Knowing exactly what to put on the boardwalk, and everywhere else, and how it should look, was a voluminous research job: In addition to Johnson’s book and Atlantic City newspapers of the period, Winter mentions reading John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy; The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition, by Herbert Asbury; E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime; and, more recently, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. His historical digging unearthed some eye-opening period arcana. For instance, Winter discovered that in 1920 phone use was still novel enough that people didn’t know what to say when they picked up. “The word hello didn’t exist before the invention of the telephone,” says Winter, so at first people made due with “ahoy,” “hail,” and “greetings.” Viewers will also be struck, in episode three, hearing Chalky White, one of Nucky’s business partners (played by Michael K. Williams, Omar of The Wire) say “motherfucker.” According to Winter, it was a Civil War–era term used as a very literal epithet inspired by a horrific breeding practice (plantation owners would mistakenly pair a son with his mother).
Some of the biggest challenges were faced by the wardrobe department, which had the gargantuan task of clothing a cast that at times numbered more than 150. “We ended up building a lot of [outfits] from pieces of older clothes because the vintage clothing would shred as soon as you put somebody in them,” Shaw says. (The job was a little easier with Paz de la Huerta, who, as Nucky’s moll, is usually out of clothing altogether.)
With HBO all but officially announcing the show’s renewal, Winter’s beginning to worry about what comes next. The year 1920 was bursting with historical phenoms: In addition to Prohibition, there was the onset of a postwar depression, the return of thousands of soldiers from Europe (Michael Pitt plays Jimmy Darmody, a doughboy and Nucky’s renegade protégé), the passing of women’s suffrage, and the conviction of one Charles Ponzi. “I hope something happened in 1921 or I’m not going to know what to do,” says Winter. Luckily “the diving horse didn’t come in till the thirties. Thank God we don’t have to worry about that.” Yet.