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How Prohibition Forever Changed Women’s Cultural Relationship with Alcohol

On the hostess Langston Hughes called the “Joy Goddess of Harlem.”

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.