by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Next year marks the centennial of national Prohibition, enacted to stem the tide of alcohol production, distribution and consumption in America after decades of effort by a coalition of forces in the temperance movement. The Homestead will have exhibits and programs dealing with this remarkable social movement leading up to the so-called “Great Social Experiment” which was approved by amending the Constitution and following through its fourteen-year history. Honored significantly in the breach, Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933.
For decades, however, local and state jurisdictions passed laws banning the manufacture, sale and drinking of alcohol and, by the early 1910s, it seemed very likely the federal government would follow suit. In fact, this was a prime mover behind the decision to reintroduce the income tax (one existed for a few years during the Civil War) because of the concern of lost revenue from alcohol-related taxes.
In Los Angeles, local temperance forces, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League and others, mobilized enough support to place a measure of the ballot for a special election on 20 November 1917. Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a trio of clippings from the Los Angeles Express newspaper in the form of advertisements taken out on the 15th and 16th by the No-Saloon Committee, imploring a yes vote.
Measure One asked voters:
Shall the ordinance proposed by initiative petition, prohibiting saloons, and prohibiting the sale of distilled alcoholic liquors, and regulating the sale and service of vinous and malt alcoholic liquors, within the City of Los Angeles, be adopted?
So, the measure was not an outright ban on all alcoholic drinks, but certain ones and in particular businesses, meaning saloons and bars. Alcohol could still be sold in stores and restaurants, though even in those there was a 9:00 curfew, after which these products could not be sold and consumed.
One of the ads showed the four measures on the ballot (Measure 2 concerned creating an animal welfare department in the city,) with two others related to the question of alcohol manufacture, sale and consumption offered as competitors with Measure 1. The No-Saloon Committee stated “The LIQUOR INTERESTS are behind Propositions 3 and 4” and urged its supporters to vote no on those two.
Another ad offered nine reasons why “The Saloon Must Go!” claiming that the bar “adds no economic wealth . . . [and] creates nothing of value;” led to property depreciation and lower rents to adjoining property; accounted for about half of law breaking, half of commitments to state asylums, and a third of the destitution requiring charity; led to the existence of “four out of five tramps” in the city; and others.
The third of the ads stipulated that “The Issue Is the Saloon” on election day and asked citizens “To Rid Los Angeles of the Saloons” by voting in the affirmative for Measure 1. By the way, it is worth adding here that the introduction of the referendum and the initiative for California voters came six years prior at the peak of Progressivism in the state’s politics, so this tool for the popular vote was another element of the general movement against alcoholic beverages.
Although the other three measures on the ballot lost and by huge margins, especially competing measures 3 and 4, Measure 1, also known as the Grandier Ordinance, was successful. On the day after the balloting, with all but 8 of 706 precincts reporting complete returns, the vote was 53,543 for the proposition and 33,948 against.
Incidentally, passage of the measure also meant a specific and complete prohibition of any alcohol manufacture, sale and consumption in the recently annexed harbor district of the city, including San Pedro and Wilmington. Additionally, beverages could not be more than 14% alcohol, affecting wines, malt liquors and spirits.
Of course, when national prohibition was enacted, the local ordinance was moot. Notably, on 18 November 1918, two days prior to the election, the federal government created a Wartime Prohibition Act banning the sale of alcohol with a content of more than 1.28% and was ostensibly to save grain for the war effort. Yet, as was much discussed here in recent posts, the war ended with the armistice of 11 November. Still, the Act took effect as of 1 July 1919.
Then, an eighteenth amendment to the Constitution was proposed by the Senate in mid-December 1918, requiring three-quarters of the approval of the legislatures of the states. When that number was met a month later, the amendment was officially adopted, though it was agreed that the effective date was to be a year later, so it was 17 January 1920 when the country went dry. Because sponsoring legislation was required in Congress, the Volstead Act was passed in October 1919, defining the terms of the banned products and specifying penalties for the breaking of the law.
Very quickly, the idealism of the concept, the lack of enforcement capabilities of the federal government, and the wily and creative mechanisms employed by ordinary citizens and organized crime to circumvent the law were made patently obvious. A groundswell of support for repealing Prohibition grew gradually through the Roaring 20s and the onset of the Great Depression and the victory of Democrats, including Franklin D. Roosevelt for president, in the 1932 elections culminated in the end of the “Great Social Experiment.” More on this in next year’s programming!