Nucky's Empire: The Prohibition Years PDF Print E-mail
Prohibition Era - Prohibition in Atlantic City

Prohibition in a Wide Open Town

Prohibition went into effect nationwide at midnight January 16, 1920. This law made it illegal to make or sell liquor (including beer and wine), but Americans drank anyway, going to secret clubs or “speakeasies” or making "bathtub gin" at home. Alcohol could be obtained legally only with a doctor’s prescription. Organized crime, or mobs, cropped up to supply the alcohol to the many customers demanding it all across the country.

In Atlantic City, Prohibition was essentially unenforced by the local authorities. Atlantic City was a well-known haven for those seeking alcohol. The tourist-based economy of the resort encouraged business owners to provide whatever was needed to make the visitors happy. The city's beachfront location and docks allowed rum-runners to bring their goods onto shore. Add in a powerful city boss who allegedly controlled everything from the smuggling operation to the law enforcement to the restaurants where alcohol was served, and Atlantic City was essentially a wide open town, flagrantly violating the federal law.

Experience life in Atlantic City during Prohibition by exploring the exhibits below. Check back often, as more information will be added!

The Places

Visit some of the popular 1920s sites in Atlantic City.

H049.647.94_Rit_387 H063.Walls001a-thumbnail H009.InfantIncubatorMay311920Amuseuments H049.725.94Wor004web H009.725.9bab1796_thumbnail
Ritz Carlton Hotel The Northside Infant Incubator Exhibit World War I Memorial Babette's

Where was Babette's? How far away was the Ritz-Carlton? What would you see if you walked the Boardwalk in the 1920s? This map shows many of the 1920s Altantic City landmarks, superimposed on a map of the current city. Click on the markers to learn more about each location.

yellow-starLocations marked with a star are sites that are still around today.

red-dotLocations with a red marker are no longer part of Atlantic City's landscape.

or Map

Virtual Exhibit

Northside Community Members and Nucky Johnson
Northside Community Members and Nucky Johnson


Oct. 13, 2012 - Atlantic City Experience: The Roaring '20s

HPerezandVGLevi 10132012 web

Vicki Gold Levi and Heather Perez, historical consultants for HBO's smash-hit series "Boardwalk Empire," were the guest speakers. Levi, co-author of “Atlantic City, 125 Years of Ocean Madness,” discussed the culture of the 1920s, including the music, movies and clothing. Also, Levi shared stories about her father, Al Gold, the city’s first official photographer, and personal experiences.
Perez, who is the archivist for the library’s Atlantic City Heritage Collections of Atlantic City history, discussed some of the city’s biggest names, including Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. She also touched on a variety of highlights from the decade, such as the construction of the World War I Memorial and Convention Hall.
Watch the two-part video of Perez and Levi speaking at the program. Also, read The Press of Atlantic City and Atlantic City Weekly previews.

Learn More

Bathtub gin, speakeasies, jazz, the Charleston. What were Americans doing in the 1920s? Dancing the Charleston , listening to jazz, and watching Rudolph Valentino at the movies. In spite of Prohibition, which made it illegal to make or sell liquor (including beer and wine) Americans drank anyway, going to secret clubs or "speakeasies" or making "bathtub gin" at home.


The society of the 1920's was at odds with itself; people of the older generations and the middle class still clung to the Puritan ethic, while the younger generation had vastly different attitudes and morals. Religious groups composed mainly of women, like the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti Saloon League, fought a crusade against immoral practices including the consumption of alcohol. In 1919 the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified making it illegal to distribute and manufacture distilled spirits in the United States. A year later, the Volstead Act was passed, which defined intoxicating beverages as anything with more than 0.5 percent alcohol, banning beer and wine from being legally sold.

Enforcing the law proved almost impossible, with smuggling and bootlegging widespread. Prohibition created a huge demand for alcohol unmet by legitimate means. Organized crime filled the vacuum left by the closing of the legal alcohol industry. Prohibition quickly saw the rise of bootleggers, speakeasies, moonshine, bathtub gin, and rum runners smuggling supplies of alcohol across state lines. In 1927, there were an estimated 30,000 illegal speakeasies, which was about twice the number of legal bars before Prohibition. In addition, popular culture glamorized bootleggers like Chicago's Al Capone, and gave rise to organized crime in other areas of the country. These gangsters were viewed by many as popular folk heroes. The money that came from bootlegging and racketeering trickled into the American economy and the majority prospered because of it.
Alcohol could be legally obtained at the pharmacy for medicinal purposes, such as this brand from an Atlantic City apothecary. (H009.BayRum01.jpg Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library)

In Atlantic City, during Prohibition, the power of Atlantic City's boss, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson reached its zenith. Prohibition was effectively unenforced in Atlantic City, and, as a result, the resort's popularity grew further. The city then called itself "The World's Play Ground". Most of Johnson's income came from the percentage he took on every gallon of illegal liquor sold, and on his gambling and prostitution operations in Atlantic City. Johnson allegedly said:
"We have whisky, wine, women, song and slot machines. I won't deny it and I won't apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn't want them they wouldn't be profitable and they wouldn't exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them."

Flappers and the Flaming Youth

It was also during the Roaring 20s that the flapper came to be. Young women rebelled against the previous generation, cutting their hair short and shortening their hem lines and wearing makeup, in the spirit of their new found freedom and encouraged by their new economic wealth. These decadent party goers, both the flappers, and their male counterparts, the Flaming Youth, demanded access to the alcohol that was accessible to the very well connected, and thus the demand for alcohol, which had never really disappeared, instead increased.

Passion for Jazz

The unique new musical form called jazz was so important to the 1920s that the period is sometimes called the "Jazz Age." Jazz served as the background music for this period, playing in nightclubs, on Broadway, as well as at private parties, and it drew New Yorkers to Harlem, the heart of African American culture during the 1920s.

H009.Boardwalk_Illustrated_1928_Jazz_Singer Like jazz music, motion pictures were also more widely accepted during the 1920s as they moved out of working-class storefront nickelodeons into impressive movie palaces which attracted a more middle-class audience. In addition, the movies themselves illustrated the values of modern America at the same time as it reinforced traditional middle-class values; two of the most popular male movie stars illustrate this point. Rudolph Valentino, who in his career before his untimely death in 1926, embodied the modern, passionate male of the 1920s in such films as The Sheik (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922), while Douglas Fairbanks, in The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), and The Thief of Bagdad (1925), was the traditional, athletic, all-American man.
Movie advertisement for "The Jazz Singer," the first "talkie". (H009.BoardwalkIllustrated1928_JazzSinger.jpg Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library)


To learn more about the 1920s in general and in Atlantic City, check out some of these resources available at the Atlantic City Free Public Library.

Resource Guide

Electronic Resources (Access through the Atlantic City Free Public Library Premium eResources with a ACFPL Library Card)

Sanborn Digital Maps for New Jersey (1867-1970) - see street maps and building locations for New Jersey communities for various years.·

Heritage Quest - research people who lived during the 1920s through census records, family records, and local histories.·

E-Books - titles related to the 1920s from the Gale History and Culture Reference Books are:

American Decades. Vol. 3: 1920-1929. Detroit: Gale, 2001.
American Decades Primary Sources. Vol. 3: 1920-1929. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th-Century America. Vol. 2: 1920s-1930s. Detroit: UXL, 2002.
History in Dispute. Vol. 3: American Social and Political Movements, 1900-1945: Pursuit of Progress. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
Roaring Twenties Reference Library. Detroit: UXL, 2006.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: Gale, 2000.

Selected Print Resources in the Library Collection (Search the Library Catalog for more information about these resources or to request a hold.)

Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday: a popular history of the '20s and '30s. New York : Bonanza Books, 1986.
Ralph K. Andrist, ed. The American Heritage History of the 1920s & 1930s. New York: American Heritage, 1987.
Marvin Barrett. The Years Between: a dramatic view of the twenties and thirties. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. (Reference book only)
Wendy Hart Beckman. Artists and Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2001.
Edward Behr. Prohibition: Thirteen years that changed America. New York: Arcade, 1997.
Harold Bloom, ed. Black American poets and dramatists of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
Harold Bloom, ed. Major Black American writers through the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
Jim Corrigan. The 1920s Decade in Photos: the Roaring Twenties. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2010.
Sylvia Engdahl, ed. Amendments XVIII and XXI: Prohibition and repeal. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2009.
Stephen Feinstein. The 1920s: from Prohibition to Charles Lindbergh. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2001.
Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., ed. Black music in the Harlem Renaissance: a collection of essays. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Ann Graham Gaines. The Harlem Renaissance in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2002.
Ernie Gross. The American Years: a Chronology of United States History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999. (Reference book only)
Erica Hanson. The 1920s. San Diego, Calif. : Lucent Books, 1999.
Jacqueline Herald. Fashions of a decade: the 1920s. New York: Facts on File, 2006.
Nathan Irvin Huggins. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
David C. King. Al Capone and the Roaring Twenties. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1999.
John Kobler. Capone: the life and world of Al Capone. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.
Andrew B. Leiter. In the Shadow of the Black Beast: African American masculinity in the Harlem and Southern renaissances. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.
Michael Lienesch. In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes trial, and the making of the antievolution movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Leigh Montville. The Big Bam: the life and times of Babe Ruth. New York: Doubleday, 2006.
Lucy Moore. Anything Goes: a Biography of the roaring twenties. New York : Overlook Press, 2010.
Daniel Okrent. Last Call: the rise and fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.
David Pietrusza. The Roaring Twenties. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1998.
Lucia Raatma. The Harlem Renaissance: a celebration of creativity. Chanhassen, MN: Child's World, 2003.
Arnold Shaw. The Jazz Age: Popular music in the 1920's. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Jodie A. Shull. Langston Hughes: "Life makes poems". Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2006.
Cary D. Wintz, compiler. Harlem Speaks: a living history of the Harlem Renaissance. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2006.

Iconic Fiction Books from or about the 1920s (Search the Library Catalog for more information about these resources or to request a hold.) 

T.S. Eliot . The Waste Land.
William Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury.
F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.
Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.
Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Eugene O'Neill. Strange Interlude.

Movies About the 1920s  (Search the Library Catalog for more information about these titles.)

Al Capone Scarface
Cartoon Rarities of the 1920s
The Emergence of Modern America: Roaring Twenties
Hollywood Singing and Dancing: The 1920s
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
The Roaring Twenties
The Untouchables

Resources in the Library's Atlantic City Heritage Collections Related to Atlantic City in the 1920s

Published Resources 

Atlantic City City Directories.
Atlantic City Amusements
Atlantic City newspapers - Collections on Microfilm.
Boardwalk Illustrated

Richlyn Goddard. Three Months to Hurry and Nine Months to Worry: Resort life for African Americans in Atlantic City, NJ (1850-1940). Howard University, 2001.
Nelson Johnson. Boardwalk Empire: The birth, high times and corruption of Atlantic City. Medford NJ: Plexus Publishing, 2002.
Nelson Johnson. The Northside: African Ameircans and the Creation of Atlatnic City. Medford NJ: Plexus Publishing, 2010.
Vicki Gold Levi. Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness. New York: C.N. Potter, distributed by Crown Publishers, 1979.
Jonathan Van Meter. The Last Good Time: Skinny D'Amato , The Glorious 500 Club & the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City. New York: Crown, 2003.
Jim Waltzer and Tom Wilk. Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Who's Who in New Jersey, Atlantic County Edition. National Biographic News Service: New York, 1925.
Chick Yeager. The Republican Boss Era of Atlantic City, 1900-1971. [S.l.: n.p.], 1981.

Archival Resources

ACFPL Collection of Atlantic City Photographs (H009)
ACFPL Collection of Atlantic City Postcards (H049)
ACFPL Map Collection (H020)
Brisco Family Papers, 1923-1975 (H052)
Walls Family Photographs (H063)

Local History Subject File - Convention Hall (original)
Local History Subject File - Miss America-1920s
Local History Subject File - Nightclubs
Local History Subject File - Organized Crime
Local History Subject File - Prohibition


The Atlantic City Experience was produced and is managed by The Atlantic City Free Public Library, a service of the City of Atlantic City.