How Prohibition Forever Changed Women’s Cultural Relationship with Alcohol

During the Tea Party Hostess period around the turn of the twentieth century, women had already begun hosting mixed company drinks events and venturing out of their tea parlors and into restaurants and dining clubs. However, when bars and drinking clubs closed with the implementation of the Volstead Act in 1920, drinking was driven underground: first, to speakeasies and illegal dining clubs, and later to the home bar.

As a result, women began participating in nightlife in a way they never had before and, as newly empowered and emancipated hostesses, became involved in greater numbers not only in the consuming of cocktails, but in the creation and mixing of them, too.

Now that men and women were socializing and drinking together, in effect women became the key promoters of the cocktail, buoyed by their long-standing role as the chief entertainers of the home. The phenomenon of the cocktail party kicked off in the apartments of well-to-do hostesses across major cities like New York City in the early 1920s, and over the course of the next two decades, spread like hedonistic wildfire into the suburbs and beyond.

Farther uptown in New York City, A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, the first self-made woman and African American millionaire, held court at cocktail parties attended by some of the most famous figures during the Harlem Renaissance era. In the 1920s, she famously converted a floor of her Harlem town house into the Dark Tower, a literary salon, nightclub, and tearoom that became a legendary hot spot for Black writers, artists, and performers, attracting prominent publishers, civil rights leaders, and even African and European royalty as its guests.

The tower was open until two a.m., cost $1 to join, and was always thronging. According to poet Langston Hughes, “Unless you went early there was no possible way of getting in. Her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour—entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests, with everybody seeming to enjoy the crowding.” Langston Hughes dubbed A’Lelia the “Joy Goddess of Harlem” because of how she brought people together with lavish food, sparkling drinks, and music from the top classical, ragtime, jazz, and blues artists of the day.

However, like other Grand Hostesses, A’Lelia was not only a celebrated hostess, but also a prominent social activist. In particular, her events were known as safe spaces for the LGBTQ community at a time when being Black and gay was virtually a social impossibility. As the dancer and former guest Mabel Hamilton once recalled, “There were men and women, women and women, and men and men, and everyone did whatever they wanted to do.”

A’Lelia’s parties were some of the most hotly attended and widely reported gatherings of the Harlem Renaissance era. One of the journalists who reported on her events was Geraldyn Dismond. A familiar and glamorous figure in the scene, she was known locally as “Harlem’s Hostess.”

In the 1930s, she wrote a syndicated column called “The Social Whirl” in which she reported on social happenings and shared cocktail and hosting tips. In one article she revealed her own signature cocktail to be the Green Skirt, which she made with two–thirds gin, one–third crème de menthe, a dash of lemon juice, and a minted cherry, served over crushed ice.

Geraldyn, or Gerri Major as she was otherwise known, would continue to influence Black media and cocktail culture for decades to come as associate editor of Jet magazine and later senior staff editor of Ebony magazine.

During the early twentieth century, the venues for cocktail parties got a major makeover when women began entering the field of professional interior design. One of the most influential designers of the period was Elsie de Wolfe, whose trademark style of pastel and chintz transformed the dark and dull reception rooms of the Victorian era into the bright, cheerful, and feminine parlors that became the venues for the first cocktail parties in the 1920s and ’30s.

Elsie was said to be a legendary hostess, herself, and like other Grand Hostesses of the era, gave parties usually attended by the chicest members of society. One of her regular guests was the infamous Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, who once remarked of her host, “She mixes people like a cocktail—and the result is sheer genius.”

Dorothy had a deep understanding of how people, and especially women, wanted to feel when they were drinking a cocktail, and brought this sentiment forward into her designs.

In the 1920s, Vogue shared a recipe for Elsie’s signature drink served at her parties, known as Lady Mendl’s Invention. The drink was composed of gin, grenadine, lemon, and egg white, which led many at the time to speculate that Elsie was the creator of the original Pink Lady cocktail.

Another high–profile designer of the midcentury era was Dorothy Draper, whose bold feminine designs transformed some of the most iconic hotels and restaurants in the country, including the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

Dorothy had a deep understanding of how people, and especially women, wanted to feel when they were drinking a cocktail, and brought this sentiment forward into her designs. For example, one of her well-known commissions was the Camellia House Supper Club at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where she famously used a bright pink camellia motif in every aspect of the space, from the carpets and light fixtures of the lounge to the matchbook covers and swizzle sticks of the bar.

The overall effect was bold, feminine, flirty, and chic—a stark contrast to the dark, austere, and masculine hotel bars and private clubs where the cocktail had first got its start.


The Cocktail Parlor | Nicola Nice, Robert Simonson | W. W. Norton & Company

The Cocktail Parlor: How Women Brought the Cocktail Home by Nicola Nice is available via Countryman Press.

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