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Living the Twenties: P,Q,R

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2020 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of the 1920s over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for P, Q and R.

It is worth noting that an extended version of this series is available to buy.

The Victorian Era was the time where the concept of the prohibition of alcohol took form, most of all, in the English speaking countries.

The idea that alcohol turned men into beasts – and it was specifically men – became ever more popular. Associations of worried citizens – some of which were predominantly associations of women – started to lobby for the introduction of laws against the consumption of alcohol. It was in the United States that this crusade proved to be most successful.

The Noble Experiment: Prohibition in the United States

Since the beginning of its history, the United States had been a place of hard-drinking. In its very early times, drinking alcohol was more common than drinking water as it was safer.

Still, American society was also predominantly Protestant, and temperance was deeply felt. Already in the very early 1800s, many Temperance movements started to act and ask for the prohibition of alcohol.

In the 1800s, it was the churches and the women’s movements that sustained the fight more strongly. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (founded in 1873), an association of wealthy women, soon became one of the main players in the campaign. These women believed that alcohol was responsible for the bad behaviour of many men who would lose their jobs and mistreat their wives and children when intoxicated. The actions of the WCTU was often showy and even violent. Women would pray outside saloons and sometimes destroy premises. They did indeed mobilise a lot of women, but their effectiveness was always limited. Their actions were often seen as amusing rather than political. Then, the Anti-Saloon League came onto the stage.

The League was founded in Ohio in 1893 and by 1895 it had already reached national influence. Under the guidance of their more fervent leader, Wayne Wheeler, the League successfully attained national Prohibition in 1920.

Though Prohibition might have seemed purely a movement against alcohol, it was also a social fight of the wealthy against the poor, Protestants against Catholics and residents against immigrants, as the division between Drys (who sustained Prohibition) and Wets (who opposed it) clearly shows.

Discourses of anti-immigration, suppression of minorities and control over the masses certainly entered into the Prohibition mindset. The Middle and Upper Classes were much less targeted by prohibition than the working classes. Still, it eventually affected the lives of everyone, even the wealthy. Alcohol use drastically fell to 30% of pre ban levels at first and while a growing black market increased that over time it never got above 70% of pre ban levels and national health and employment levels did improve as a result.

But national results hide a lot of variation. Prohibition was moderately successful in the countryside but it was never so in the big cities. There, people would regularly break the law to go drinking and dancing in underground (more or less) speakeasies, which were provided with alcohol by the many underworld organisations that became extremely powerful because of the huge black market of alcohol and bootlegging. But this did result in a large change in drinking culture as the macho working class Saloons were replaced by venues which catered to both males and females and were much more middle class and fashionable.

It is also widely thought that this thirteen years of Prohibition in America created a widespread disregard for the law, and a corresponding increase in the power of the security forces.

And that was among the main reasons why in the end, the Eighteen Amendment was repealed in 1933. It is the only instance of an amendment repeal in the history of the United States.

Temperance movements around the world

Although the US was the only state that ever approved a national prohibition law, around the world, the idea of temperance was more widespread than it is often credited for.

This was mostly true for English speaking countries that tended to be Protestant. The idea of the prohibition of alcohol never arose in the southern and central countries of Europe, for example, where the consumption of alcohol had always been a social activity widely accepted.

In the United Kingdom, the Preston Temperance Society was founded in 1813, preaching mostly temperance, rather than prohibition. It’s probably this association that coined the word teetotal, thought the legends about how the word came to be vary and are all equally possible and unproven. All in all, temperance was more popular than prohibition in the UK, where no Prohibition law was ever passed, though Edwin Scrymgeour of the Scottish Prohibition Party was elected four times as MP for Dundee, famously beating WInston Churchill in 1922.

The idea of a national prohibition along the lines of the US model reached Australia, but it was only passed in the Australian Capital Territory in 1910, ten years before the American Prohibition. Still, the act only stopped the concession of bar licences. It never prohibited the consumption of alcohol. Nothing prohibited anybody from crossing the border and buying or bringing back alcohol from the town of Queanbeyan, which was just across the border. The law was broken so easily and so often that it was finally removed in 1928.

The Twenties were strange times for queer people. In most countries, the relations and intercourse between people of the same sex (which mostly meant between men, queer women were seldom acknowledged) were against the law. Still, there were instances where this community started to gain recognition and in some cases, even acceptance.

Secrecy was the norm

In most countries of the Western World, homosexuality (or as it was defined, sodomy) was a prosecutable crime.

The queer community mostly lived in secrecy. Relationships happened in private houses. Though there were places where people could meet, these were generally underground and secret, and mostly functioned as ballrooms, where drag balls took place. Although secret to the outside, these balls could be very large. Tens of people may attend, and nobody would know, unless the police broke in, as sometimes would happen.

Meeting was difficult, both because of the secrecy and the danger of being discovered, so queer people developed a secret language that actually happened quite in the open. It sometimes appeared in newspaper adverts, were especially men would ask to meet other men, for example, to share a holiday. Or they could say that ‘I have an unusual temperament’. References to Edward Carpenter, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman were also quite common.

Drag shows in Harlem

The artistic environment had always been more open to queer people. Entertainment was an especially favourable space because, on a stage, people would dress as they wanted and seldom be judged. Therefore, in some such places drag shows started to leave secrecy and come more in the open.

In the 1920s, Harlem, the black city inside the city of New York, was the beating heart of the jazz revolution and the place of a thriving artistic community. Harlem housed famous theatres, as well as unnumbered speakeasies both known and secret. Here, people could enjoy and dance to the hottest jazz.

All of this made it seedy by default, a place where legal and illegal activities were expected to happen. Yet, the rebellious jazz music seemed to make all these liminal activities attractive.

Even wealthy whites who during the day would condemn everything happening in Harlem, at night would slum down to the entertainment district in search of any excess.

In this environment, drag shows occasionally came in the open and both queer and straight patrons would attend. It was still a very stylised form of meeting, as everything was when different communities met in Harlem, but it was the first step toward a more open frequentation.


In all this secrecy and shady relationships, Berlin was the one exception. In the 1920s, it was probably the most queer-friendly city on the globe.

It didn’t depend on the law. ‘Sodomy’ was a crime in Berlin as everywhere else. But over almost a century, the city had developed a form of control based on tolerance that proved to be both effective and ultimately open-minded.

After WWI, this unusual ‘freedom’ merged with the thriving entertainment industry of the Weimar Republic. Queer drag artists performed side by side with straight drag artists. Queer artists performed in mainstream establishments and shows. The mix became so common that the public stopped worrying who they were watching and simply enjoyed the show. Queer and straight people started to mix both on and off the stage and even in the audience. This created an environment of surprising tolerance.

The 1920s sexual freedom that allowed women to enjoy their sensuality more fully involved the queer community too. Berlin, the sin city of Germany, became a place where living one’s sexuality freely was a common occurrence.

The idea of borders being defended against civilians crossing them is a relatively new one. Before WWI, only very few people actually used passports.

But WWI closed all borders and when passports became of common use, the question of the refugee arose.

Refugee were people fleeing from their country, not just in search of a better life, but because they were in danger, for one reason or another. Their country may even consider outlaws and very unlikely it would provide a passport for them.

The aftermath of WWI produced an unprecedented number of people leaving their country in this way. When this became a serious issue, especially in light of the high numbers of Russian Jews and Armenians fleeing Russia, the League of Nations started to help these people.

In fact, it was the League that first defined who a refugee was and provided them with alternative travelling papers.

The Nansen Passports

Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian, explorer and cosmopolitan. He was one of the founders of the League of Nation, and in 1920, he took up the difficult task to solve the problem of the many people displaced by the war. Very many of these people couldn’t or wouldn’t go back to their country and therefore became stateless.

The situation became even worse due to the thousands of people who fled Soviet Russia. When Nansen took up the Russian refugee problem, he soon discovered it to be a thorny one. Refugees were often killed if repatriated, and neighbouring countries often refused to take them in, fearful that they would rob their citizen of the already few jobs. Stateless as they were, these people had no one who protected them.

Nansen soon realised that the solution wasn’t in offering help (though he initially did), but in giving them the protection and acknowledgement they needed, so that they could move to other countries as any citizen and create a life of their own.

This is exactly what the Nansen Passports did in 1922. These were travelling document provided by the League of Nations to people who’s lives were in danger should they return to their country.

Russian Jews and the White Russians

What created the refugee emergency in the 1920s were the thousands of people who fled Russia for different reasons.

The Russian Jews had been fleeing Russia for decades. Of all the ethnic and national groups that lived under the rule of the Russian czars, the Eastern European Jews were the ones that had suffered the harshest treatment. Isolated by the rest of the Empire by barriers of language and faith, often segregated in small villages called shtetls or in urban ghettoes, they also suffered brutal laws against them and inhuman treatment by the Russian people. Most of them never considered themselves Russians.

But in the 1880s the situation became even worse when the Russian Empire started massacres against them known as pogroms. The victims were in their thousands. It was also the last straw. Throngs of Jews fled Russia, even if the Empire tried to stop them. They reached the German ports, and from there they reached America, where they arrived in unprecedented numbers. Very few of them ever went back to Russia.

Another stream of Russian refugees started after the Revolution, but toward China.

These refugees were members of the armed forces, nobles or pro-establishment public figures who had often be part of the White Army who supported the Empire (as opposed to the Red Army that supported the Revolution) and were therefore known as the White Russians.

Most of them headed first to Harbin, which had been a pseudo-Russian colony since 1898, then moved towards Hong Kong and Shanghai where they created numerous communities. Although wealthy Chinese family often employed them as bodyguards because of their army experience, they never integrated into Chinese society. They were stateless people often considered among the lowest in society.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter. An extended version of this series can be bought here.


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