“Dry Land; That’s All”: Prohibition (Sort Of)Takes Effect, 17 January 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Last year, the Homestead mounted exhibits for the centennial of the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the so-called “noble experiment” to prohibition the manufacture, sale and consumption of most alcoholic beverages in the United States.  These displays, ably planned and carried out by several of my talented colleagues, traced the temperance movement from the early 19th century and the long, arduous campaign that, state by state and city by city, brought local bans and built momentum over the decades until the federal constitutional amendment was passed.

The legislation for the amendment was approved by Congress in December 1917 as the nation was in the midst of the First World War and poised to send the full complement of its American Expeditionary Force into the battlefields of western Europe.  The legislation was then sent to the states for ratification, with the required number of two-thirds achieved on 16 January 1919.

Los Angeles Express, 17 December 1920.

Andrew Volstead, a Minnesota Republican member of the House of Representatives, introduced the National Prohibition Act in late June of that year and after moving through the judiciary committee, a vote about a month later resulted in a 295-105 passage (three representatives voted “present,” a la Tulsi Gabbard and the recent House vote on the impeachment of the president.)

The act then went to the Senate where, after some amendments, it was passed in early September by a voice vote rather than a roll call vote.  In the first two weeks of October, a joint conference committee report was then followed by a voice vote in the Senate and a 230-69 vote (one member present) in the House and the bill was sent to the White House.

Los Angeles Times, 17 January 1920.

President Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a stroke just weeks earlier and who would become increasingly incapacitated in the remaining year plus of his administration, however, vetoed the act on the grounds that its lesser-known second section on wartime enforcement was not needed.  The war was not technically over as the Treaty of Versailles had not yet passed by the GOP-led Congress at odds with Wilson’s handling of the treaty process without their input.

Wilson’s attempt to make civil liberties an issue through a dry technical matter was quickly brushed aside by both houses of Congress.  On 27 October, the House overrode Wilson’s veto 210-73 (three voted “present”) and the Senate followed suit the next day, 69-20.  The government scrambled to implement its enforcement and judicial procedures, hire agents and other staff, and readied to do what was feasible when national prohibition officially took effect at 12:01 a.m. on this day a century ago.

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Express, 17 January 1920.

In Los Angeles, the Express reported that there were several arrests immediately as the clock struck midnight and local police officers descended on areas of the city.  As if by design, the names of the arrested reveal an ethnically diverse roster.  The paper reported that “B. Fuimoto,” probably “Fujimoto” was arrested at his “Japanese chop house” on Sixth Street near what was renamed just two months prior as Pershing Square because he allowed Nick Mangerina, a Sicilian jockey, to bring alcohol into his establishment.

The Express went on to note that “promptly at 12:01 a.m. members of the purity squad began operations to enforce the new law” and descended on the Italian Vineyard Company, owned by the prominent viniculturist Secundo Guasti (who wound up being the first, rather than the second, target of a large-scale raid in Los Angeles).  It was an Anglo, though, an “F. Kincaid” who was nabbed “after the place had been watched and a number of automobiles seen to come and leave the establishment.”

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Times, 17 January 1920.

Then, well-known Jewish cafe owner Al Levy was mentioned as being arrested as a bottle of booze was seized by officers, though Levy claimed it “belonged to an Eastern tourist who had left,” though the restaurateur promised “that he would be responsible.”  Not leaving Latinos out, the paper reported that “Mrs. L. Carrillo, proprietor of the Log Cabin Inn at the northwest corner of Adams Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, was hauled off to jail and released on a $100 bond for possession at her widely patronized establishment.

In its reporting of last-minute government activity as Prohibition became the law of the land, the Times titled its piece “Dry Land; That’s All,” and stated that “little notice was taken by government officials of the end of all licensed sale of liquor [well, beer and wine, too], except at the Treasury Department, where much activity was shown by officials connected with prohibition enforcement.”  The folks at Treasury had long been concerned about the significant loss of revenue from alcohol excise taxes, which comprised much of government funding along with those tariffs we hear so much about these days.

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Times, 17 January 1920.

John F. Kremer, the federal prohibition commissioner, issued a statement that there were 1,500 agents at the ready to begin enforcement and the 20% of these would work directly with state prohibition officers.  It was anticipated that difficulties would be found in “handling distilled liquors in bonded warehouses”  because it was already known that product suddenly vanished before the law took effect “despite the vigilance of revenue officers.”

On one hand, the feds “expected a multiplicity of legal and lesser tangles to ensue” and yet it was claimed that Treasury’s regulations were such that “no room is left for doubt as to what can and cannot be done in the future.”

There were many organizations and individuals who lobbied aggressively, systematically and successfully for the passage of Prohibition and one of the core constituencies were Americans of faith.  In Los Angeles, the First Methodist Episcopal Church was among the most prominent promoters of Prohibition.

Eastside bottle ticket
Zobelein’s brewery was a Los Angeles institution for many years and this bottle ticket from the museum’s collection is for its Eastside Zest, a “non-intoxicating pure and healthful cereal beverage” acceptable by Prohibition standards.

Because the enactment of the law started on a Sunday, the church advertised for its Sunday services a special evening sermon by its influential pastor, Dr. Charles Edward Locke, titled “America’s Great Day of Jubilation.  The Thrilling Story of the Triumph of Prohibition.  Abraham Lincoln’s Prophecy.”  Another speaker, Bishop M.C. Harris, was to talk about “Japan and Prohibition.”

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, films were already being released and advertised with reference to the new law of the (dry) land.  For example, on the 17th, the Victory Theater (renamed just before the end of the war in September 1918 and torn down seven years later to be replaced by the Orpheum, which still stands and operates today) on Broadway between 8th and 9th promoted “The Day She Paid,” a new Rex Ingram picture starring the forgotten Francelia Billington and concerning a tragedy experienced by her character as she is caught between her villainous boss and lover and her noble husband and his daughters, one of whom is sought as a wife by the boss.

Limy Dry bottle ticket
Soft drinks were promoted as alternatives to alcoholic beverages and “Hollywood Limy Dry” was one local example.  This bottle ticket from the Homestead’s holdings is stamped “non alcoholic carbonated beverage”.

The ad’s tag line reads, “Fannie Hurst’s Vivid Panorama of Models and Morals in Pre-Prohibition New York,” Hurst being a popular writer with several stories and books adapted to film, including Imitation of Life and Humoresque.  It is notable how quickly filmdom turned to using Prohibition as part of its publicity machine.

Finally, it was quickly noted in Los Angeles papers that there was a fairly ready solution to the imbibers if they wanted to continue drinking legally—head south!  As the Times expressed it in a headline, there were “Barrels of Joy Now in Mexico.”  While enforcement was launched in the border town of Calexico, “across the line [in Mexicali] the glasses clinked merrily and will continue to do so.”

The article observed that, to the last minute,

floods of bottled and barreled enthusiasm, product of American stills and breweries, have been pouring into the port of Calexico, and, after a temporary halt here, flowing on again until they reach the store houses of Mexicali . . .

It was noted that Canadian-made liquors were given a single day’s exemption for export from the United States into Mexico, while also pointed out that there were no export duties to accrue to America, while Mexico benefited from generous duties slapped on the “giggle juice,” to borrow a term of the era.

new life bottle
Then there were those alcoholic beverages that were legally permitted because they were sold as medicine, in this case with New Life Wine Tonic, by the Vida Nueva Company of Los Angeles.  This bottle is also from the museum holdings.

A major reason for the rapid growth of Tijuana was not just its ready access from San Diego, but that it became a haven for those who wanted to drink, and gamble, legally.  As just one of many examples, Baron Long, whose Sunset Inn at Santa Monica was the subject of a recent post here, opened a fancy watering hole of the same name at the Monte Carlo casino in the city and it became a major success, including among those in Hollywood circles.

The Homestead’s collection features some excellent artifacts related to the Prohibition era, including photos of liquor busts; prescriptions from doctors for alcohol used, purportedly, as medicine; bottle tickets of products like near beer (the limit was a paltry 0.5% alcohol content); bottles of medicinal wines; and more.

Prohibition Prescription 24Dec28
From our collection is one of several prescriptions, though this one was written out on Christmas Even in 1928, a timely dispensing of “medicine.”

They help to tell the story of Prohibition in greater Los Angeles, as do other materials like an oral history with the son of the Temple family’s ranch foreman, Frank Romero, who created a storage area under the seat of one of the family’s automobiles to hide hooch picked up in Los Angeles and transported to the Homestead so that “ginger ale” and “root beer” could be on hand when desired!

There are plenty of articles in the news today commemorating the centennial of Prohibition’s beginnings.  They uniformly note that, whatever the “noble experiment” intended, the consequences were far more significant, unanticipated or otherwise, than most Americans could have foreseen.

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This photo from the museum collection of a Tournament of Roses float from the early 1920s shows the entry from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and celebrated the “Victory” of teetotalers over the evils of drink—for the time being, that is.

The “shadow economy” in illicit booze is generally well-known, especially the boon to bootleggers and organized crime in which billions of dollars were realized ($3.6 billion in 1926 alone) in the traffic of outlawed alcoholic beverages.  Even those who profited legally, like those doctors writing $40 million worth of prescriptions, including one we have in the museum’s holdings for a healthy dose of whisky on Christmas Eve, often did so with illicit purposes.

Not as readily understood was the unrealized promise that soft drinks, grape juice, chewing gum and other anticipated replacements for alcohol did not dramatically increase in sales long-term, and nor did other items like household goods or clothing.  Or the fact, that a quarter of a million jobs related to the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages were lost as the United States was in a postwar recession when Prohibition became law.

Liquor bust April 1923
Much was made in the press of local and national busts of liquor, as demonstrated in this April 1923 press photo from the Homestead’s holdings of a publicly staged operation in Los Angeles, but, long term, it was the “noble experiment” of Prohibition that went bust.

Moreover, the federal government lost $11 billion in excise tax and forked out $300 million in enforcement expenses for what was essentially a lost cause.  Even as it became painfully obvious throughout the Roaring Twenties that the law was excessively honored in the breach, the onset of the Great Depression spurred a greater enthusiasm by “wets” to seek the repeal of the 18th Amendment despite vigorous efforts by “drys” to keep the law in place.

A federal government desperate for increasing revenue as the Depression worsened and a public largely and increasingly seeking respite from the bleakness of the situation and already long-thirsting for a return to the joys of imbibing ensured the easy repeal of Prohibition, which took place with the ratification of the 21st Amendment at the end of 1933.

It is instructive to see today’s Chicago Tribune and its reprinting of an editorial ran by that paper on 27 March 1919, including this excerpt:

Our protest against prohibition does not proceed from any indifference to or any ignorance of the excessive consequences of the use of alcohol . . .

Prohibition is the imposition of a community order upon a mass which, if the individuals of the mass were sufficiently intelligent, would not be needed as an order. As such it is abhorrent to people who believe that character arises from the possibility of decisions made to affect the individual.

There must be wastage in this. Some characters must be too pliable to temptation to stand the test. Some tragedies must follow. But the scheme of making the individual stand up on his own two feet is right. Its faults are the faults of human nature. Its faults are the faults which we constantly try to correct by discipline and education. They are faults which are best corrected by such processes.

When a community confesses the breakdown of its personnel by adopting prohibition, it confesses that it has found no other way out of a difficultly except the way which makes people behave as other people think they must behave.

We must have prohibitory laws against criminals. But drinkers are not criminals. They are not conscious assailants of the law of society, and to take away from them their privilege of selection in the matter of personal liberty and habit of life is to approach a difficult question from the side which is least open to moral justification, no matter how plausible in morals it may seem.

Our latest Prohibition exhibit is still up, though soon to be taken down as we move to another vital centennial commemoration, that of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which was a prohibition of its own, through the denial of the right to vote on the basis of gender and a crowning achievement after decades of woman suffrage advocacy.

Still bust 3Dec26
Another press photo from the museum collection of a sophisticated bootlegging operation in Los Angeles, dated 3 December 1926.

So, come on out to take tours of the Workman House and La Casa Nueva and take a look at our Prohibition exhibit before it gets “re-peeled”—off the walls of the Gallery, that is.


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