Have a seat on your favorite bar stool as we discuss how bars managed during America’s dry spell we call Prohibition.
Despite some beliefs, it was not illegal to consume alcohol during Prohibition. It was only illegal to make, sell, or transport any alcohol or intoxicating liquor. This law, or as President Herbert Hoover described it in 1928 as “the noble experiment” went into effect in January of 1920 and wasn’t appealed until December of 1933.
It’s easy to see how this would have negative consequences for any alcohol-related business such as breweries, distilleries, bars, truck drivers, barrel makers, glass workers, and so on, but we’re going to focus mainly on bars, and how they were affected.
- In the City
The main and most obvious effect was the closing of these establishments. Without being permitted to legally sell alcohol, staying open just wasn’t possible. In the bigger cities at the time, most bars and saloons were replaced by speakeasies. A speakeasy was a gangster-owned and ran front that gave patrons a place to sit down and purchase drinks, illegally of course. Being owned and ran by criminals created more dangers for customers though. Such as being squeezed of their money by employees, or worse getting beaten or robbed.
Some establishment owners took a more creative approach to dealing with these new laws. One loophole was that it was not illegal to sell medicinal whiskey or products of that nature. This effectively caused a rise in the number of pharmacies throughout many cities and even small towns. Some pharmaceutical chains that started during this time are still around today.
- Across the Nation
Not all bars or saloons forced to close their doors just pack it up and called it quits. They believed that the hard-working, often blue-collar customer base they had deserved to have a beer or a shot of liquor if they wanted. So they moved their operations underground, out of sight from the authority. The price of drinks, however, jumped way up because the only way to obtain this illegally bought alcohol was from bootleggers or rum runners, and with a monopoly on the market, they could charge very high prices.
Another loophole that ended up being exploited was of a religious nature. Catholics were entitled to their sacrament for Communion as well as Jews to their sacramental wine for Sabbath. As a result, the number of religious leaders in these two groups saw a sharp increase. Along with the number of their followers. The catch, claiming to be a Rabbi entitled you to a certain number of gallons of wine per year. Essentially turning places of worship into a legal way of obtaining a small, but steady supply of alcohol. Halleluiah!
- The Outcome
After nearly 14 years of this “noble experiment,” the country found itself with a higher crime rate, less tax revenue, a large number of corrupt officials, a loss of jobs, and many other negative side effects. Unfortunately, the United States even began it’s decline into the Great Depression before Prohibition was finally repealed.
Bars, on the other hand, came out of it much better. Before 1920, most bars and saloons were dark, dirty, and uninviting places visited almost exclusively by men. Once restrictions were released, however, they bounced right back and with many improvements. They were cleaner, had better lighting, the floors were no longer dirt, bar stools gained popularity, women attended more frequently, and drinks were safer to consume. Making them enjoyable and popular places for Americans to unwind, share a drink, and be entertained.
I hope you enjoyed this little history lesson. Time to close my tab now. Thanks for reading and see you next week!
- Prohibition: Unintended Consequences
- 10 Things You Should Know About Prohibition
- Prohibition: Speakeasies, Loopholes and Politics