100 Years Ago, Cincinnati Slid Into The ‘Roaring Twenties’

The “Roaring Twenties” arrived in Cincinnati bathed in cautious optimism. The War, the Great War, the war not yet known as World War I, was over and almost all our troops had returned home. The pandemic influenza of 1919 was just a memory. The Reds were baseball’s world champions. Business was humming along and, with railroads nationally still tangled due to wartime material demands, Cincinnati actually benefitted from old-time river traffic. The Enquirer [January 1, 1920] summed up the world of 1920 as “Bolshevism, strikes and presidential possibilities.”

Despite cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s prediction that 1920 would ring in with grape juice and sarsaparilla, Cincinnatians were still drinking up alcoholic beverages they had stored up in anticipation of Prohibition.

Image Courtesy The Cincinnati Post, January 1, 1920 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The brand-new Hamilton County Courthouse, dedicated on October 18, 1919, overlooked the dried and drained remains of the old Miami and Erie Canal, as construction began on the “Rapid Transit Loop” later dismissed as Cincinnati’s doomed subway. By June 1920, nearly 15 percent of subway construction was complete, even as land acquisition continued. The 1920 City Directory saw big things ahead:

This improvement is a belt railway, touching the outlying districts of the city and suburban towns, designed to more conveniently admit interurban railway tines and connect the various lines of street railway with the central part of the city. It will tend to induce citizens to use the hill-top sections for residence purposes and relieve down-town congestion.

Nationally, Prohibition of alcohol sales kicked in on January 17, but Cincinnati, like most of the country, had been living with a wartime ban on alcohol for nearly a year. Still, the wartime ban affected only the sale of alcohol, not manufacture or transport, so New Year revelers in Cincinnati brought their own bottles to the many downtown parties. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [January 1, 1920]:

Had not the Government given its permission for the owners of trusty ‘private stocks’ to keep their stocks for their own use? Had not the same Government given permission for these owners to tilt their bottles of ‘private stocks’ to their own lips, as often as they desired? And had not hotel proprietors said, solemnly, that they had no way of preventing their guests from taking a taste or two at New-Year’s tables, if it was from their ‘private’ bottles?

Cincinnati rang in the “Roaring Twenties” as baseball champions of the world and optimism reigned in anticipation of a post-War economic boom.

Image Courtesy The Cincinnati Enquirer, January 1, 1920 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Despite a year as a dry town, Cincinnatians had not yet generally adopted illegal and dangerous tactics to get a drink. The first speakeasy doesn’t show up until much later in the year and there are few reports here of wood-alcohol poisoning. The Cincinnati Post [January 1, 1920] found that a book by Albert A. Hopkins titled “Home-Made Beverages,” including recipes for alcoholic concoctions, had been checked out of the Public Library only six times since wartime prohibition took effect. (It appears that this book is no longer among the collections of the Public Library.)

Perhaps the wildest of the year-end revelries was the frolic staged by the Cincinnati Grain and Hay Exchange in the ballroom of the Hotel Gibson. Jazz and ragtime music propelled dancers throughout the event, interspersed with some songs performed by Exchange executives in black face and an assortment of vaudeville acts. Although the Exchange celebrated a good year, with record deliveries of grain and hay, the celebration carried the ominous echo of the band playing as the Titanic sank. All of this grain and hay, after all, was fuel for the horses that still trundled over the city’s streets, dodging the new and increasingly popular horseless carriages.

The Traction Company shifted schedules an hour later than normal to accommodate party-goers returning home after midnight. Cincinnati’s streets were alive with loud and dangerous noisemakers. The Enquirer reported:

With whistles, bells, revolvers and noise-making devices of every conceivable nature they brought the lusty infant, 1920, into existence.

For those of a less exuberant disposition, Cincinnati also offered a massive poultry show at Music Hall, where Willinez Farm of Holmdell, New York, won the Sussex Cup for their exhibition of speckled poultry.

Before the parties got rolling, civic leaders gathered on New Year’s Eve to debate plans affecting downtown congestion. Traffic jams had become such a concern that many expressed a belief that Cincinnati’s future growth hang in the balance. According to the Enquirer [January 1, 1920]:

These officials are of the opinion that the plan of one-way traffic streets of Fourth and Sixth streets, as proposed by Councilman [Michael] Mullen in an ordinance he will submit to City Council next Tuesday for approval, is a step in the right direction and should result in better traffic conditions in the shopping district.

Still, according to civic leaders surveyed by the Enquirer, Mullen’s plan was a stop-gap measure and real relief would arrive only when the subway reached down to Fourth Street.

In addition to shopping, downtown Cincinnati was the entertainment district and the many theaters were split between motion pictures and live acts. On New Year’s Day 1920, the Walnut Theater was showing “Mind The Paint Girl” a silent film drama starring Anita Stewart. That film is now “lost” with no known surviving copies. The Strand enticed viewers to “The Thunderbolt,” a silent film starring Katherine MacDonald. At the Olympic Burlesque Theater, which advertised itself as “clean-cut classy,” the Broadway Girls held forth in a performance the Olympic declared safe enough for your “mother, wife or sweetheart.” The Empress Theater, not yet harboring its famous chili parlor, offered “Round The Town,” billed as “the giggly girly show.”

The big New Year’s game was Harvard versus Oregon in the Rose Bowl. (Harvard won, 7 to 6.) But most of the sports pages were given over to predictions on a boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier—a match that would not take place for another year.

Facebook Comments