Was It A Culture Of Contradiction? Isn’t “The Roaring Twenties” Linked To Prohibition An Oxymoron?

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“Legend has it…” is guaranteed to provide an interesting anecdote, but it may or may not be a factual. Saturday evening I received an email from a friend entitled “I Didn’t Know This…” The email identified the origin of several often-heard expressions. My friend suggested I might find it interesting. He was right.

Truthfully, while the expressions were vaguely familiar, I had no idea of their origin. It was both interesting and fodder for blogging, or so I thought. For example, do you have any idea of the origin for the expression, “A shot of whiskey?” Reportedly, “In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents. So did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash, he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a ‘shot’ of whiskey”.

I remember from my childhood that my paternal grandfather had a shot glass sitting with some other objects on the chest-of-drawers in their bedroom. I have no idea of its origin. If memory serves me correctly, there was something written on the side of the small glass. I am assuming it was a souvenir.

If my grandfather ever had a shot of whiskey, it would come as a surprise to me. He and Granny lived next door until my sophomore or junior year in high school. I was in and out of their home on a daily basis. I never knew my grandfather to take a drink. Why he hung on to the shot glass all those years, I don’t know, but it wasn’t for the purpose of keeping it full.

My grandfather was not a church going man. Apparently he made a profession of faith in his young adult years and joined the Baptist church. It was during the prohibition era. Granddad was later both surprised and disappointed when the pastor of the church was discovered to be bi-vocational without the church’s knowledge or approval. Who knows, some churches pay their pastor a “widow’s mite” and expect them to comfortably support their family on almost nothing. Sometimes stretching a dollar as far as one needs to can be a challenge.

The pastor was subsequently busted for operating a still and making “moon shine.” Whether he did that out of the church parsonage or elsewhere, I don’t know. But the double standard didn’t set well with Granddad. He simply stopped going to church.

I never thought about it until now, but somehow the concept of linking prohibition to the culture known as the “Roaring Twenties” seems like an oxymoron. Wasn’t the most familiar symbol of the “Roaring Twenties” a flapper: a young woman with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said what might be termed “unladylike” things?

Realistically, most young women in that era probably did none of those things, but those who were bold and chose to color outside the lines are remembered for the “let the good times roll” mentality that swept an affluent culture.

By the end of the 1920s, urban living was proving to be a nice contrast to the family farm. Because of extra cash, consumer products were on the rise. There were radios in more than 12 million households and a large percentage of the urban population went to the movies weekly.

The 1920’s saw farewell to the “horse and buggy era”. The Ford Model T was priced at $260 and generous credit made cars affordable. In 1929 one in five Americans had a vehicle. Let the good times roll indeed! An economy of automobiles, service stations, motels and entertainment had begun.

Despite prohibition, liquor flowed in the “Roaring Twenties”. For the record, much to my surprise, it wasn’t illegal to drink alcohol during the prohibition years. It was simply illegal to manufacture and sell it. Go figure? Wouldn’t you know it? Many people stockpiled liquor before the ban went into effect. The Yale Club in New York City reportedly had a 14-year supply of booze in its basement.

Is anybody else thinking the whole prohibition era was a ruse to stop production and find a loophole for private clubs to provide free liquor with the price of a membership? Why would that not surprise me? While some things change, many things don’t.

So, did the term “shot of whiskey” refer to trading bullets for a drink, or is the origin elsewhere? Reportedly, the first written reference was in a 1913 book written by Dr. Jehu Z. Powell entitled: “A History of Cass County Indiana from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time”. He references an incident for 1857 in the small town of New Waverly, Indiana. A local man attempting to open a saloon was met with opposition by a local temperance movement. The initial stock was a barrel of whiskey, which had arrived by train and was sitting on the freight platform awaiting delivery to the saloon. Allegedly, one of the temperance supporters fired his rifle from an upper floor window of a nearby house and shot a hole in the barrel. Consequently, the barrel of whiskey was drained before it left the station so to speak. Apparently one shot (pardon the pun) was more than enough. The would-be saloon owner never opened his business. However, from that time forward when anyone wanted a drink, they would ask for a shot of redeye.

All My Best!

Don

 

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