“Boardwalk Empire” — When Does the Story Take Place?

Atlantic City in the 1920s

If you are interested in the Roaring Twenties, you’ll probably already know about the new HBO gangster series, “Boardwalk Empire,” that started four or five weeks ago. Just as “Mad Men” has labored mightily to get the details right for the early 1960s, “Boardwalk Empire” tries to be accurate about the 1920s. The sets seem a little phony to me (especially Atlantic City, which looks like a theater stage), but the costumes look pretty good and the language sounds on target, with the exception of the excessive use of foul language. That’s a common complaint I have with historical movies and television, because by all accounts, even trashy people back then didn’t talk trash the way many people do today.

What confuses me is the time period. When is this supposed to be taking place? I’ve always associated Prohibition with women’s suffrage, because both began in 1920. However, the series is set in a time when Prohibition is in effect but the women can’t vote.

Last week, several men made fun of the idea of women voting and the main female character, an Irish immigrant, defends the idea by saying the in her country, women can already vote.

Now, it’s true that women could vote in Ireland in 1918 (well, some women—those over 30 who owned land). But in America, the women’s suffrage amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. So the series must take place before August of 1920. But national prohibition went into effect on January 16, 1920. So the only possible time frame is between January 16 and August 20, in 1920. And that doesn’t seem right, because the story gives you the sense that Prohibition has been in effect for some time—time enough for alternative suppliers of illegal liquor to get organized and running smoothly.

Anyway, it’s a good show, and I recommend it.


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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Have you seen the first episode? They explain it there, it is the early months of 1920, the first episode they celebrate the beginning of Prohibition, with a huge boozefest. 🙂

    And I agree, the sets are a bit cheesy. 🙂

  2. Oh,thank you! I did see the first episode . . . perhaps I was in the other room, refilling my glass of wine when they reached that scene. So it does take place during the first part of 1920. I’m glad to know that. It’s rather a tight few months, though, so I guess they’ll progress shortly to the passage of the suffrage amendment . . .

  3. Actually, I would say the foul language is accurate. People have this misconception that people didn’t talk that way back then. But the truth is, a lot of people did. Certainly not everyone. But there were still a lot who did. In fact, two books that I know of were published back then, full of foul language, including the F bomb, “Ulysses” and “Lady Chaterly’s Lover.” There are court records from the Civil War, and other records late into the nineteenth century, that document people using the F bomb and other strong words. But anti-obscenity laws kept them from being put into print in literature. The only way you could find them was in pornographic literature at the time, some of which was as vile as todays stuff. However, it probably didn’t stop people from speaking that way among confidents and friends. Besides, you’ll notice in the show, at least from what I’ve seen, that Nuky (spelling?) doesn’t use those words around everyone. He uses them mostly around his guy friends. The 1920s were not exempt from bad language, it being a wild time period and not very innocent at all. If you like some references to what I am talking about regarding the use of that language back then, I can send you some links.

  4. You may be right, Jonathan, and I did notice that Nucky adapts his language for his audience. I’ve never really studied this subject (no doubt I could find a few scholarly papers on it if I tried!), but I know from my experiences with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that oaths and curses carried a much greater import. Someone saying, God damn you, was very, very serious, meaning actually imploring God to send someone to Hell for eternity.
    And yes, I would like to see some links to further information, thank you very much! It’s an interesting topic.

  5. Sorry for the late reply. I’ve been busy. I actually wanted to email you first, asking if I should send the links privately to you, as they do have language. I don’t know how to private message, so I’ll just post a warning. You can delete these if you want. Keep in mind that I don’t like the F word. I find it vulgar and tacky. But I am only showing for historical purposes.

    First, this is straight out of a Civil War history book I have called “Billy Yank” by Bell Irvin Willey. This book is an acclaimed history book, using letters, diaries, and so forth. Here is a soldier talking about prostitution. On page 259 of the book, the letter the soldier sent reads “We cannot get anything here but f–king and this is plenty.”

    Now back in the 19th century, the F word was mainly a vulgar word for intercourse. However, by the late 19th century it was being used more as a typical swear word. Hence we see it illustrated in this old memo that couldn’t be mailed (due to anti-obscenity laws at the time) but delivered.
    Here is the copy of it. http://s210975194.onlinehome.us/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/05567b.JPG

    But the F word is actually much older than this. This 16th century poem made use of it. Look at the last line of the first paragraph.

    And here, we have a song in 1935 by Lucille Bogan called Shave-em Dry. Warning explicit language.

    And here is the 1938 version of “Ol Man Mose,” performed by Eddie Dutchin. I found out about this song in a book called the “History of the F Word.” From what I understand it caused a scandal at the time.

    There are even phonograph records of the late 19th century, which are extremely dirty, which use the F word in them. I feel uneasy about posting them. Yes, but there were phonograph records from the late 19th century with explicit language.

    By the early 20th century, the F word was being used more in phrases like “get in the F#%@ing car!” or “This is F#%@ing bad!” rather than just to denote sexual intercourse. Boardwalk Empires use of the word, as some literature of the 1920s has also shown, wasn’t out of character for that time period. So Boardwalk has it right. In fact, they are so adamant about the language being historically accurate that the creators of the show have gone all out on imitating the speech pattens of the time period. This fun article is worth a read. http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/blogs/boardwalk_empire/article_72e1d34a-c3a2-11df-bac0-001cc4c002e0.html

  6. There is a prominent reference to the collapse of Ponzi’s scheme at the end of season one that places the timeframe in early August 1920 (August 11, if they are being strictly accurate), so the timeframe with respect to women’s suffrage noted in this article seems accurate.

    • You’re very sharp! I will look into the history of the Ponzi scheme on the chance that I could use it in my current novel. Thanks for the tip!

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