Blind Pigs, Jazz, and Bolshevism: The Spirit(s) of Revolt at Michigan State
The artifacts recovered from the Brody Complex/Emmons Amphitheater excavations are providing many research avenues.. As Mari mentioned in her previous blog, this area was originally used as the East Lansing City Dump for about three decades – from the 1920s to 1950s. One cultural and constitutional phenomenon that this period encapsulates is the enacting and later redacting of the 18th Amendment, also known as Prohibition. This amendment made it illegal to produce, buy, sell, or transport alcohol although private ownership and consumption was not illegal (Tyrell 2015).
Various liquor bottles from many types of spirits were recovered during the excavations at Emmons Amphitheater including gin, whisky (and whiskey), beer, and wine bottles, as well as a few yet-to-be identified alcohol bottles. For this post, I will not go too specifically into the history of any one liquor bottle (that will be in my next post), but will dig more into what these bottles tell us about student life during the Prohibition and how a few variations of these laws made a surprising resurgence in East Lansing in the 1990s.
First, a quick history of prohibition in Michigan. Although the 18th Amendment received the required number of states to pass in 1919 and was enacted in 1920, Michigan was actually the first state in the nation to go dry. The state enacted its own alcohol prohibition starting on May 1st, 1918. Due to its easy access to Windsor, Canada, Detroit became the biggest pipeline in the nation for liquor smuggling (Tyrell 2015). Some researchers estimate that up to 75% of liquor smuggled into the United States during this time came through Michigan via what was called the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel. During this time, people tried to get alcohol any way they could. Speakeasies (also known as blind pigs or blind tigers) popped up all over the country. Organized crime soared in Detroit (ever hear of the Purple Gang?) and the illicit liquor trade became the city’s second largest industry. However, when the 21st Amendment was passed which repealed Prohibition, Michigan was the first state in the nation to ratify the amendment, mostly due to the rise in organized crime in the Detroit area during the period (Tyrell 2015). On December 5, 1933, a ¾ majority was reached in Congress, thereby officially repealing the 18th Amendment. This day became known as Repeal Day and is still celebrated by pubs and bars everywhere with great drink specials.
So generally, what do these bottles tell us? Primarily, that people (and presumably students since the dump abutted the school and students lived off campus in East Lansing) drank alcohol. Drinking on campus has been prohibited ever since the school’s foundation, yet that hasn’t stopped students from breaking the rules. Students have always engaged in breaking rules, and it’s probable that they were still purchasing alcohol during Prohibition. One of the driving factors for breaking a school rule is just to break it – an act of revolt against “The Man” or the administration. It gives a sense of both agency and community with other students who can feel weighed down by rules and regulations.
Although these liquor bottles date to the post-Prohibition era, it still gives us insight as to the nature of student life and activities. The year of 1920, the first year of national Prohibition, was reported to be a particularly rebellious year. The Age of Jazz was in its early years with many people around the nation considering this new form of music to be immoral. Kuhn notes that due to the strict regulations of the college at this time, students revolted by hosting unscheduled and impromptu dances with lots of jazz music, much to the chagrin of the professors who were said to have been “quite dejected at all the goings on” (p. 321). Most likely a culmination of the desire to break school rules, rebel against the administration, and put the devastation from WWI behind them, students at M.S.C. regularly engaged in activities of this sort which led some people to refer to this period or student revolt as the “Bolshevik Days” at the college (Kuhn 1955, pg. 321). Further, the academic year of 1919-1920 earned its own nickname as the year of Jazz and Bolshevism.
The desire to socialize further from school-sanctioned activities also led to an increase in parties where alcohol flowed freely. Planning and throwing one of these liquor-laden parties would have been a difficult process for a few reasons. First, when the charter for the City of East Lansing was issued in 1907, it was incorporated as a dry city so local vendors and establishments would not have had alcohol. Second, state prohibition in 1918 and National Prohibition in 1920 would have meant that the procurement of liquor would have been difficult and both a state and federal crime. However, the convenient geographic distance to Detroit would have meant that students at the school most likely obtained their illicit alcohol from connections with the rum-running capital of the nation. One account on campus during this time states that a briefcase with no less than 12 bottles of fine whiskey was found in a bush with a note inside saying “This is a sample of what you won’t get if the State goes dry” (Kuhn 1955, pg. 321).
Even in recent decades there have been Prohibition-esque crack-downs on liquor and parties at MSU. In 1980, the City of East Lansing amended its definition of what constitutes a ‘blind pig’ which up to that point was an establishment that sold liquor without a liquor license. The amendment expanded that definition to include parties where there is a cover charge, required donations, or a purchase of a cup for unlimited alcohol – common house or student party practices. In 1989 and 1990, East Lansing felt that parties of this nature were getting out of control and decided to revive the Prohibition-era law and began shutting down these MSU student parties which, under the new city amendments, were considered blind pigs – a possible felony. Arrests and charges were brought up on students, particularly at Cedar Village, as reported by a September 20, 1990 edition of the uR-I (the university Reporter-Intelligencer – a student-run newspaper).
The past is not as far back as we think, be it an old law that has risen from the dead or just the attitudes of students towards the rules and regulations of the day. Students rebel and revolt in any way they can. There is something satisfying about going against the establishment, whether that means holding unscheduled dances, stashing briefcases or liquor in shrubs across campus, or hosting blind pigs. So next time you’re strolling around the Brody Complex near the Emmons Amphitheater, remember that you’re not just standing above an old city dump site, you’re standing above the material memory of student acts of rebellion as they tried (and will always try) to assert their own agency and independence.
Kuhn M. 1955 Michigan State: The First Hundred Years, 1855-1955. MSU University Press, East Lansing, Michigan.
Tyrell P. 2015 Utilizing a Border as a Local Economic Resource: The Example of the Prohibition-Era Detroit-Windsor Borderland (1920–33). Comparative American Studies an International Journal, 13 (1-2): 16-30.
university Reporter-Intelligencer, Vol. 2, No.1. 20 September, 1990. (http://spartanhistory.kora.matrix.msu.edu/files/1/4/1-4-1636-54-A006374.pdf)