Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Prohibition: The Real Story (Or Close to It)

John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

The term “Prohibition” brings up many images: flappers, garter flasks, speakeasies, and mobsters. Like many historical words, it conjures up few facts – alcohol was outlawed, no one could get it, and you had to buy it from mobsters, right?

Not really. In the words of one person who lived through Prohibition, “If you couldn’t get a drink, you weren’t really trying.” How could this be?

For starters, most laws annoy the citizens who don’t agree with them (and that can be many people).  Laws are often vague and full of loopholes. Federal laws often saddle the states with enforcement with little or no funding, whether or not the states agree to it. All these factors applied to the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

The 18th Amendment stated that “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” The amendment was ratified by all states but Connecticut and Rhode Island (although New Jersey didn’t ratify until 1922!), certified January 16, 1919, and went into law one year later. The Volstead Act established powers and punishments for enforcing Prohibition. It allowed using alcohol for religious rituals, industry and science, and medicinal purposes (prescribed by a doctor and carrying a special label), and it didn’t outlaw possession. A revised version of the act allowed for making up to 200 gallons of intoxicating fruit juice (hard cider and wine) a year for home consumption.

Since possession wasn’t illegal, drinkers stocked up on alcohol right up to January 17, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect. Consumption and sharing with friends was still legal, as long as it wasn’t sold. There were doctors who wrote prescriptions for medicinal liquor, and the number of “churches” and “clergy” – outside of denominations with strict rules - rose sharply after 1920. (The Internet didn’t create “become a minister” or “start your own church”.)  Finally, home production was the biggest loophole for a city like Geneva, in the heart of grape country with Italian immigrants who knew how to make wine.

There were a variety of ways to get a drink. The late Dr. Robert Doran was a Hobart student at the beginning of Prohibition, and shared his memories in a column for the Finger Lakes Times. Frank Mellen ran the Seneca Café and continued to serve and sell alcohol during Prohibition. Dr. Doran’s friends would buy brandied wine from Frank for parties; it had been produced by local wineries, stockpiled, and was available for several years.

Many businesses, like the Seneca Café, continued to serve alcohol even after being arrested more than once. The short-lived Mullan-Gage Act called for strict enforcement of Prohibition in New York. However, the law had little impact; statewide, there were thousands of arrests but only six convictions and no jail time. It was repealed in 1923 and enforcement was left to Federal agents.

Barrels from the raid of a beermaking operation were stored at City Hall as evidence.

A person could make his own wine (up to about 1,000 bottles a year); wineries that had converted to making juice would sell barrels with instructions for winemaking. In Geneva, you could leave the job to Italian immigrants who were more experienced and buy wine from them. There were a number of speakeasies – illegal bars – where you could get a beer or a shot of liquor, maybe some food. Their locations were known around town but not documented, so we don’t have a lot of information about them.

This is merely the tip of the ice cube in the highball glass. The 1920s changed music, fashion, and popular culture, and attempting to halt the drinking of alcohol had much to do with it.

Did you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or go to www.genevahistoricalsociety.com

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