Drug Stores in the 1920s

In my Roaring  Twenties series, I’ve set several scenes in drug stores. In SILENT MURDERS Jessie visits a dozen drug stores, looking for evidence of someone buying poison. I appreciate pictures like these when describing what the drug stores looked like. 

Interestingly, drug stores became the best place, outside of the speakeasy, to buy liquor. It was legal if you had a doctor’s prescription for it, and you could buy it at any drug store; it was illegal to buy it at a speakeasy. Many people did both. 







Published in: on October 16, 2016 at 3:16 pm  Comments (3)  

Winemaking in the 1920s

58675662Well, there wasn’t much winemaking after 1920, since Prohibition caused most of the wineries to close. A few wineries in California (such as Beaulieu Vineyards, Christian Brothers) stayed in business to make legal sacramental wine for churches and synagogues, but the vast majority closed in 1920, suffering catastrophic losses that were not reimbursed by the government–an “illegal taking,” according to some. (I learned that Beaulieu Vineyards was producing over a million gallons of wine during Prohibition–all legal, all supposedly for religious purposes . . . ha!) 

Wine drinking was still largely a California kind of thing in those years. In the rest of the country, very generally speaking, it was mostly just immigrants (Italians, French, Greeks, and other southern Europeans) and the wealthy who drank wine. So as I write my current mystery, set in Chicago in 1924 with characters who are French Canadian and Italian plus one wealthy German family, I can have them drinking wine. Otherwise, my characters drink beer, spirits, or hard cider, all illegal, of course. 

Christian Brothers Winery

Christian Brothers Winery

Published in: on October 1, 2016 at 12:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Booze Cruises

thOne of many changes that Prohibition brought to America was the “booze cruise,” “party cruise,” or “cruise to nowhere”–short boat trips that sailed beyond the three-mile territorial limit (now obsolete) where American law no longer applied. There, guests could indulge in alcohol to their hearts’ content.

Suddenly popular, too, were short sailing trips to the Bahamas and Havana, where clubs and other drinking establishments sprang up to cater to thirsty Americans. Prior to 1920, the reason people took a cruise was to get across the ocean. By the early 1920s, cruising had taken on a different connotation. Historians believe these pleasure cruises were the beginning of a new industry–the vacation cruise industry. 


Medicinal Alcohol and the AMA

In 1917, the doctors of the American Medical Association unanimously voted to remove alcohol from the approved medicine list, ruling that it had no medical value. But when Prohibition loomed on the horizon, the doctors saw the error of their ways. They now realized that alcohol was indeed a very important medicine, one that they should be allowed to prescribe. It was crucial in treating people with all sorts of illnesses, including old age. The doctors lobbied for–and received–permission in 1922 to prescribe medicinal alcohol to their deserving patients. Drug stores sprang up on every corner (almost as many as speakeasies) to fill these prescriptions. Here is an example of one, dated 1929, written by a doctor in Pennsylvania.
Medical Liquor Prescription

Published in: on September 14, 2016 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  

“Name That Character” Part II

thLast week I wrote about how dicey it can be for authors to name their characters–especially for authors of historical fiction who must consider names suited to both era and ethnic group. This week I thought I’d bring up another challenge that all writers face: avoiding look-alike names.

Today’s agents and editors often advise authors to choose names that do not resemble others in the story so readers will not easily confuse the characters. For example, when I wrote THE IMPERSONATOR, I had two brothers named Ross and Reed. My editor ruled them too similar, so I changed Reed to Henry. Ever since, I’ve tried not to use the same first letter on any of my characters. You don’t want a Mary Ellen and a Mary Jane, a Richard and a Rick, or a Bonnie and a Barbie. 

One trick I’ve learned from other authors is to keep a list of the alphabet beside your keyboard and tick off each letter when you use for a character. After a while, you start looking at your list of available letters and thinking, “Let’s see, H, L, M, and W still open . . . what would a good man’s name be that starts with one of those?” 

It gets trickier for me because some of my characters are real people. I can’t change the names of silent film stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, or President Calvin Coolidge, so I must exclude those letters from the start. 

Another concern is accidentally using a real name. Obviously, just about any name an author chooses will have a real person or two (or eighteen thousand) somewhere, but authors don’t want to use the name of a real person who is well-known. Once I named a character Brian Jones, unaware that it was the name of a musician with the Rolling Stones. (Obviously I am not a rock music fan.) That would have been distracting to many readers, so when my critique group called my attention to this, I changed the character’s name.

Published in: on September 3, 2016 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Challenging Game of ‘Name that Character’ Part I

Most_Popular_Male_NamesYou think it’s easy, naming characters? It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance at a party recently who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m playing a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.

First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.

One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Ethan, Mason, and Lucas; Emma, Olivia, Sophia, Ava, and Mia).a-web-boy-names-no-frame-2014-jan-otth

I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.

But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe; so many people in urban centers had surnames that were Italian, Jewish, or Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago or New York skewed toward Irish, so I’ll probably name my cop Mac or O’Toole. In fact, the cop in the book I’m currently writing is named Kevin O’Rourke. Servants in the early part of the twentieth century were often Irish immigrant or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen and the black cook is Bessie Jackson. (Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, blacks in the early 20th century chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.) Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of an earlier generation who are now prosperous enough to afford servants.

Madeleine.11In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. For her Italian immigrant husband, I chose Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!

Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the on-line random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at www.fakenamegenerator.com.

Some famous authors, like David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky. I guarantee the author worries about what the winning name will be! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.

I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery.



Published in: on August 28, 2016 at 8:46 am  Comments (2)  
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Hand-Painted Knees

On July 21, 1925, the same day as the St. Petersburg, FL, newspaper headlines featured the John Scopes trial (he was found guilty of teaching evolution in a Kentucky science class), there was also an article on the latest flapper fad: painted knees.

6ade6db95341a66ac19572a3a7d2534a“What is more appealing to the eye than a hand-painted knee? The answer, of course, is two hand-painted knees. And the world may expect from now on to see Flapperia’s dimpled knees exhibiting a painted pansy or a bleeding heart, or any other design of their choice.

This painting of the epidermis in the region of milady’s knees is predicted and advocated by Mrs. Ruth J. Maurer, beauty culture expert who has brought the question up for the approval of 500 beauty specialists meeting in Chicago. ‘It is an odd and beautiful fashion,’ Mrs. Maurer declares. ‘Hand-painted pictures on the knees are intriguing. Some of the designs are simple, some elaborate. Some girls prefer a flower or a group of blossoms of startling colors. Others like a portrait or a little landscape.”

I have my doubts as to how popular this was . . . I found only one image online that showed painted knees (and these, as you can see, are actually painted shins). Still, I think I’ll make a brief mention of this in the mystery I’m currently writing. Nothing big, maybe just a line where Jessie notices someone in New York with painted knees. If it happened anywhere, it would have happened in New York!

Here are some photos readers submitted:

1926 flapper

1926 flapper



Published in: on August 20, 2016 at 8:09 am  Comments (9)  

Sneak a Drink!

During the 13 years that Prohibition laws were on the books, inventive Americans developed many ways to sneak a drink. Let’s look at a few: 

Walking sticks enjoyed a surge in popularity after men found they could conceal a good deal of alcohol inside a hollowed out stick with a screw top.

Walking sticks enjoyed a surge in popularity after men found they could conceal a good deal of alcohol inside a hollowed out stick with a screw top.


Ladies could take advantage of their high heels to insert a flask that carried enough for at least one drink.

Ladies could take advantage of their high heels to insert a flask that carried enough for at least one drink.


And the ever popular garter flask suited many flappers.

And the ever popular garter flask suited many flappers.


The easiest concealment was probably a bulky coat. This woman seems to be wearing enough liquor for a party!

The easiest concealment was probably a bulky coat. This woman seems to be wearing enough liquor for a party!


This woman is ready for a big evening out.

This young lady is ready for a big evening out.


A coat could cover a lot.

The right coat could cover a lot of hooch.


“Great men not abstainers”

contentI found this passage in the 1916 booklet by Horatio Stoll titled “How Prohibition Would Affect California.” 

Among the world’s great–really great–men, not one can be found who was a total abstainer. Throughout the ages, the men whose names have gone down in history as having achieved something of real note, used wine. No matter in what direction their activities lay, whether in war or in peace, whether in religion, in literature, in art, in science, or in the strenuous field of exploration, they all used alcoholic stimulant in some form or another.

Alexander the Great was noted for his wine drinking; so was Julius Caesar. Christ and His Apostles used wine. Coming to later times, we find the names of Christopher Columbus, Dean Swift, Dryden, Pope, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Nelson, Voltaire, Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Gibbon, Hume, Sheridan, Fox, Goldsmith, Robert Burns, Benjamin Franklin, Byron, Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Dickens, Dumas, Herbert Spencer, Guizot, Carlyle, Mommsen, Ernest Renan, Thackeray, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Abraham Lincoln, Bismarck, U.S. Grant, Admirals Porter, Farragut and Dewey, Wagner, Verdi, Marconi and Thomas Edison, and an indefinitely long list of other world celebrities–all wine drinkers. . . Total abstinence has never been found hand in hand with momentous accomplishment.

Take that, you prohibitionists! 

This was published in 1916, as the Anti-Saloon League and Women’s Christian Temperance Union was working to push national prohibition into the Constitution. The 64-page booklet makes good reading!

Published in: on July 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blind Drunk

Where does the phrase “blind drunk” come from?


Wood alcohol (methanol) attacks the optic nerve and destroys retinal cells, rendering the drinker blind. During Prohibition, all alcohol was illegal as a beverage, so it was impossible to distinguish between legitimate alcohol and the poisoned version. People who drank in speakeasies–especially the cheap ones in poor parts of the city, in places like New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, etc.–might be buying wood alcohol. Who could tell the difference? No one, at least not until the side effects set in.

Here’s what wikipedia says: Methanol ingested in large quantities is metabolized first to formaldehyde and then to formic acid or formate salts, which are poisonous to the central nervous system and may cause blindness, coma, and death. It is used to denature alcohol which is intended for industrial uses. This addition of methanol exempts industrial ethanol from liquor excise taxation.

Did it always kill? No. It depended on how much you drank and the individual’s health. But it made drinkers sick and could kill. I use it in my books when I need something poisonous.

Published in: on July 24, 2016 at 6:50 pm  Comments (2)  
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