Midnight — as Jan. 16, 1920, became Jan. 17, 1920 — marked the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established the prohibition of “intoxicating liquors.”
The controversial law was a long time coming, having been ratified by enough states a year earlier, and decades after first being pushed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and other proponents known as “drys.”
On the last day before alcohol was banned, the people who partied were the drys. As reported by the Pittsburgh Gazette Times (this newspaper’s forebear), local branches of the temperance union and churches celebrated victory with “watch night” services, prayer meetings and mock funerals for “John Barleycorn,” the personification of barley-based beer and whiskey.
Members of the Dormont-Mt. Lebanon Woman’s Christian Temperance Union planned an all-day celebration at Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church, where “Toasts to prohibition will be made at a luncheon.” Certainly not with anything alcoholic.
That was one of several prohibition stories in the Jan. 16, 1920, Gazette Times, starting on the bottom right of Page 1 with one headlined: “79,541,600 pints — count ‘em — still here as J.B. dies, but mourners lose hope.”
The subhead: “Celebrations in City by both ‘Drys’ and ‘Wets’ Planned to Mark Passing of Intoxicants Tonight — Total Valuation of 1,272,665,600 Drinks Left in District Warehouses Estimated at $159,983,300.” And that didn’t account for all the beer at local breweries.
The U.S. already had enacted temporary wartime prohibitions on distilled spirits (1917) and on the sale of alcoholic beverages containing more than 2.75% alcohol (1918), the Gazette story noted. The moves were intended to conserve grain for World War I, even though the war ended six months before the latter War Prohibition Act took effect June 30, 1919.
That July 1 became known as the “Thirsty-First.”
Breweries stopped brewing, saloons shut down and Pittsburghers — including some physicians and pharmacists — already were being arrested, fined and even jailed for selling and buying harder stuff.
Breweries continued to hope that the wartime prohibitions would be lifted and they could again sell higher-test beer, instead of less-than-0.5% alcohol “near beer.” But, as The Pittsburg Press reported on Jan. 15, most of the alcohol instead was expected to “trickle into yawning sewers which will gurgle the requiem of the amber fluid, for so many years such a fixture in American life.”
Certainly the idea of going dry was nothing new in Pittsburgh. As reported another Jan. 16 Gazette story, “Midnight tonight marks the success of a movement in which Pittsburgh, along with Baltimore, once occupied the center of the stage in American history.”
In fact, the story noted, Pittsburgh, a “stronghold of temperance reform,” as well as Allegheny had voted in 1847 to go dry. The Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional.
By 1920, other states had gone dry. Ohio did starting on May 27, 1919.
While plenty of Americans had no use for alcohol, there always was plenty for those who wanted it. The 1919 federal Volstead Act to enforce what became known as capital-P Prohibition allowed individuals to have alcoholic beverages for home use — as long as they already had them legally in their possession. According to a telegram of interpretation from the Internal Revenue Service, “Good faith is required.”
The Volstead Act banned beverages with more alcohol than 0.5%, effectively outlawing beer and wine as well as spirits.
Drinkers did everything they could to stock up. Fearing the worst, law enforcement officials planned to “carefully” guard whiskey in warehouses and distilleries in the Pittsburgh region to lessen the danger of theft until “legal disposition of it can be made.”
In another Gazette story, the federal prohibition officer for the district warned that, starting Jan. 17, saloons selling beverages containing even 0.5% alcohol would “be classed as speakeasies and prosecuted.”
So you might expect that Friday night, Jan. 16, would be a party much bigger than New Year’s Eve.
In fact, according to news accounts, public reaction was nothing like the record-setting revelry and the hoarding that preceded the Thirsty-First of summer. It was quite, well, sober.
“The streets themselves forbade very much indulgence,” reported the Pittsburgh Daily Post. “They were slushy and wet beyond expression, as if the elements would make up as best they could for the dryness that was rapidly encompassing the nation.”
The Gazette ran an obituary for ol’ John Barleycorn on Page 1 on Jan. 17, reporting that while many rejoiced at alcohol’s demise, others grieved.
“Over many a bottle of good old-fashioned red liquor [barrel-aged whiskey], discussions were held on the good traits of the deceased. To properly eulogize his memory, many ‘hip’ [pocket flask] parties were held and the bottles passed around at the stroke of midnight.”
A tale inside the paper told the story of a Bradford man whose last-minute shipment of booze out of Pittsburgh was held up when railway agents smelled the contents of a broken bottle and needed to make sure it had been purchased legally.
Without time for the shipment to reach his home before Prohibition officially started, the out-of-towner gave it all to a Pittsburgh friend “as a belated Christmas present” — saying “that he hoped to visit him soon and help enjoy the contents of the three trunks [of] whiskey, brandy, cordials and other alcoholic beverages now banned except for use in private homes.”
Books about making alcohol were flagged as “reds” and removed from library shelves, although Carnegie Library’s director ruled that encyclopedias weren’t too heady to remain available to the public.
Even the wets were tired of the years of debate and resigned about the result. “And frankly, they were prepared,” says Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Sen. John Heinz History Center who curated its 2018 “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” exhibit.
The actual start of Prohibition “was almost like an anticlimax,” she agrees. “I think it’s a fascinating reminder to the public how complex the buildup can be to these historic events.”
Americans know how the bigger story turned out.
Prohibition didn’t work. People continued to wet their whistles pretty much wherever they wanted, bad guys did really bad stuff, and governments got thirsty for lost tax revenue.
And so the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th, was enacted on Dec. 5, 1933. That’s the date, Prohibition’s end, that gets all the ink and an annual anniversary bash that is sure to be lit in 2033.
— Bob Batz Jr.