Bootlegging, beer-flats, speakeasies and moonshine – all terms connected with the 15-year period beginning in 1918 when the federal government and the American people were engaged in a perpetual tug-of-war over drinking alcohol. Remembering this period in American history may make those old enough to remember it grimace, and the very idea is enough to make the vast majority of college students cringe. But, luckily, Prohibition ended decades before current students were even born.
Prohibition spawned more than a decade of illegal activity by citizens who never before would have considered toeing the citizen/criminal line. The Volstead Act in 1919, which allowed the enforcement of Prohibition and was passed despite President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, marked the beginning of the turbulence. Men made moonshine liquor in stills hidden deep in the woods, and women bought alcohol on the black market for outrageous prices, only to sell it out of upscale apartments known as beer-flats for higher prices.
Perhaps the most famous establishment of the Prohibition era is the speakeasy, the bar disguised as a basement-level diner or drugstore that always had a door closed to anyone with an unfamiliar face. In speakeasies, civil unrest brewed the fastest and alcohol flowed the cheapest.
Metropolitan-area governments had the hardest time keeping down alcohol consumption, and D.C. was no exception. For “How Wet is Washington?” an article published in the December 1929 issue of the liberal magazine Plain Talk, Walter W. Liggett conducted his own informal – but very thorough – study of alcohol consumption in the nation’s capital. He found that although consumption of beer and wine had decreased by two or three million gallons per year, people were drinking significantly more hard liquor than they were before Prohibition.
The Hatchet of the Prohibition era was far more conservative than today’s Hatchet, with writers generally steering away from controversial issues such as bootlegging. There are no Hatchet records of any on-campus illegal activity or outraged student reaction to the ban on alcohol. The only reference made to activities involving alcohol is in “Stupid Steven Says,” a satiric advice column that ran in The Hatchet for several years. In the October 6, 1919, issue a letter read:
“Dear Mr. Stephen: What is H20?
Ans: H20 used to be to wash your face with; now it is to drink.”
But the student body was well aware of the tensions running high in the rest of the nation. The Ghost was a satiric magazine that published eight issues per year from 1921-22 and again from 1926-29. It ran several cartoons mocking Prohibition and a multitude of sketches such as “The Crash,” which ran in one of the magazine’s first publications.
“Place: 15th Street and New York Avenue.
Time: 4:30 p.m.
Cast of Characters: One man.
Property: One Ford, one pint of hooch.
Scene 1. Man seen approaching 15th and New York Avenue with careless gait. Steps into street, with downcast look.
Ford: ‘Honk, honk!’
(Man resumes march).
Man rises and feels something trickling down right leg from hip pocket.
Man: ‘My Gawd! I hope it’s blood.’
The Ghost printed everything The Hatchet felt it couldn’t as a responsible news source, mocking what everyone felt to be the government’s inane attempts at curtailing alcohol consumption. The magazine expressed the GW student population’s exasperation with the conservatism of the time.
Prohibition ended in 1933 when Congress ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment on the grounds that an unparalleled amount of illegal drinking had taken place since the passage of the Volstead Act fourteen years before. Some states and counties created local prohibition laws, the last of which was repealed in 1966. Prohibition is generally regarded as one of the largest legislative mistakes of American history, one that no one – government or citizen – is eager to repeat.