- - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The first New Year’s Eve in 1920 under the 18th, or Prohibition, Amendment was pretty much business as usual. No matter that the amendment became the law of the land on Jan. 16, 1919, and went into effect exactly one year later, the federal government still wasn’t ready to deal with the partying on Dec. 31, 1920.

To be sure, the first Prohibition commissioner, John F. Kramer, talked a good enforcement game, stating that “even the tiniest sip” will be prosecuted. “Our agents know,” said Kramer in a fatuous understatement to the Washington Herald, “that there always has been a tendency to celebrate New Year with quantities of liquor. Consequently they can be depended upon to take every precaution to see that the law is obeyed.”

But there were only 1,400 federal agents to deal with the entire nation. Still Commissioner Kramer was confident: “I feel sure that there will be few violations if our agents have their way. No special instructions have been sent out from here. But that would be unnecessary.”

Even with the assistance of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, federal agents were stymied by ingenious Americans. For instance, the Volstead Act that implemented the 18th Amendment, gave doctors the authority to write prescriptions for booze if needed for medicinal conditions. Patients were limited to one pint every 10 days, but they could hop from doctor to doctor and pharmacy to pharmacy. Some 11 million prescriptions for such purposes were written in 1920.

Additionally, the Volstead Act gave a thumbs-up to religious bodies buying and selling liquor for sacramental purposes. So throughout the nation, new churches frequently arose — usually with as few as 10 members. When that example of a modest quota was achieved and not prosecuted, it paved the way for similar bodies to arise. And, in the enlightened words of Internal Revenue Commissioner Paul Myers, “communion ceremonies seemed to be required pretty frequently by these congregations.”

Of course, in respectful and small towns like the nation’s capital, Prohibition was handled with political correctness. In fact, the District of Columbia had been dry since Oct. 31, 1917, as a result of the passage of the Sheppard Act, named after its sponsor, Sen. John Morris Sheppard of Texas. It was a bitter fight between wets and drys in Congress over the matter, and all sorts of compromises were sought and failed, such as giving District voters a referendum to decide their fate.

President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to make a decision on signing the Sheppard bill for fear of alienating organized labor. The American Federation of Labor’s head, Samuel Gompers. argued that beer was the inexpensive drink of the working class and that the four major breweries in the District would be forced to lay off workers, if not close. But Wilson finally signed the bill, and by the time of national Prohibition, abstinence was old hat in the nation’s capital.

At the prestigious Shoreham Hotel on Dec. 31, 1920, for example, abstinence was a sine qua non. “No effort was spared,” reported the Herald, “to make the celebration — well, as festive as it ever could be under modern circumstances.”

However, sheer numbers of celebrants undermined the efforts of enforcement officials in big cities. The New York Tribune waxed poetic in describing city streets with “some thousands upon thousands of bulging pockets, of parcels whose wrappings failed to conceal the outline of bottles and of grips and suitcases that slinked and gurgled as they swung through the street.”

In Big Apple hotels where only “kickless” drinks could be legally sold, party guests deposited their wraps and liquid assets in checkrooms, which they frequented throughout the night. And as sounds of sirens announcing raids throughout the city were heard, partygoers, again the words of the Tribune, “laughed again and went to checkrooms to see that the valuables left there were safe. It was a wet evening on Broadway, wickedly wet.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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