Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A man walks into a bar...

I've always found "Prohibition" to be one of the harder-to-believe-it-really-happened episodes in American history.

A little glimpse into its workings early on:

New York in Search of a Drink

Circumventing the Law

(From our correspondent)

New York, Aug. 4

After a month of prohibition New York much resembles London “after hours.” That is to say, any man can get a drink if he knows where to go for it.

With so much legislation on the subject being turned out by Congress and with so many appeals and motions to test the validity of prohibition before the Courts, few people, whether vendors or consumers of drink, could say what exactly may be legally sold and what is taboo, but the situation is roughly this: whisky and other spirits are definitely outside the pale, but the legal situation of beer and light wine is so uncertain that a great number of bars and restaurants continue to sell them.

Also a number of places continue to sell spirits and cocktails more or less sub rosa. None of the large hotels and restaurants are included in either of these classes, but plenty of proprietors of smaller establishments intend to carry on till caught. Then, in the words of one of them, “I’ll pay my fine, close down, and go and live in Europe.”

What happens in these places is something like this:--A man enters and asks for a glass of white wine.

“We don’t sell white wine. We sell sherry,” answers the bartender, and he hands over a glass of rather light-brown liquid.

The customer repeats that he wants Rhine wine. The barman replies:--
“That stuff is just as good. Try it.”

The customer, who by this time has an inkling of how the land lies, drinks up his glass of—whisky.

In restaurants this sort of thing happens. The customer, on the chance of receiving an affirmative answer, asks the waiter if it is possible to have a cocktail before dinner. The waiter says he does not know, but will find out, and he departs. A few moments later a second waiter appears and informs the diner that he is wanted on the telephone. The latter proceeds to the telephone box and finds a cocktail on the shelf. At another establishment a request for special coffee produces a cocktail served in a coffee cup; at another the password is “special sherry.”

This is one side of the picture. On the other there are large hotels which are losing £200 a day in their takings since July 1, while it is reliably established that the sale of ice-ream and soft drinks has increased 40 per cent. in this small period.

From the Passport Bureau there comes the story of 50 persons who have taken out passports to Havana and who, in filling out their applications, put “prohibition” in the column headed “Reasons for making the journey.” Dozens of saloons in various parts of the city have closed their doors during the last fortnight and the only thing that prevents many restaurant proprietors from following the same course is that they have their premises on long leases under which they are not allowed to sublet.

The question also affects the shipping companies, as ships sailing under the American flag must be dry, whereas in other ships the bars open and the wine lists appear in the restaurants as soon as the three-mile limit is passed. It is feared that this will drive many passengers into French, British, and Dutch boats.

The Times, 5 August 1919, p. 15


headbang8 said...

I don't find it hard to believe at all.

Religious lunacy played a part in enacting Prohibition, and one assumes that the composition of the Senate--then, as now--favoured the smaller, more conservative and religious states.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union is still active in some parts ofthe USA, and have added predictable sins to their campaign for prohibition; marijuana, abortion, gay rights. Sound familiar?

There is a tendency in American culture to turn public health problems (like alcohol abuse) into moral cause.

Indeed, to listen to the current health care debate, where there is much talk of "moral hazard" in the mix, one would tend to think that religious types see ALL poor health as a moral failing.

Since the leading crusaders for prohibition were women, and the leading drunks were men, was sexual politics a factor in Prohibition?

John Carter Wood said...

Oh, I'm not surprised at all that there were a number of people who wanted to ban alcohol; still, the fact that they succeeded in passing a constitutional amendment enacting this view is -- for someone who grew up in the time, place and family in which I did, where the alcohol flowed at times rather freely -- pretty amazing.

I don't actually know much about the details of the matter, but I have always thought of Prohibition when I hear the claim that the Wisdom of the Founders created a political system that would prevent radical change.

Given that there are so many people who are -- as you point out -- active in trying to promote similar agendas, that is food for thought.

I know from the British side of things that temperance movements (in which middle-class women played many leading roles) were partly driven by a perceived need to tame the working-class male, and much attention was given to the problems of family violence (and poverty and other forms of moral depravity) related to drinking.

This was part of a broader, if gradual, legal crackdown on different forms of what had previously been seen as more-or-less normal forms of male behaviour in the late 19th century.

Martin Wiener's Men of Blood (my review here) is quite good on these issues, at least with regard to violence.

cohu said...

Speaking of prohibition - I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Prop. 19...two weeks to go!

John Carter Wood said...

I didn't know the Devil's Weed was up for legalisation.

Best of luck: it'd be nice if somebody in that country showed some political sense this year...

cohu said...

Some polls seem to suggest that there's actually a chance of this working out.
(I was puzzled as to why there's basically no campaigning for Prop 19 where I live. Then it dawned on me: I live in Berkeley. Nobody here needs any convincing...)