Celebrating 100 Years Since Prohibition—and KC’s First Golden Age
Prohibition forever changed Kansas City. The Federal ban on the sale and import of alcohol in the United States was largely ignored by the city for its entirety, launching a golden age in KC—and fueling a unique spirit that lives on today.
Temperance and Prohibition
While the temperance movement in the United States dates to the early 19th century, it truly took off soon after the end of the Civil War.
Rapid industrialization and a sharp increase in immigration frightened many Americans, who worried that society would be forever altered by these changes. Drinking was often associated with migrant populations and working-class people, leading to the formation of temperance groups and religious organizations that called for the outright ban of alcohol to stymy what they saw as a harmful shift in culture.
The movement eventually succeeded. In 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale and import of alcohol and took effect one year later, Jan. 17, 1920. Though its proponents promised a decline in criminal activity, the amendment inspired the opposite; organized crime skyrocketed, bolstered in influence and funded in part by illicit alcohol sales.
Soon illegal speakeasies were the hottest spots in town, bootleggers made fortunes smuggling booze and gangsters like Al Capone dominated cities with their operations.
The Twenties were officially Roaring.
“Boss Tom” and Kansas City’s Golden Age
Kansas City largely ignored these new rules. Political boss Tom Pendergast and his machine controlled much of the city government with bribes, election fraud and easily influenced law enforcement. Boss Tom’s sway even helped launch the political career of friend and future U.S. President Harry S. Truman, a native of the region.
It didn’t take long for KC to become a cultural hub for jazz, nightlife, drinking and gambling (among other vices) as a result. Edward Morrow of the Omaha World-Herald put it best back then: “If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and go to Kansas City.”
KC adopted this mantra, and soon it became known as the Paris of the Plains—far more than a charmingly alliterative nickname, because the city really was jumping. Liquor flowed freely, saloons were well-stocked and jazz joints on the legendary 12th Street and in still-standing 18th & Vine stood as proving grounds for a generation of legendary musicians, including Count Basie, Julia Lee, Charlie “Bird” Parker and Bennie Moten.
But the good times didn’t last forever. Congress ratified the 21st Amendment in 1933, which repealed the 18th, ended Prohibition and made alcohol sales legal across America. In 1939, Boss Tom was convicted of income tax evasion and served 15 months in Federal prison. By the time World War II was in full swing, most jazz musicians had moved on from the once-hopping scene.
Kansas City’s golden age was over—at least, so it seemed.
A Thriving Modern Culture
The spirit of that first cultural boom lives on today in Kansas City’s latest renaissance.
Craft breweries and distilleries now dot the metro map—perfectly legally this time, thankfully. Speakeasies like Manifesto and P.S. treat guests to cocktail creations in hidden locations. Meanwhile, historic J. Rieger & Co. produces pre-Prohibition spirits in its East Bottoms facility and Pendergast-inspired Tom’s Town showcases its spirits in a Crossroads Arts District tasting room adorned with Art Deco flair.
Live music continues to represent a high point in local culture, as many of the world’s most prominent artists make sure to pass through the New Midwest to perform at venues like Sprint Center, Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland and Starlight Theatre.
There’s also jazz, which remains Kansas City’s signature sound in more than 40 joints throughout Downtown, the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District and the Crossroads Arts District. In 18th & Vine—an epicenter for KC’s black community, then and now—travelers will also find tributes to the region’s Prohibition past at the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
It’s hard to imagine a Kansas City without Prohibition. But while the law may have originally put KC on the map, consider the 18th more of a starting point than a flash in the pan. What followed was the result of a collection of people who preferred to follow their own path than fall in line, to show the rest of the world what Kansas City can do.
In 2020, we celebrate 100 years of that heritage.