October 28, 1919: The Day That Launched a Million Speakeasies

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It was 91 years ago today that Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson's veto of the Volstead Act, which spelled out the enforcement of Prohibition. To commemorate the anniversary of the act's passage (or the fact that it no longer applies), the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C. is holding a speakeasy costume ball this evening. It sounds like a fun history lesson:

"Wear your best 1920s attire, knock three times, and join the party at Woodrow Wilson House with bootleggers, flappers, rum-runners, and live ragtime on the piano! Enjoy an after-hours look at the authentically furnished 1920s home and get a special sneak peak at President Wilson’s wine cellar, a rarely seen gem of Prohibition-era history, fully stocked with vintage wines."

The fact that we can now toast—legally—to the Volstead Act is a testament to how ineffective it actually was at preventing the "manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic liquor." In fact, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was repealed in 1933, less than 15 years after it was ratified by 46 of 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii hadn't yet achieved statehood; Connecticut and Rhode Island were the two holdouts). According to an article on the National Archives website:

Enforcing Prohibition proved to be extremely difficult. The illegal production and distribution of liquor, or bootlegging, became rampant, and the national government did not have the means or desire to try to enforce every border, lake, river, and speakeasy in America. In fact, by 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs. The demand for alcohol was outweighing (and out-winning) the demand for sobriety. People found clever ways to evade Prohibition agents. They carried hip flasks, hollowed canes, false books, and the like.

A hundred-thousand speakeasies in New York City alone? The city's 1925 population was 7.774 million, which would mean there was one speakeasy for every 78 people. I did a search on the New York State Liquor Authority for on-premises liquor licenses in the five boroughs, and there were fewer than 12,000, including restaurants.

There were also other ways to skirt the law, especially when it came to wine, which was allowed in small amounts for sacramental purposes. As an article in The Napa Valley Register explains, Prohibition didn't exactly shut down the California wine industry. "In fact, between 1920 and 1933, grape production actually increased and the savvy business people who figured out how to work the system became exceedingly wealthy," writes Kelsey Burnham. "In an era when the economy of the Napa Valley could have been severely crippled, it survived and many thrived."

Instead of making and selling wine, many grape growers sold juice or bricks of dried grapes with "warnings" about how they would ferment if left in a jug for a specific amount of time, and that "corks were unnecessary with non-alcoholic beverages." Hint, hint—use a cork.

And what about that Prohibition-era wine cellar in Woodrow Wilson's house? Well, it wasn't illegal for a person to keep alcohol that he already owned. However, in an interview with On Tap Magazine, Garrett Peck—author of The Prohibition Hangover and co-organizer of the Speakeasy Ball—noted, "Considering the sale of alcohol was illegal after 1920, it’s a little curious how the 1928 bottle of champagne and the 1922 bottle of Cointreau made their way into the wine cellar. We do know that Mrs. Wilson was a very well connected lady."

There you have it. If a law is so unpopular and ineffective that even a former First Lady won't abide by it, it probably isn't long for this world.

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