That Time the U.S. Government Made All Bars in America Close At Midnight

In 1945, the government gave America a nationwide curfew for the first and last time

V-J Day in Times Square, New York City. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Sixty-nine years ago this month, bartenders across the country were in the process of resetting their internal clocks: the federal government had just instituted a nationwide curfew on nightlife. From the ritziest nightclub to the tiniest country saloon, all entertainment establishments across the country were ordered to dim their lights come midnight, causing the “biggest howl since prohibition.”

The official reason for the curfew was to conserve fuel and manpower for the boys overseas. But many reporters hinted that Washington also wanted to staunch the flow of money being tossed away “for fun” and redirect it towards war bonds. Maybe this was just the grumbling refrain of the nightlife industry, which had been enjoying the profits of unprecedented wartime spending. Maybe not. Either way, people were upset. The Tucson Daily Citizen reported:

The return of the speakeasy and the loss of thousands of jobs were cited today by many cabaret proprietors as the logical results to be expected from the federal government's enforcement-barbed "request"

In the Ogden Standard-Examiner, nightclub men vented their frustration:

"We're for anything that will help win the war," was the general refrain, "But--".... They feel that legitimate, well-policed businesses are being unduly penalized and that the heyday of the racketeer will return.

Prohibitionists, predictably, were in favour of the curfew, as was the Manhattan restaurateur Bernard “Toots” Shor, who declared that “any bum who can’t get drunk by midnight ain’t trying.” (Prohibitionists may have phrased their support differently.)

The first official defiance of the edict came a month later, when New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia changed the local closing time to 1 a.m.—apparently without permission. By one account:

Mr. La Guardia was the toast tonight of thousands of delighted night club habitues and theatre-goers, who drank his health enthusiastically.

Not everyone welcomed the extra sixty minutes, though. The war was six months away from ending, and the man in charge of America’s largest city had just entered a staring contest with Franklin Roosevelt’s director of war mobilization, James F. Byrnes.

La Guardia would lose. When the Army and Navy cracked down on after-midnight shenanigans within their ranks, most nightclub owners decided that “if they couldn’t serve servicemen during the extra hour they wouldn’t serve civilians.”

The midnight curfew eventually lifted in early April, having saved very little energy after all.

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