What did Prohibition ever do for us?

Pubs have been closed across this island for over two months. Can you imagine if they were closed for 14 years? To mark the centenary of the introduction of Prohibition in the US, Robert O'Shea selects examples of its cultural legacy
What did Prohibition ever do for us?

Pubs have been closed across this island for over two months. Can you imagine if they were closed for 14 years? To mark the centenary of the introduction of Prohibition in the US, Robert O'Shea selects examples of its cultural legacy

A scene from The Great Gatsby.
A scene from The Great Gatsby.

In the history of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the passing of the 18th Amendment in the United States, which brought about the prohibition of alcohol for nearly 14 years across the then 48 States, is the standout example from the last century.

When it was introduced 100 years ago, its proponents advocated that a ban would be good for the state of the nation. Neighbourhoods would shape up without saloons. The drunken Irish and Germans would sober up, public health would improve and new forms of entertainment would flourish.

What happened of course was drink went underground. New York would boast more than 32,000 speakeasies at the height of the ban as bootleggers took over production and supply, ushering in the age of the gangster.

Here are some of the high points the era inspired in the world of art and entertainment.


Al Capone was the most famous bootlegger, flooding the Midwest with hooch, but he was also one of those instrumental in bringing a new form of music into the illicit nightclub scene in the Windy City.

Jazz would define the era, propelled into the national consciousness with the widespread introduction of the radio into homes, but its beginnings were in shebeens dotted alongside Lake Michigan as black musicians moved to the city from the Deep South.

If one piece of music best represents the marriage of jazz and the music it supplanted, it is George Gershwin’s 'Rhapsody in Blue'. Capone was so enamoured with it that whenever he entered the Green Hill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago the band would stop what it was playing and strike up his favourite melody.

Dance crazes

As the 20s turned into the 30s, big band leaders like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller transformed bebop into swing and ruled the airwaves. The swinging sounds also got people on their feet and the foxtrot, the Charleston, jitterbug and jive tiptoed onto the dance floor.

The Charleston, with its hip movement, kicks, swinging arms, twists, and freedom to improvise could be danced alone or with a partner. There is a direct line between it and how you’re uncle dances at weddings.

These dance crazes emerged because young women, who had just achieved suffrage, were now drinking in public with men for the first time. Hemlines hit the kneecap as women embraced the term ‘flapper’, with its uniform of cropped hair, beads, and slinky, loose dresses (think Betty Boop).

The Great Gatsby

Zelda Fitzgerald was a flag bearer for the flapper generation and her marriage to F. Scott made them the most glamorous couple of the era. The relationship would end in tragedy, mirroring his masterpiece The Great Gatsby.

Curiously the story of doomed love on Long Island only made a meagre profit compared to his first two books and it wasn’t until the 1940s that it was recognised as the novel the defined the Jazz Age (as Fitzgerald himself christened it).

Guys And Dolls

Perhaps the most famous chronicler of the era was Damon Runyon. His tales showed the seedy side of Prohibition and gave its mobsters and good-for-nothings a gloss on the page they lacked in real life.

Upset someone in a Runyon story and you’ll likely end up with a few slugs in your back. He invented lingo like ‘zillion’, ‘zing’ and ‘moxie’ and was first to use the phrases ‘go overboard’ and ‘in spades’ in print.

His short stories had a prose style that would inspire the hardboiled noir dialogue of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett and make a Broadway hit of Guys and Dolls.

Gangster films

Cinema, which introduced ’the talkies’ in 1927 with The Jazz Singer, came of age during Prohibition and the most charismatic hoodlum on the silver screen was James Cagney. The granddaddy of all gangster films is The Public Enemy, whose violence (live ammunition was used in its shootouts) was radical in 1931.

Yet it was a scene in which Cagney mushes a grapefruit into his moll’s face at breakfast that shocked audiences of the day. Cagney would bookend the 1930s with his appearance in The Roaring Twenties (as the previous decade became known), portraying the gangster as a Robin Hood figure.

In The Godfather, Vito Corleone may have been a legitimate olive oil importer but he began his criminal career smuggling moonshine in from Canada. When Michael Corleone utters the famous line to his brother: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart,” he is in Havana on the eve of its takeover by Castro.

The Communist revolution there resulted in mob money moving from Cuba to Las Vegas, where it bankrolled the burgeoning capital of entertainment.

Some Like It Hot

Often voted the funniest film of all time, Some Like It Hot cast Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as jazz musicians who stumble across a mob hit inspired by Prohibition’s most famous event, the St Valentine's Day Massacre.

The duo disguise themselves as ladies to avoid the henchmen on their heels, giving birth to the cross-dressing comedy.

The Untouchables

Another legacy of Prohibition was the creation of a federal policing agency (Alcatraz opened as a federal prison in 1934). J Edgar Hoover would rise to the top of the FBI and the power he wielded was a reaction to organised crime.

The most iconic movie scene representing the era is the Union Station stairway shootout in The Untouchables.

The 1987 film, based on a famous team of federal agents in Chicago led by Elliot Ness, was an adaptation of one of the most popular TV series of the 1960s, which was forerunner to the crime-fighting police procedurals that crowd the schedules today.

Stock Car racing

Car chases began at this time too. Bootleggers modified their cars for speed and handling and they used small, fast vehicles to evade the police.

Even before Prohibition came to an end in 1933, racing these souped-up cars became a popular pastime in the southern States and would eventually evolve into stock-car racing (NASCAR).

Boardwalk Empire

The Golden Age of TV turned its cameras on the era when Sopranos writer and producer Terence Winter created Boardwalk Empire, which told the story of real-life Atlantic City rum-runner Nucky Thompson.

JFK’s dad Joseph turns up in Series Five and although rumours that he slung giggle water too have never been substantiated, Kennedy senior did made a packet investing in Scottish distilleries as the end of the ban loomed though.

He imported Haig Scotch and Gordon's Dry Gin and brand recognition flourished after nearly a decade and a half of moonshine in bottles with no labels were responsible for killing thousands each year.

The Simpsons

Prohibition also got The Simpsons treatment, when Homer was forced to start a distillery on Evergreen Terrace after a ban was introduced in Springfield, but he also drew the attention of Ness-like investigator Rex Banner.

During the episode a sign can be seen in Moe’s tavern reading "No Irish Need Apply”. A riot scene that showed an Irish mob blowing up a British chip shop named "John Bull's Fish & Chips” was censored in Europe as the show was broadcast just four years after the Shankill bombing.

One of the show’s best-known lines appears at the end of the episode when Homer toasts. ”To alcohol! The cause of... and solution to... all of life's problems."

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