In 1908, New Year’s Eve’s electric ball dropped for the first time in New York City. The original ball was made of iron and wood and was covered with 100 25-watt light bulbs. It first descended from the top of the flagpole on top of the New York Times building and the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral chimed in celebration. However, in other parts of the country, New Year’s Eve was not quite so festive. In Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama, state sponsored “prohibition” laws were being enforced on New Year’s Day. In those states, rather than celebrating, they held what were known as “farewell to rum” events.
In Atlanta, they held “Death Watches”. Crowds gathered at bars and lined up their drinks 15 minutes before midnight. As the clock struck 12, glasses were lifted and their contents swallowed, after which the crowds filed silently onto the streets. In Birmingham, they sold liquor at half price on New Year’s Eve, and liquor vans delivered product to private homes all day. Producers and retailers wanted to get rid of as much product as they could since they knew that all 250 Alabama saloons (not to mention liquor retailers) would be out of business as of January 1, 1908.
In 1908, the events in these three states were just a preview of the nation wide prohibition that was to come. Prohibition, aka the Volstead Act, the Eighteenth Amendment to the US constitution actually went into effect on January 16, 1920. Though it was highly controversial, it had wide support among many different groups: The Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Ku Klux Klan to name a few.
(One of the things I learned in my social activist days was that when you are pushing for change, look around and assess the characters pushing with you, if something looks amiss, maybe it’s time to take a second look at what you are doing.)
Though prohibition killed the existing legal beverage industry in the US; it also kick started the romance of the Roaring 20s, Rum Running, bootlegging, organized crime, and speakeasies. Gone were the male dominated Saloons of yesterday which at times were tainted with gambling and prostitution. After prohibition, women did not want to be left out of the illicit fun and flocked to the speakeasies. Speakeasies got their name because now that liquor was illegal, if you wanted a drink with a kick, you couldn’t ask for it out loud. The bartender insisted that you “speak easy”.
It is hard to say exactly, but estimates as to the number of speakeasies throughout the U.S. ranged from 200,000 to 500,000. This was the first time in American history that women not only took to drinking but to even drinking in “public”. No longer would bars be a “men only” domain. Women now became welcome guests in cocktail lounges after having shown their enthusiasm for drinking during prohibition.
In 1928, it is estimated that doctors earned $40 million by writing prescriptions for whiskey. (At the time of prohibition, there were probably some legitimate medicinal purposes for whiskey.) Some of the medicines of the time were packed with herbs and 40 proof alcohol. For example, Lydia Pinkham’s Compound for women’s menstrual cramps was quite famous. They even created drinking ballads for Lydia’s tonic which offered “a cure for any and all ails and aches.” “So we’ll drink a drink a drink/to Lily the pink the pink the pink/The savior of the human race./She invented a medicinal compound/Most efficacious in every case.” Oh, I feel a cramp coming on, Lydia pass the tonic please. Cheers!
Certified Sommelier, General Manager, President Liane was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. She graduated from the Kamehameha Schools in 1977, and worked in the bookkeeping department of Villa Roma, a women’s retail clothing store owned by her mother Audrey Fu, before flying off to college in New York City. She was a physics major at New York University (NYU). In her first semester, she attended a concert that was interpreted for the deaf. She became fascinated by the idea of communication through movement which for her was kind of like hula on steroids.