Last Call For Alcohol!

This Day in History:
January 16, 1919

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the needed 36th state on January 16, 1919, and Prohibition would go into affect “after one year” at midnight on January 17, 1920.

Much has been written about Prohibition in the United States, and how people went to great lengths in order to thwart the dreaded Volstead Act, a.k.a. the Prohibition Act. However, not much has been said about how many people scrambled to exploit a loophole that was apparent in the new law even before Prohibition began.

The Volstead Act (named for the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that oversaw the legislation) was enacted “to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes…” and to “insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries.”

However, there was one large item left OFF the Volstead Act: outlawing the consumption of alcohol. Yes, you read that correctly. Technically, it was actually legal to drink during Prohibition. The Prohibition Act simply kept people from buying, selling or creating alcohol other than for “lawful purposes.” (I’ll speak more on creative “lawful purposes” in a later post.)

So, if you had the extra cash (and a large enough container), then you could stockpile as much alcohol as you could get your hands on prior to January 17, 1920…. and there was nothing that the authorities could do about it. Granted, if they did come a knocking, it might look a little shady if cases of whiskey were stacked floor-to-ceiling in your living room.

Nonetheless, examples of this abounded leading up to enactment on January 17, 1920. As ironic as it sounds, even President Woodrow Wilson had a private stash in the White House, along with his successor, Warren G. Harding.

Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding: Presidents that imbibed during Prohibition.
Wilson & Harding: two sitting U.S. Presidents that both owned stashes of alcohol obtained before Prohibition took effect.

This loophole definitely favored the well-off “wet”, or an individual in favor of alcohol consumption. As long as you weren’t selling or giving this alcohol as a gift outside of your home, then it could be kept for legal home consumption by family and friends. And there were many reported instances in which individuals used everything from trucks to baby carriages to hoard away as much alcohol as they could carry leading up to midnight.

This is just one of many flaws in the new law, and reason why the Prohibition Act and 18th Amendment were doomed to fail from the onset. The Volstead Act was over 25 pages long, confusing and often contradictory. Further, it left enforcement of the new law up to the state governments. While this might seem very democratic of Congress, it created havoc for actual enforcement.

For example, Governor Albert C. Ritchie of Maryland was not exactly a fan of Prohibition and the 18th Amendment. He saw it as an infringement on states right and never signed into law a state enforcement act. Thus Maryland was proudly known to be a “wet state”, with Baltimore a known place to sell and buy alcohol.

While you don’t have to use a suitcase to buy alcohol, it’s important to note that on this day 97 years ago, many thirsty people were afraid that their supply would disappear permanently. So, here’s to being able to enjoy a delicious cocktail! Cheers!


Photography: Archival photography sourced by the Library of Congress

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