk was not an essential part of a debutante’s education,” she wrote. “Now every girl has to be capable not only of shifting for herself, but, more often than not, of looking out for her escort as well.” This was doubly true because most speakeasies were co-ed, whereas before prohibition bars and saloons had been strictly for men. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Enforcement of the Volstead Act diminished the prominence of all-male saloons and unintentionally encouraged the development of more expensive speakeasies patronized by men and women. After repeal, heterosocial drinking patterns persisted.”
Prohibition may have also created one of my favorite types of get togethers–the cocktail party. Now merely having alcohol was cause for celebration, and guests may be so excited by it that a sit-down dinner is not required. “Cocktail parties have become the line of least resistance in entertaining. They are convenient for the person who must get 50 or 60 people off the list of obligations and prefers to do it at one fell swoop, saving money at the same time. It certainly isn’t much trouble; all you need is a case of synthetic gin and a tin of anchovy paste. The greater the number of the guests, the smaller and more airless the room, the stronger the gin, the more successful the party. But if you give one, you must be prepared to have your friends on your hands until two in the morning, as they will invariably forget their dinner engagements and stay on until the last shakerful is emptied.”
Nowadays if you drink alcohol, things like cocktail parties, women in bars, and heterosocial drinking are all taken for granted. So is the idea that, even if you get completely shitfaced, you should probably be a little discreet about it. And for that we have Prohibition to thank! Just please, never again.