Popular Vices

IF THE LAST third of the twentieth century was known as an era of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," the first third was known for "sex, drugs and jazz." Wild youth, wild women, wild parties – all seemed to come together in the 1920s. Just as in later decades, alcohol, drugs and tobacco were used and abused on a widespread basis during these years.

Adults were worried - panicked, actually - by thoughts of how the younger generation would be the Ruination of Society. This was nothing new; as "Flapper Jane" author Bruce Bliven noted in 1925, "I read this book whaddaya-call-it by Rose Macaulay, and she showed where they'd been excited about wild youth for three generations anyhow – since 1870. I have a hunch maybe they've always been excited."


After the twin horrors of World War One and the 1918 influenza pandemic – events which combined to kill nearly fifty million people worldwide – American men and women went into the 1920s fearing their own mortality. This primal fear of death, which was no longer something abstract and far away but real and unpredictable, prompted attitudes of impatience ("Do it now, the End is coming!") and carelessness ("It doesn't matter what we do; the End is inevitable!"). This was true of women as well as men. As Zelda Fitzgerald stated in 1922, a young woman had "the right to experiment with herself as a transient, poignant figure who will be dead tomorrow."

The new Freudian psychology, sensual Hollywood movies showing plenty of female skin, boldly explicit plays and novels, and lurid magazines helped demystify sex, a trend fueled by the 1920s’ widespread consumerism (which encouraged self-gratification). A veritable “contraceptive revolution” in the early twentieth century likewise bolstered the country’s openness about sexual matters. In short, the “new woman” of the 1920s had increasing freedom to determine the course of her own life. Bruce Blevin, in his article "Flapper Jane," noted:

Women have highly resolved that they are just as good as men, and intend to be treated so. They don't mean to have any more unwanted children. They don't intend to be debarred from any profession or occupation which they choose to enter. They clearly mean (even though not all of them yet realize it) that in the great game of sexual selection they shall no longer be forced to play the role, simulated or real, of helpless quarry.

During the 1920s, women pursued men (and men pursued women, of course) with alacrity. Some even threw "petting parties" where sex was the main attraction. In short, they acted as if they might die at any moment, or worse still, get old. Add alcohol to the mix and things really got dicey!


In 1919, a law went into effect that turned otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals. At the same time, men and women who were already living on the edge of society became part of a powerful new criminal underground. Known as Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages. While many felt that Demon Rum was the cause of society's ills, the cure turned out to be almost worse than the sickness. When Americans couldn't get their beer, wine and gin legally, they began producing it on their own. Some distilled bathtub gin while others operated secret distilleries (called stills) on the outskirts of town. Private clubs sprang up everywhere. In Sheridan, upwards of twenty speakeasies and beer flats could be found operating at any one time and the police were kept very busy putting these small operations out of business.

Try as they might, the authorities couldn't control the growth of the illegal liquor trade. Realizing the amount of money that could be made, mobsters and hoodlums began smuggling liquor in from Canada. They divided the country up into territories, each controlled by a "family" that became rich on the proceeds. Al Capone and Lucky Luciano were just two of the many gangsters that began their careers as bootleggers or rumrunners. 


After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, organized crime did not disappear. Instead, it reorganized itself and moved more heavily into the lucrative drug trade. The main drugs handled by organized crime during the teens, twenties and thirties were cocaine and opiates. Marijuana was not criminalized until 1937, and most of the other drugs used recreationally today were either legal (i.e., amphetamines) or not invented yet. Until 1914, cocaine use was legal in the United States. It was used in popular tonics as a stimulant and until 1903 was one of the main ingredients of Coca-Cola. 

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, major pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and Parke-Davis manufactured hundreds of thousands of pounds of refined cocaine per year. Even after the drug was banned due to an increase in drug-related fatalities, it remained immensely popular; in 1931, the U.S. was second only to Japan in cocaine production, and most of the cocaine distribution was handled by a network of well-organized underworld dealers.

These same dealers also handled the opium trade. Because it could not be produced in quantity in the United States, opium – and its derivative heroin – were favorites of smugglers. In the 1920s, organized crime groups in the United States were supplied with plenty of opium by powerful Chinese syndicates in Shanghai, and all of it had to be smuggled past customs inspectors, postal inspectors and other law enforcement agents. Because of the risks they ran, drug dealers and smugglers felt free to charge a great deal for their product. Once they were hooked, users would spend everything they had to feed their habits. Fortunes were lost, careers destroyed and families torn apart in the process. Drug users also ran the risk of serious legal and health complications. Even so, many were willing to risk everything in order to experience the sensations offered them by concoctions that would either relax them, stimulate them, or make them forget. 


Many of those abusing drugs in the first third of the 20th Century were women who didn't always realize what they were doing. Unlabeled over-the-counter tonics and pills were full of relaxing opiates, stimulating cocaine, refreshing alcohol and other drugs of questionable purpose. Before the days of the Food and Drug Administration, over-the-counter drugs were unregulated. They could contain whatever ingredients the manufacturer wanted – whether they worked or not. While most of the ingredients were fairly harmless, others were highly addictive and/or dangerous: Warner's Safe Tonic Bitters was 35.7 percent alcohol; Dover's Powder contained ipecac and opium; Jayne's Carminative contained both alcohol (23 percent) and opium. Others were known to contain heroin and cocaine.

Perhaps the best known and best marketed of these elixirs was Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. Introduced in the late 1870s by Lydia Estes Pinkham of Lynn, Massachusetts, the tonic was advertised as a cure for “all those painful Complaints and Weaknesses so common to our best female population.” It contained Vitamin B-1, Gentian, Black Cohosh, True and False Unicorn, Life Root Plant, Dandelion, Chamomile, Pleurisy Root and Licorice. It also contained a fair amount of alcohol. Although she'd been active in the temperance movement, Lydia's compound contained between fifteen and twenty percent alcohol. According to the package, the alcohol was used solely as a solvent and preservative. It comes as no surprise, however, to note that during Prohibition, sales of Lydia Pinkham's tonic skyrocketed. 

For those interested in making their own medicines, Sears Roebuck and other mail-order catalogs sold medical cases full of cures. One could buy “anything in the line of homeopathic supplies,” including such poisonous ingredients as belladonna, arsenic, antimony, mercury and nitric acid. It is no coincidence that in one early Sears catalog, home remedies and fly killers were sold on the same page! Many of these remedies were outlandish, others dangerous and still others quite effective. It was up to the consumer to figure out the difference. Take, for example, these three cough remedies:

  • Indian turnip and whiskey 
  • Camphorated tincture of opium mixed with sulphuric ether and tree resin
  • Lemon juice and strained honey combined with Jamaica rum

Later, when effective over-the-counter cures became readily available, many of them contained the same natural ingredients found in the better home remedies: menthol, lemon and honey are still used in cough medicines today.


Some of those coughs may have been caused by smoking. For hundreds of years, tobacco use has been viewed as both a horrible vice and an acceptable icebreaker. On the one hand, tobacco has been condemned for its adverse impact on the human body. On the other, the use of tobacco has brought together strangers, leveling cultural, social and economic barriers in the process. While today's society may not approve of tobacco, its use was widespread and popular during the first third of the twentieth century.

Following the lead of many tobacco users, Manville Kendrick started smoking cigarettes when he was away at school. It was a habit he kept most of his life and like the cowboys on the Kendrick ranches, he smoked both packaged cigarettes and hand-rolled ones. While his father did not condemn smoking, he did feel that too much of it was a sign of stress. As he told Manville in 1918:

Robert Kirkpatrick called at the house the other evening, just before starting across [to France] . … During a brief visit of thirty or forty minutes I noticed he smoked one cigar and a hand-full of cigarettes. This is just another way of "burning the candle at both ends" physically, and I think mentally.

Rosa-Maye Kendrick rarely smoked. Before the turn of the century, in fact, smoking was something no self-respecting woman did, either in public or in private. In some locations it was illegal for a woman to smoke in public: in 1904, a woman was arrested in New York City for smoking a cigarette while riding in an open automobile. Even though most cigarette makers featured women in their ads, few if any of the women were actually smoking. That changed by the 1920s, when Marlboro and other cigarette manufacturers began running ads with women holding lit cigarettes (they still weren't shown actually inhaling). Soon, however, social values changed and tobacco marketing efforts were geared more and more towards women. Progressive, modern women, the ad men said, led their own lives and smoked their own cigarettes in the process. 

Rather than pushing taste or attitude, the American Tobacco Company actually encouraged women to smoke instead of snack. Newspaper and magazine ads suggested “Try a Lucky, Instead of a Sweet.” The implication was that since cigarettes were nonfattening, they were naturally healthier!

In the late teens and twenties, even though the magazine ads said it was okay, many people still felt that it was inappropriate – sinful even – for women to smoke. The reasons were many: some doctors claimed that smoking was bad for the complexion; others said that smokers would make poor wives because smoking was an indicator of bad character. Indeed, when combined with drinking, smoking was considered proof of coarseness and dishonesty. Such opinions did not, however, stop ever-increasing numbers of women from picking up the habit.

From New Amsterdam Theater program (Hoff Collection)

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
​April 1999 - December 2001

Days Of Wonder

Sights and Sounds of America's Past, 1913-1933

Detail from movie poster, 1916  (Private Collection)

 State Historic Site

Trail End