At midnight January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act became law and banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors, but not personal possession or consumption. All breweries, distilleries, and saloons in the United States were forced to close.
Prohibition addressed a serious issue affecting a small fraction of the people and imposed a solution on the entire population. A colossal failure, it intended to lessen the evils associated with alcohol, but instead turned millions of law-abiding citizens into law breakers and gave rise to gangsters, rumrunners, and speakeasies. With easy money to be made in illegal alcohol and gambling, Prohibition fostered corruption and contempt for the law. While authorities looked the other way, drinking, gambling, drugs, and prostitution flourished. To pass the law meant nothing if it wasn’t enforced, and enforcement was nearly impossible.
For people who didn’t buy cases of alcohol in advance or know an obliging doctor, there were many ways to drink illegally. In fact, the number of establishments offering alcohol and gambling doubled. Owners went to great lengths to conceal speakeasies, which included stores and secret rooms in basements of homes and buildings. People located the speakeasies by word of mouth, and to gain admittance, quietly whispered a password through a closed door, thus the term “speakeasy.” The Feds raided them, often arresting both the owners and patrons, but it was common for owners to bribe the police to get advance notice about raids.
Corruption was rampant. President Harding’s attorney general accepted bribes from bootleggers. A Cincinnati bootlegger had a thousand salesmen on his payroll—many of them were policemen. And in Chicago, Al Capone’s organization had half the city’s police on its payroll. Al Capone said:
“When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on silver trays, it’s hospitality.”
Advocates of Prohibition thought the law would also help immigrants assimilate better and become more Americanized.
By 1920, there were more people in Akron, Ohio born in other states or abroad than were born in Ohio. Akron’s growing Tower of Babel overflowed with Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Italians, and people from West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The number of West Virginians living in Akron reached almost nineteen thousand—close to ten percent of the population.
Because of the constant flow of immigrants coming to work in the factories, racial tensions were high, and quotas were set for immigrants coming into America. The Ku Klux Klan railed against Negroes, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. Akron’s chapter of the Klan was the biggest in the country, and members included many high-level political positions, including the mayor and several school board members. With factory workers making up a large part of the membership, the Klan movement was an expression of dissatisfaction with the high cost of living, perceived social injustices, and the bigotry that was so pervasive throughout the city.
During the early 1920s, the Klan helped elect sixteen senators and many representatives, as well as local officials. By 1924, the Klan controlled twenty-four state legislatures.
Nineteenth Amendment Gave Women the Right to Vote
For young women, the 1920s marked a break with traditions. The nineteenth amendment gave women the right to vote, and attitudes changed drastically. Long-standing social barriers began to crumble, virtually overnight. Women bobbed their hair and wore short skirts. They used cosmetics, drank alcohol, and smoked cigarettes in public. Nearly every article of clothing was trimmed down and lightened in order to make movement easier. Even the style of underwear changed. Women wanted to move freely for energetic dances like the Shimmy, the Black Bottom, and the Charleston—something corsets didn’t allow.
Young women took part in the sexual liberation, and it was a time of great social change. From the world of fashion to the world of politics, forces clashed to produce the most explosive time in a generation.
The country became smaller. Railroads made long-distance travel possible and were now a central part of American life. Rail lines crisscrossed the country, carrying people, manufactured goods, food, and the mail. The popularity of automobiles and radios had exploded, and new machines such as the washing machine and vacuum helped eliminate some of the drudgery of women’s housework. The stock market was poised to skyrocket, and you could buy a car for a little less than three hundred dollars.
Akron was an exciting, vibrant city teeming with people and money and would experience several years of unprecedented, almost giddy, prosperity. The number of employees in the rubber factories reached seventy thousand with some workers earning up to seven dollars a day, more than most industries paid in a week. People had money, and they were spending it in speakeasies and music halls and on expensive clothing.