6 Ways Prohibition Defined America
Era Still Encapsulates the Nation’s Unique Culture,
Today, Prohibition is still very much with us, says award-winning writer and historical analyst Denise Frisino.
“The Volstead Act, which enacted Prohibition in 1919, came after decades of groups pushing for alcohol temperance,” says Frisino, author of “Whiskey Cove,” (www.whiskeycovebook.com), a novel based on firsthand interviews with Prohibition-era bootleggers in the Pacific Northwest.
“When Prohibition was repealed with the 21st amendment in 1933 under Franklin D. Roosevelt, there were lasting consequences from the period – some good, some not so good, but always rich with the color that we expect from Americana.”
Frisino reviews the legacy of Prohibition:
• Female progress: Women’s groups were primarily responsible for the temperance movement, which led to Prohibition. Shortly thereafter, women’s suffrage was achieved with the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Alcohol had been a major problem since America’s inception, tempting male breadwinners away from their labors – and the income that work provided for their families -- for a few hours of escape. Carrie Nation wielded her signature hatchet and was a radical in the movement, attacking saloons and breaking bottles, barstools and windows. But it was during Prohibition, in speakeasies and other illegal establishments, where liberated women were free to drink in public and, essentially, do as they pleased. “Flapper girls were America’s first ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ ” Frisino says.
• Organized crime: Nothing did more to galvanize organized crime, namely the mafia, than making alcohol illegal. Enterprising bootleggers and rumrunners throughout the country often made small fortunes from illegal hooch, including the prolific Kennedys, who went on to found a political dynasty. The mafia established strongholds in New York City, Chicago and other major cities. Other areas, including the Pacific Northwest, proved tougher for the mob to break into, Frisino found in her research.
• Common cultural denominator: While differences abounded among the ethnicities that make up America’s cultural stew, one thing every culture has in common is an appreciation of alcohol. Whether it’s French or Italian wine, German beer or Scotch-Irish liquor, alcohol has provided a brief respite from a hard day’s work for poor immigrants, and a tangible connection to ancestral heritage.
• The rise of jazz: Synonymous with the time of Prohibition is “The Jazz Age,” which combined a variety of popular music of the day with the musical genre’s roots. Decades earlier, a mix of African and European musical traditions morphed in the Deep South, primarily New Orleans, and spread north. But it was in the speakeasies during Prohibition where audiences were captivated by jazz, which helped define the raucous and liberating spirit of illegal drinking.
• Individualism and freedom of choice: America is founded upon a rugged tradition of revolution, individualism and frontiersmen who like to leave personal decisions to each person. Our Constitution is rooted in the idea of no taxation without representation; similarly, we don’t like freedoms taken away. Our repeal of Prohibition shows that the people are willing to endure certain pains in order to maintain the freedom of individual choice. This concept is gaining more momentum as the debate regarding legalized marijuana continues, with a few states, including Frisino’s home state Washington, moving ahead of the federal government.
• Another Americana genre: The end of Prohibition with the 21st Amendment did not stop criminal organizations like the mafia, which was still in its ascendancy in 1933. Just like cowboys and Indians, an American mythology grew from illegal booze, creating an entire genre of storytelling for pulp novelists and filmmakers. Culture may be the nation’s most important export, and crime-noir storytelling is a prominent tile in the quilt of Americana.
About Denise Frisino
Denise Frisino is an award-winning writer, actress and arts teacher. She has spent her summers playing and working in the numerous islands that define the Pacific Northwest, where her family spans four generations. Frisino and her husband spend time at Hood Canal and reside in Seattle. Her novel, “Whiskey Cove,” is a nominee for the 2013 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award.