When one of my good friends mentioned that she was planning on having a 1920s theme for her thirtieth birthday party, I jumped at the chance of helping her with the party planning. Having visited one of the many “speakeasy” bars in New York, “Bath Tub Gin” in Chelsea last November, I already had some thoughts of how we should go about transforming her pad into a “joint” worthy of the approval of AL CAPONE himself.
The Jazz Age
The ROARING TWENTIES has become one of the most iconic eras of modern American history: beginning with the end of the Great War, and culminating in the financial implosion that was the Wall Street Crash of 1929. This period was defined by juxtaposition, with the social elites immersing themselves in luxurious decadence in exclusive suburbs, as the rest of the population struggled to make ends meet in increasingly industrialised and harsh living conditions. The success of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and the recent Baz Luhrmann adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald literary classic, The Great Gatsby, only confirm our fascination with this decade.
In many ways, THE GREAT GATSBY is a timeless classic, its themes consistent with the “boom or bust” attitudes that have permeated the Western world since the early 2000s. Jay-Z’s morphing of jazz-age sounds into a twenty first century soundtrack cleverly transposes the frivolities and excesses of a Gatsby-esq romp into one that would be fit for the bright young things of today. Luhrmann’s Gatsby provides a visual frenzy of glitz and glamour, with diamonds, champagne and lavish attire dominating the screen. The movie’s collaboration with New York’s TIFFANY & CO, in particular, epitomises the obscene wealth of both the “old money” elite and the “nouveau riche” of Long Island, with the beautiful Carey Mulligan, donning the spectacular Savoy headpiece, embodying all that was desirable in the flapper generation.
But parties and frivolities aside, The Great Gatsby also alludes to the far darker side of this period, as Jay Gatsby himself is rumoured to be involved in the criminal underworld that underpinned 1920s AMERICA. In fact, it seems that the introduction of prohibition in 1919 is what most of us are utterly fascinated by, and most notably associate with, this period.
PROHIBITION in the US came into effect with the passing of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, with the Volstead Act defining which “intoxicating liquor” would be prohibited, and setting out how the ban would be enforced. What many people are not aware of is that the consumption of alcohol was not itself illegal, but the sale, production and transportation of alcohol made it difficult for people to obtain alcohol during the period between 1919 and 1933.
Initially, the US government banned alcohol over a certain alcohol content with a view of saving grain during the war effort, but this ban was taken to a new level with the passing of the eighteenth amendment, which took effect in January 1920. This was seen as a victory for numerous “TEMPERANCE” societies that had been campaigning for similar laws since the mid nineteenth century. However, it was only a picric victory for these societies, as organised crime thrived in the bootlegging of alcohol across the United States following the introduction. It is said that, although alcohol consumption did decrease during this period, there continued to be large percentage of the population who continued to consume, often intoxicating, liquor during this period.
This continued consumption can be attributed, in part, to the opening of large numbers of “SPEAKEASY” clubs across the country. The term speakeasy was used prior to Prohibition, and is said to have originated in Pennsylvania which had a number of unlicensed saloons in the region. Run by the powerful organised crime gangs that sprung up during the period, these institutions proved particularly profitable, and provided gangsters, such as Al Capone, with the means to flourish in way that would never have been possible prior to the introduction of prohibition, and millions of dollars worth of profits in the bootlegging market were readily available to these unscrupulous individuals during this time.
Alcohol produced by distillers employed by such gangsters meant that these criminal organisations monopolised the entire market (although smaller distillers of “MOONSHINE” were also prevalent during this period), and the authorities did not have sufficient resource to prevent the rapid expansion of these businesses. during the early years of prohibition. However, whether produced by smaller distillers or by those run by large organised crime groups, these illicit, high-proof distilled spirits were often dangers and poorly produced, and could often contain antifreeze or even lead.
In an attempt to help prevent BOOTLEGGERS using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce alcohol, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. But this only made the gangsters more creative, and they hired specialised chemists to re-nature this alcohol specifically to try and make it “drinkable”. More extreme measures were adopted when this poisoning method failed to hinder the production of illicit alcohol, and methyl alcohol was then added to industrial stock. Controversially, it is said that that up to 10,000 US citizens died from consuming alcohol distilled from stock containing this deadly additive, a statistic that the government of the time was keen to ignore.
However, for us folk of the twenty first century, at least, the prohibition proved to be the catalyst for the development of the vast array of COCKTAILS that we all continue to enjoy today. Prior to prohibition, 19th century so called “classic cocktails” celebrated the raw taste of the liquor, but with the lack of the availability of premium products during prohibition, speakeasy proprietors sought to mask the usually highly unpleasant taste of moonshine by concocting different an elaborate combinations of alcohol and mixers. Some of the cocktails that still survive today include Bees Knees (cocktails using honey, lemon and orange juice to mask the god-awful gin that was available at the time), and the classic Highball, a cocktail that added ginger beer to any of the dark spirits that would have been prevalent at the time.
The “Easy” Speakeasy Reproduction
My friend’s house lent itself perfectly to this theme, with large exposed stone walls, high ceilings and rustic wood flooring. It was a “roaring” success, with an authentic cocktail bar, opulent canapé buffet, charades and VINTAGE style guest book.
For more details about how to re-create your very own speakeasy themed party, please visit the wonderful BLOOMING BOO blog (available at http://bloomingbooboo.blogspot.co.uk ) within the next couple of days where you will find the guest piece I have prepared on the topic.
“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.”
F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby