Events Leading Up To National Prohibition
Posted by Bob Skilnik on December 6, 2008
Well, December 5 has come and gone, but the romanticizing of pre-Prohibition beer continues. I’ve included a chapter from Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago that explains the national events leading up to January 16, 1920 and the state of beers during this time. As you’ll read, these beers were NOT the romanticized pre-Prohibition “craft” beers that some wax nostagically about.
While the brewers and their allies in Chicago battled with the almost fanatical strength and determination of local prohibitionists, national and international events were occurring that would take the matter of prohibition to Washington and out of the hands of local officials.
By the end of 1916, there were 23 dry states with prohibition laws on their books. With the well financed congressional lobbying efforts of the Anti-Saloon League and the U.S.A.’s declaration of war with Germany on April 6, 1917, the campaign for national prohibition became interwoven with President Woodrow Wilson’s institution of a wartime food control bill.
In 1917, Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League lobbied to attach a provision to Wilson’s food bill that would make it illegal to use any food material in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, except for scientific, medicinal or sacramental purposes. Wet Senators promptly threatened to filibuster the bill. A compromise was eventually reached that took beer and wine out of the prohibition clause of the food control bill but gave the President the discretion to later limit or stop the manufacture of beer or wine as he saw fit. The compromise bill was passed on August 10, 1917. As mandated by a rider attached to the compromised food bill, the production of distilled alcohol ceased on September 8, although sales of the remaining stock of ardent spirits could legally continue.
Most threatening to the nation’s brewers was a Senate resolution for a constitutional prohibition amendment that had passed weeks earlier on August 1. With the passage of the resolution, the necessary time for state legislators to ratify the constitutional amendment, which had been originally limited to five years, was compromised to six, avoiding a threatened wet filibuster but giving the League more time to marshal their forces. If ratified by Congress, the liquor industry would be given one year to close and dispose of its’ bonded stock. In exchange for this one year grace period, the House of Representatives pushed through the Webb Resolution on December 17, which further extended the time for ratification of the constitutional prohibition amendment to seven years, allowing considerable time for the Anti-Saloon League to influence the decisions of the legislative representatives of the remaining wet states.
On December 11, 1917, Wilson exercised his authority to further reduce the amount of permissible food materials used for the manufacture of beer by thirty-percent and limited it’s legal alcoholic content to a paltry 2 3/4% by weight.
On November 21, 1918, ten days after the Armistice, Congress passed a wartime prohibition bill as a rider to the Food Stimulation Act. This bill was to take effect the following year but the Federal Food Administration used it’s authority to order the cessation of brewing nine days after the wartime prohibition bill was passed. Preparing for the cessation of brewing in Chicago, local breweries began to produce all the beer they possibly could before the cutoff date of December 1, 1918. A scarcity of grains and the resultant closing of some plants in order to economize made the challenge of this new post-war measure difficult for the industry to respond to in such a short period of time.
Beginning on December 1, Chicago brewers used the down time after the imposed brewing stoppage to continue to bottle, keg and sell whatever stock was still on hand. There was also a rotated layoff of the 7,500 employed by the local industry. In this manner, the local brewers hoped that they would be able to quickly recommence the brewing of beer if given the President’s approval. With the brewing moratorium in effect and no hope for a quick resumption of production, Chicago Brewers’ Association President William Legner estimated that the country’s dwindling supply of beer would run out by May 1, 1919.
The German Brewers And World War I
The German and German-American brewers were not prepared to challenge the dictates of Washington after the declaration of war against Germany. Anti-German hysteria had already gripped Chicago, not only with the nodding approval of the local Anti-Saloon League, but also because of the questionable actions of some German-American organizations. When hostilities in Europe commenced in 1914, the United States Brewers’ Association began funneling money to the National German-American Alliance, headquartered in Chicago. But as the U.S. moved from a neutral to a more proactive stance, the USBA continued to maintain their fraternal ties with pro-German organizations. The Alliance used the funds, in part, to send out press releases that were pro-German in tone.
As public opinion turned against “hyphenated Americans,” including the highly visible German-American brewers, Mayor Thompson, at the time courting the favor of Chicago’s German-American voters, caused additional problems for the local German community. His refusal to support the early national Liberty Loan efforts or to assume the role of local draft chairman, infuriated many patriotic Chicagoans and earned him the name of “Kaiser Bill”. In an effort to calm down some of the local anti-German bias and prove their loyalty to the U.S., Chicago brewers and members of affiliated trades and businesses later subscribed about $1,400,000 to the Fourth Liberty Loan campaign. Through the efforts of the Manufacturers’ and Dealers Association of Chicago, brewers distributed several hundred thousand copies of the Appeal by American Brewers to the American People, which attempted to repudiate charges that the brewers were pro-German. These efforts proved ineffectual as wartime Chicago developed a siege mentality.
In late 1918, A. Mitchell Palmer, who held the federal position of Custodian of Alien Property, began an investigation of the Schoenhofen Brewery and its owners because of the family’s close ties to friends and relatives in Germany. The World War I Office of Alien Property Custodian had been created by an Executive Order on October 12, 1917. The Trading With The Enemy Act of October 6, 1917, had already authorized Palmer to assume control and dispose of enemy owned property in the United States. Instigated by the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler, federal agents seized the corporate and trust files of the brewery. Title to the brewery property was then placed in the control of the federal government in order to prevent the possible use of the company assets by enemy aliens against the United States. German owners of breweries throughout the U.S. suffered similar federal actions. Palmer eventually controlled $506 million of German owned trusts, including the Schoenhofen’s. Ironically, Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, whose failed attempt to kill Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair in Eastern Prussia in 1944 would lead to his own death, was purported to have been a descendant of Peter Schoenhofen, founder of the Chicago brewery.
Ratification Of The Eighteenth Amendment
After appeals to the beer drinking public and failed legislative efforts by the brewers to resume brewing, the fate of the drink industry was sealed on January 16, 1919, with the shockingly quick ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment by the constitutionally required thirty-sixth state. One year later, the entire country would fall under National Prohibition. The Illinois Legislature had already followed suit with twenty-eight other dry states and ratified the National Prohibition Amendment, the Senate on January 8, with a vote of 30 to 15, the House by a vote of 84 to 66 on January 14.
But Springfield was not Chicago. Provisions of the wartime prohibition bill, passed in 1918, pushed the last date for the legal retail sale of beer and liquor further back to June 30, 1919. Brewers, distillers and saloonkeepers still held out hope that President Wilson would revoke the wartime prohibition bill and give them until January of 1920 to put their affairs in order, as agreed upon in the Eighteenth Amendment. The Armistice had been signed on November 11, 1918; as far as the brewers were concerned, the wartime prohibition bill was void. Prohibitionists countered that the war could not be considered over until demobilization of the European Expeditionary Forces was complete, a process that could last six months or more.
In Chicago, Deputy City Collector George F. Lohman estimated that the abrupt loss in city revenue from brewery and saloon licensing and permit fees would exceed $8,000,000 per year should the saloons be forced to close. He also took note of the additional loss to real estate owners of useless saloon sites after the closings, speculating that the financial blow to them would be ten times greater than the loss to the city from liquor license fees. It was a loss that would heavily impact local brewers since they owned a significant portion of the Chicago saloons.
A local Anti-Salooner official naively suggested that raising taxes to cover the $8,000,000 revenue deficit could easily be avoided by simply reducing expenses in all city departments. A Chicago Tribune editorial, however, demanded a quick revision of taxes to make up the huge deficit. Acknowledging the cost of politics in Chicago and a need for municipal belt tightening, the paper also suggested a realistic percentage of the needed money be allocated for the waste of funds that flowed through Mayor Thompson’s executive departments.
While brewers’ and distillers’ representatives continued to challenge the wartime prohibition bill and the National Prohibition Amendment in Washington, stocks of beer in Chicago were becoming scarce. By February of 1919, barrel prices had risen to $17, reflecting the dwindling supply.
With prohibition fever sweeping the nation, Anti-Saloon and Chicago Dry Federation forces successfully managed to include the issue of making Chicago a possible dry territory on the April mayoral ticket, months before National Prohibition would take effect. It had been an uphill battle for dry forces to include such a symbolic issue for city-wide vote, culminating with a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that the question had to be included in the April, 1919 election. But the results of the referendum clearly demonstrated the present and future attitude of a majority of Chicagoans and their insistence on the right to drink. Wets won the issue by a majority of 247,228 votes, 266,529 men and 124,731 women voting against Chicago prohibition. Had there been a dry victory, local saloons would have been compelled to close their doors on May 1, in compliance with Illinois state law, fostered by local option.
Chicago Wet And Dry Vote By Wards For 1919
Ward Dry Wet Wet
Votes Votes Majority
1 1,024 7,792 6,768
2 3,188 12,826 9,638
3 6,087 11,980 5,893
4 873 13,907 2,806
5 2,203 9,637 7,434
6 9,791 12,597 2,806
7 10,693 13,004 2,311
8 3,738 8,329 4,591
9 4,836 7,784 2,948
10 405 7,104 6,699
11 857 8,858 8,001
12 1,105 10,488 9,383
13 10,472 13,730 3,258
14 3,043 10,448 7,405
15 2,486 11,221 8,735
16 509 6,966 6,457
17 568 4,490 3,922
18 2,949 9,496 6,547
19 588 5,247 4,689
20 624 4,685 4,061
21 4,104 9,784 5,680
22 728 6,771 6,043
23 5,131 12,370 7,239
24 2,111 11,811 9,700
25 12,563 16,576 4,013
26 6,826 16,288 9,462
27 8,714 19,865 11,151
28 3,531 10,651 7,120
29 3,026 13,350 10,324
30 2,094 9,033 6,939
31 4,979 12,228 7,249
32 10,145 15,160 5,015
33 9,578 17,011 7,433
34 2,280 17,141 14,679
35 6,943 18,622 11,679
_____ _____ _____
Totals 114,032 391,260 247,228[xi]
“There will be no let up until fanaticism has been completely overthrown,” vowed William Fisher, secretary of the wet Trades Union Liberty League as he reviewed the overwhelming election results. “This is the message Chicago sends to Congress.”
Congress, however, had its own agenda, something that brewers’ attorney Levy Mayer ruefully pointed out. Although the referendum had deflected the local option move to make Chicago a dry territory months before National Prohibition, its results could not stop its inevitability. Passage of the Eighteenth Amendment had been through legislative action, not by a popular mandate. “Members of the legislature and congress…have without a direct vote of the people, undertaken to amend the constitution and say to more than 100,000,000 people that they shall not drink malt, vinous or spirituous beverages of any kind, and that possession of such beverages makes their possessors felons.” Mayer then threw down this challenge to the electorate. “ I can stand it if the rest of the American people can.”
Buoyed by the results of the referendum vote and on the advice of legal counsel, Chicago brewers defiantly restarted the brewing of 2.75 % beer on May 1, following the lead of New York brewers. At this point, low alcohol small beer was better than no beer.
Hoping to influence President Wilson’s decision on extending the wartime prohibition bill’s effective date of July 1, 1919, the Chicago City Council adopted the following resolution and left no doubt as to its stance on National Prohibition;
“Whereas, In the present day of democracy the majority rules, and the city has by a vote of 300,000 at the last general election declared against a dry Chicago; and
Whereas, If demobilization is not complete before July 1 the country will go dry by presidential decree, which will, when effective, mean a property damage in Chicago of about $15,000,000, a loss of business of $25,000,000 and inability of the administration to meet the pay-roll of the police and firemen; therefore
Be it resolved by the City Council that we petition the United States Senate, Congress and President Wilson to declare the army of the United States demobilized by July 1, 1919.”
Hopefully, if Wilson acceded to the City Council’s petition and to similar demands from other municipalities that feared that a reliable cash cow was prematurely drying up, it would give local governments six more months to draw additional revenues from the local breweries and their affiliated saloons and give them a little more time to get their financial houses in order. The absoluteness of National Prohibition would still be six months away, not scheduled to take effect until January 16, 1920, but time was running short. Wilson, however, let the wartime prohibition bill and the last date for the retail sale of alcoholic beverages come into law on July 1, 1919. He offered one ray of hope to the drink interests when he stated that when “demobilization is terminated, my power to act without congressional action will be exercised.” With this ambiguous statement by Wilson of a possible short reprieve, there were predictions that saloons in states that were still wet might be back in operation by the end of August. Local brewer association president William G. Legner was wary, however, of unwarranted enthusiasm concerning the possible reopening of saloons.
Chicago Reacts To The Wartime Prohibition Bill
In Chicago, attitudes towards the up coming closing date of city saloons proved defiant, not surprising after the results of the April election. Over the back bars of many of the saloons were signs declaring, “THIS SALOON WILL BE OPEN FOR BUSINESS AFTER JULY 1.” Rumors abounded that some local brewers were so confident that the ban would be lifted before July 1, that they were not only brewing beer, despite the restrictions, but were once again brewing full strength brew.
When informed that there were strong indications that some Chicago saloons would remain open after July 1, United States District Attorney Charles F. Clyne countered that he would be forced to prosecute any violators. It was pointedly noted that Police Chief Garrity had 5000 policemen at his disposal for enforcement of the closings. As the deadline date approached, however, Garrity was away in New York. Acting as chief in Garrity’s absence, First Deputy General Superintendent of Police, John M. Alcock startled everyone by declaring that “…after midnight it is a federal question (the enforcement of saloon closings),” and indicated a reluctance to act.
In the seedier areas around Chicago’s barrel houses, the crowds of bums and hoboes grew unusually large as saloonkeepers tried to unload their stock. Huge schooners of beer dropped back to a nickel, shots of whisky from ten to twenty cents, depending on the quality. Authorities predicted a marked increase in the number of drunks who would probably apply for the cure at the healing Bridewell, Washingtonian and Keeley Institutes when the wartime prohibition law took effect.
A last minute price war took place in saloons throughout the city as retailers dumped stock. “Only two days more to shop-do your shopping now!” was a commonly-themed advertisement seen in many of the saloon windows as the deadline approached. A majority of dealers were staying open well past the 1 A.M. closing time, hoping to squeeze out the last bit of change from thirsty Chicagoans. Travelling salesmen, their satchels loaded with booze, scurried through the neighborhoods trying to entice potential customers of the necessity of buying their products now.
For the would be home brewer, small cans of Hopfen und Malz Extrakt were popping up for sale in delis and food stores. By adding water and a packet of yeast to the malted extract, the beer drinker was promised a stimulating malt beverage of at least 5% alcohol in five to seven days.
First Ward Alderman Michael Kenna’s Workingmen’s Exchange mockingly announced a series of recitations and songs on June 30 to mark the passing of John Barleycorn, including “The Old Man’s Drunk Again” and “Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now.” At the Hamilton Club, a dinner dance was to be held until midnight when the body of the late John Barleycorn would be brought in by pallbearers for a solemn, but tongue-in-cheek wake. Preparations in hotels, cafes and saloons throughout the city were being made, proprietors predicting record business. When some establishments still threatened to stay open after midnight, July 1, Alderman Anton J. Cermak of the United Societies warned that those who defied the law would endanger any chance of reopening if President Wilson finally declared the Army demobilized and allowed the bars to reopen.
Good Bye To Beer
On June 30, 1919, Chicagoans celebrated like never before. Whisky and some of the more exotic mixed drinks seemed to be the drinks of choice. The reason for this was simple; Cermak declared that Chicago saloons had run out of real beer before June 30. “Two days before June 30, the last available barrel of real beer had gone from the breweries. There wasn’t a beer jag in town, unless some youngster had a make believe.”[xxii] If Cermak was correct in his sobering assessment, it would have been the second time since the hot summer of 1854 that Chicago had run out of beer. The Green Mill Garden, the Marigold Room, the Sheridan Inn and the Rainbow enjoyed record business. On the South Side, the De Luxe, the Entertainers and the Elite, were reported to be open well past midnight. An estimate that over $1,500,000 had been spent on beer and booze caused one observer of Chicago’s greatest wassailing occasion to suggest that the city motto be changed from “I Will” to “I Swill.”
The Illinois Search And Seizure Act
With a collective hangover of tens of thousands, the city slowly awoke the next day to learn that United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had announced the night before that the manufacture and sale of beer with 2 3/4% alcohol could continue until the federal courts ruled on whether or not such beer was legally intoxicating. Recent test cases in New York had resulted in a decision to question what amount of alcohol in beer could be legally considered intoxicating. “We will proceed in an orderly fashion to establish whether intoxicating beverages proscribed by the law include those having less than 2 3/4% per cent alcohol,” advised Palmer. Until the Supreme Court ruled on a legal definition of intoxicating or until January 16, 1920, 2 3/4% beer could continue to be sold in those states that did not have dry laws on their books. Impulsively acting on Palmer’s ruling, Illinois Attorney General Edward J. Brundage initially issued a statement that the sale of beer and wine with 2 3/4% alcohol could continue in Illinois until National Prohibition took effect on January 16, 1920. In accordance with these opinions, the Chicago City Council quickly passed an ordinance authorizing the issuance of temporary sixty-day liquor licenses, a move introduced by Alderman Cermak. The licenses now sold for $50 a month instead of the old cost of $83, which would have allowed the sale of hard alcohol.
Later that day, City Corporation Counsel Samuel A. Ettelson conferred with Attorney General Brundage on Palmer’s ruling. As a result of their meeting, despite no federal court rulings on the definition of what amount of alcohol in beer was legally considered intoxicating, Police Chief Garrity was instructed to arrest anyone who attempted to sell any beverage that contained more than one-half of 1 % of alcohol. Brundage now ruled that “The search and seizure act of the state of Illinois, in force and effect after July 1, 1919, defines intoxicating liquor or liquids as including all distilled spirituous, vinous, fermented, or malt liquors which contain more than one-half of 1 percent by volume of alcohol, and all alcoholic liquids, compounds, and preparations, whether proprietary, patented, or not, which are portable and are capable of or suitable for being used as a beverage.”
When reporters questioned Brundage on his reversed decision, he claimed that he had been earlier misinformed. “I was called on the telephone at my home and informed that the government had modified its provisions of the wartime prohibition act to permit sale of light beverages containing no more than 2 3/4 per cent of alcohol. I said that if this were true, it would be permissible under the Illinois law to sell such beverages here. When the full details of the federal government’s action were shown to me I immediately issued the new statement regarding the search and seizure law, which effectually prohibits the sale of anything containing more than one half of one percent of alcohol.”
With the enforcement of state law versus a yet established federal opinion, the death knoll for beer in Chicago was sounded at 6:30 P.M. July 1, 1919.
Some saloons and clubs openly defied the closing mandate. It was later reported that fanatical prohibitionist Reverend Arthur Burrage Farwell of the Chicago Law and Order League and his team of vigilant investigators had found violations of the 12 o’clock closing law on June 30. Farwell also disclosed that whiskey was seen purchased at the Dorchester at 67th and Dorchester and at the Tavern, located at 58th and State. The Reverend stayed long enough at these locations to additionally note in his report that women in all stages of undress were seen in both places.
Local Brewers Go On The Offensive
After the closings, the Chicago Brewers’ Association passed a resolution to continue to challenge not only the wartime prohibition bill but to also challenge the National Prohibition Act by hastening any test cases through the courts. What they needed was a brewer willing to act as a “victim” for a test case on the legality of manufacturing 2 3/4% beer. The procedural events leading up to a ruling had already been mapped out by the brewers and their attorneys. Industry leaders anticipated that an expected federal suit would charge a consenting brewer with a violation of the food conservation act and the selling of an intoxicating beverage. After arrest, the association’s plan called for the brewer to plead guilty and pay the fine.
On July 14, a suit was filed by District Attorney Clyne against the Stenson Brewing Company. It was charged that the brewery “did use grains and cereals in the manufacture and production of beer for beverage purposes containing as much as one-half of one percent alcoholic content by both weight and volume…” and sold the beer on July 2 to Timothy King, a saloonkeeper at 3153 Archer Avenue. Six counts were included in the suit, three for the sale of the beer and three concerning the manufacture of the beer. The Stenson brothers abruptly changed their original strategy of pleading guilty and instead argued that they were innocent of the charges, stating that the November 21, 1918 wartime prohibition bill “relates only to beer which is in fact intoxicating” and that the information used in the charges “fails to allege that the beer made or sold was in fact intoxicating.” They also argued that the wartime prohibition bill should be construed as unconstitutional and void since it was a wartime measure and that at the time of the manufacture and sale of their beer “No war affecting the United States was in progress.”
Attorney Clyne confirmed that a dozen more suits would soon be filed against the North American Brewing Company, the Hoffman Brewing Company and the Primalt Products Company, the old Independent Brewing Association. The Stenson case was the first suit of it’s kind in the United States since a criminal statute was brought into question. Both Levy Mayer, special counsel of the Chicago Brewers’ Association, and Attorney Clyne worked together on bringing the test case to the District Court and eventually to the Supreme Court, hoping to force the federal court to arrive at a definitive ruling of what percentage of alcohol was to be considered intoxicating. A demurrer filed on July 21 by attorneys for the brewers once again argued that the wartime prohibition bill was void since it was passed as a war measure, the war now over, and that the law did not fix the alcoholic content which beer might contain.
All arguments and legal challenges by brewery industry and legal representatives were ended with the passage of the Volstead Act on October 27, 1919. The Act clarified prohibition enforcement procedures and mandated a limit of 0.5 percent alcohol of any and all drink as the baseline standard for intoxicating beverages. In doing so, the Volstead Act quashed the final question of legality for National Prohibition.
Early Effects Of No Beer In Chicago
Of the forty-three city breweries operating before July 1, only sixteen had renewed their brewing licenses. It had been expected that most of the remaining twenty-seven breweries would have applied for license extensions to produce 2 ¾% beer. But now, just days into the end of the drink trade in Chicago, saloonkeepers were serving near beer, pop or numerous other non-alcoholic drinks such as Old Crowe Flavor. Of the 120 bars in the Loop, all but 16 remained open, waiting hopefully for President Wilson to declare the Army demobilized and allow a return to a whisky and real beer business. But as the saloonkeepers and brewers waited for a sign from Washington, the early effects of the state mandated search and seizure law began to cascade throughout the restaurant and hotel industry. Waiters at the downtown hotels and clubs started to bemoan their now sober customers. “I got a $1.50 in tips today,” complained one frustrated waiter at Vogelsang’s Restaurant. “Before July 1, it was a poor day when I didn’t clean up $8 to $10 in tips.” A Hotel Sherman waiter echoed his comrade’s sentiment. “The firewater sure did lubricate a man’s pocketbook. How’s a man gonna get tips on lemonade?” he asked.
Others realized the futility of it all; whether beer and booze came back briefly next week or next month, National Prohibition was just around the corner. At the famous De Jonghe’s, a soda fountain was soon installed. Workers at the Palmer House bar were following suit, converting the business into a soda fountain emporium.
In less than a week after the state search and seizure law had taken effect in Chicago, saloon owners started to complain of poor business. One drink or two of near beer or some non-alcoholic concoction was the limit for regulars whom continued to visit their old drinking haunts simply out of habit. But the habit was starting to fade. John Dunne, a saloonkeeper near the Criminal Courts building, gave all his bartenders the day off for the Fourth of July. By noon, manning the bar by himself, he sold one bottle of soda on a day that business customarily boomed. At 12:10, Dunne had enough and closed for the day. Bartenders throughout the city complained that customers didn’t loiter like they did before. After the usual rush at lunch and after work, the once busy bars were quickly deserted as near beer and soda pop failed to satisfy the cravings of patrons for something more stimulating. Once thriving saloons lay deserted save for the empty beer kegs piled next to the bar. Wooden cases still holding bottles drained of their contents and now stacked for disposal beckoned their old customers through dirty saloon windows to enjoy “A Case Of Good Judgement”, but to no avail.
Chicagoans had given the state imposed Search and Seizure Act less than one week before turning in their verdicts; prohibition, in a state or federal form, was not for them. There were those who quietly observed the reactions of thirsty Chicagoans with marked interest and heard their grumblings of “no whiskey” and “near beer” and watched the frustration and disappointment of desperate saloon owners as their livelihoods slowly collapsed. They realized that the prohibition of beer and strong drink would never satisfy the needs of a population accustomed to serious libations.