This Week In History: Nov. 29 – Dec. 5

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Shown is the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1933. This is just one of the many events that revolutionized the way we live today, which we will talk more about in This Week in History. Photo courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica

The 20th century saw tremendous change and societal upheaval. Cars pushed horses off the road, jazz and rock-and-roll replaced the waltz and the nations of the world went to war, twice. Suffice it to say, new technologies and innovations left the world in a tailspin. Some tried to fight it, and others danced along to its new beat. 

This Week in History, we’ll take a look at a few events of the modern era that revolutionized the way we live. So let’s dive in! 

On Dec. 5, 1933, 88 years ago, the 21st Amendment was ratified, revoking the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition in America. 

Nobody likes to admit they were wrong, especially a politician, yet that’s exactly what happened in the early 1930s.  

Just 14 years prior, the 18th Amendment was passed by the ¾ majority of U.S. states required for ratification, resulting in the prohibition of the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.” With the hopes of promoting sobriety and enforcing white Protestant morals on an ever-growing, everchanging nation, Congress passed the 18th Amendment in addition to the Volstead Act, which created a specialized police force to enforce the new law. 

The plan backfired. Not only did alcohol continue to flow, but organized crime skyrocketed as bootleggers made millions off the black market of booze. Gangsters and flappers continued to drink but underground, without paying taxes on their good times. Crime in America’s cities reached new heights as the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano dominated urban crime rings, gunning down all threats to their power. 

Interestingly enough, the night that Prohibition ended was hardly the drunken booze-fest one would expect. While champagne corks popped across the country, the nation was still in the throngs of the Great Depression, leaving them with little to celebrate. Those struggling to pay off debts were hardly seen toasting to the new era, and those who could afford to drink were sad to see their secret speakeasies turn legitimate with tax hikes on every glass. 

Prohibition remained in several states. In Mississippi, the last dry state, the sale of alcohol remained illegal until 1966. 

The Great Smog of London covered the city of London for five days, caused by industrial pollution and high-pressure weather conditions. As a result, life in the city came to a standstill and thousands died due to leaving their windows open at night. Photo courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica

On Dec. 4, 1952, 69 years ago, a lethal smog killed thousands in England, warning the world of the environmental dangers of the modern industrial city. 

Fans of “The Crown” might remember that soon after Queen Elizabeth II took the throne, a heavy fog descended on the city of London, killing thousands of people in the Greater London area.  

As we in New England know all too well, December means the return of cold temperatures and bleak weather. Having more money in the economic boom of the post-war era, the English could afford to burn more coal to keep warm during the frigid winter. Coal usage, exhaust from cars (which were all the rage in post-war Britain) and factory smoke were pumping into the air by the truckload, so when a high-pressure air mass moved in over the Thames River Valley, it trapped these fumes in place. 

Life in the city of London came to a screeching halt. The smog was so thick, sunshine could not be seen and streetlights were left on 24/7. Visibility had decreased to less than 15 feet, making transportation a logistical nightmare that resulted in several traffic accident fatalities. The real death toll, however, came from the thousands of respiratory cases across the city. Such fumes penetrated Londoners’ lungs, crowding the city hospitals with coughing patients whose doctors had no way of helping. Thousands died in their sleep after mistakenly keeping their windows open overnight to let in “fresh” air. 

On Dec. 9, the fog finally lifted, revealing the victims of the disaster. Estimates range between 4,000 and 12,000 perished in the five days of the Great Smog of 1952. 

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