A Look at Bygone Days – A look back at the tumultuous ‘20s

On May 3, 1920, results of the 1920, U.S. Census were released and front-page headline in the Daily Telegram read: “Wonder city of South California is still on top: percentage of gain is among highest reported by Census Bureau; is the second city in County and third South of Tehachapi.” In the decade since 1910, when the official population tally revealed a population of 17,809 residents, Long Beach had increased to 55,593. This was an increase of 37,784 or 212.2%.

If unannexed territory surrounding the municipality had been annexed before the census, the city’s population would have been approximately 65,000. Other statistics reported in the Daily Telegram article reveal a more complete picture of the development of Long Beach: its monthly industrial payroll leaped from $7000 in 1910 to $650,000 in 1920; its industrial plant investments from $100,000 to $10,000,000, and its bank deposits from $4,274,225 to $28,655,205.’

So what would you find if you went to Long Beach in 1920? Reporter Reed Heustus told readers of what he saw in the June 29 Los Angeles Herald.

Long Beach was more than a beach resort, Heustus reported. It was now an industrial center, but it continued to hold its charms for pleasure seekers. It was home to state-society picnics, jazz, fishing and yet a place of quiet homes. Everything was new in Long Beach except the ocean. If you wandered through the town you might come across the Balboa Film Studio, and the rejuvenated Pike, where one could hear every known language of the world.

Long Beach had come a long way since 1884 when the settlement consisted of a dozen houses, a horse car line with wooden rails and the beginnings of a water system. Gradually it gathered momentum. By 1900 the population was 2252. It was in the decennial period from 1900 to 1910 that Long Beach began its real development. The city’s population increase in that time was 690.8%, which won the fame of being the fastest growing city in the United States.

The Los Angeles Times also lauded Long Beach in its May 5, 1920 issue:
“All California should feel grateful to Long Beach; for the frequently repeated cynicism that no community here can hope to measure up to the claims of its boosters has been refuted very satisfactorily and very convincingly by the beach city. So, hail to the fair city of Long Beach. It has not only set a mark for the whole nation, but it has outstripped its own boosters.
Though she didn’t qualify for the 1920 census, having been born after the census count, May Bird became the first Native American child born in the City of Long Beach. Baby Bird made her entry into the world at the Frances Campbell Apartments, 249 Pine Avenue, in early May 1920. Her mother had been visiting Long Beach when the baby decided to arrive early. Her father, Virgil Bird, had yet to see his daughter. He was a member of the Chickasaw tribe and worked in the oil industry in Oklahoma and Texas. He was anxiously awaiting his wife and newborn daughter’s return to their home in Oklahoma. May Bird, who weighed in at 8.5 lbs. was named for the landlady, Miss May Johnson, who was the first person to have seen her.

On January 17, 1920, America went dry. Alcohol could no longer be consumed for pleasure in the United States. Andrew J. Volstead, a Republic congressman from Minnesota had introduced the bill to ban alcohol throughout the United States on May 27, 1919. An already desperately ill President Wilson, further weakened by his losing fight to keep America within the League of Nations, vetoed it, on both constitutional and ethical grounds. But that same day, the veto was overridden in Congress, and the act became law.

Many Americans were shocked in October 1919 when the Volstead Act, passed after the ratification of the 18th Amendment, established a law making it illegal to possess or make any beverage containing more than one-half of one percent of alcohol. The original amendment had not been explicit in defining what the alcohol level of “intoxicating” beverages consisted of. Acting in defiance of the Volstead Act, the legislatures of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts passed laws in 1920 allowing the production and sale of low-alcohol beer or light wines. Later that year the Supreme Court crushed these local attempts to set alcohol limits higher than those imposed by the Volstead Act. The touchy matter of religious freedom was avoided by exempting sacramental wines from the ban on beverage alcohol, although permits were required to obtain communion wine. Permits were also granted for the medicinal use of alcohol and its use in the commercial manufacture of cider and vinegar. Congress offered protection for the possession and use of alcohol in private residences if used only for the personal consumption of the owner, his family, and bona fide guests. Moreover, Congress blocked searches of private dwellings unless illegal liquor had been sold inside them.

The ratification of the 18th “Amendment gave no assurance that the cooperation required for the “concurrent” enforcement of prohibition by states as well as the federal government would be forthcoming. As a result, all states enacted ‘baby Volstead’ laws in the early 1920s to accompany the national prohibition statute. Some state laws were even harsher than the Volstead Act, outlawing the personal possession of liquor and giving local authorities greater power to search out and seize illegal alcohol. On May 7, 1921, California passed the Wright Act which mandated that all state, city and county officials enforced the national Volstead Act. But the Wright Act was put on hold when the “wets” obtained enough signatures to put it on a referendum ballot in 1922—a clever way to delay the bill for almost two years. On November 7, 1922, the Wright Act passed by a majority of 29,621 votes. At midnight Dec. 22, 1922, it went into effect.

Why had Prohibition, a cause that had been fought for nearly 100 years, become so popular? The Women’s Christian Temperance League and the Anti-Saloon League had been leading a crusade against alcohol for years, but it was the war that brought things to ahead. According to Edward Behr in his book Prohibition, the German influx into America after the 1830s made America beer conscious. The result was that many German-American communities established breweries. Before World War I the German-Americans supported Germany in their war against Britain, sending money and even urging a German invasion of Canada. “Older” Americans, of British rootstock, were aghast. When America entered the war against Germany there was a wave of anti-German hysteria which resulted in ill feelings towards the German-American operated breweries. This was a major reason for Prohibition, according to Behr—to get rid of the German-American breweries.

The delay between the passing of the act and its implementation was no humane measure to let Americans enjoy one last year of legal drinking. The intervening year was spent setting up new law enforcement machinery. From the first, when the Prohibition Bureau was put under the jurisdiction of the Treasury, instead of the Justice Department, problems arose. Another disastrous decision was making the new Prohibition agents exempt from Civil Service rules. In every state, their recruitment was political. All that was required on the part of an aspiring Prohibition agent was the endorsement of a politician. No other qualifications or character references were needed; some of the recruits even had criminal records. The job paid a maximum salary of $2,300 a year, barely enough to live on, almost inviting corruption. However, the nation’s legislators professed to be completely taken aback by the extent of Prohibition-related lawbreaking.

The futility of enforcing prohibition laws became apparent in 1928 when a San Francisco jury in a liquor case came under indictment for drinking the evidence. Everywhere overburdened courts collapsed under the weight of cases generated by Prohibition.

You will find more about this era in Long Beach history in my book “Prohibition Madness.”