Tag Archives: Volstead Act

June “Thirsty-First”, 1919: Prohibition in Lowell, Massachusetts

Fenway Park exterior.

Fenway Park, Image via Wikipedia

To me, one of the most fascinating concepts to ponder in history is when you can pinpoint a historical event to an exact moment, an exact minute, in time.  This gives an event a sense of immediacy – like, if I were there, witnessing the event unfold and looked at my watch, the time would be. . . .  For the start of Wartime Prohibition in Lowell, Massachusetts, that exact moment was 11 PM on June 30, 1919.  It was a warm and fair night – with temperatures in the low 60’s.  As Lowellians and residents from surrounding towns thronged into Lowell to stock up on liquor (before its sale became illegal), Boston-minded Lowellians might have talked about the fare increase on Boston’s Elevated Railway (the L, as they called it, which was the predecessor to today’s MBTA), to a full dime – up from the current per-ride rate of seven cents a ride, and its nickel fare one year before.  Those excited for the approaching Independence Day spoke of surprising explosiveness of the year’s stock of fireworks, and how the high-grade powder created for the munitions for the War may have influenced this.  Still others spoke of the dealers hawking the summer’s first watermelons at their street stands and how they were skirting regulations by exposing cut melons at their stands to the dust and germs of the streets.  The more internationally-minded in Lowell that night might have spoken about Eamon de Valera’s visit to Fenway Park the night before.  Of the 60,000 people who crowded into Fenway Park to hear the provisional president of the Irish Republic speak, it was estimated that at least 1,600 were from Lowell.

On that June night in Lowell, most were probably talking of Wartime Prohibition, speculating that it wasn’t expected to last.  Congress had passed the Act that created it, intending to conserve grain for the World War I war effort, on November 18, 1918, a full week after the armistice that ended the Great War was signed.  The Prohibition was still honored, however, because the demobilization of the troops had not yet been effected by President Woodrow Wilson by the effective date of the Act, July 1, 1919, also known as the “Thirsty-First” of June.  All that was needed to suspend the Act, people reasoned, was the proclamation from President Wilson demobilizing the troops.  Surely, some speculated, that proclamation would have to come on July 15 or August 1, or September 1; the most pessimistic named dates slightly later.

On the eve of the “Thirsty-First” of June, Lowell residents were not only predicting the date of the end of Wartime Prohibition, they were also predicting what would happen to city’s many liquor stores, and if they would ever replace the inventories that they were just then cleaning out.  Some predicted an onslaught of carpenters, workmen, and movers to arrive in Lowell on the morning of July 1, ready to remove and deconstruct the city’s bars and liquor stores, replacing placards advertising liquor with “To Let” signs.  Others predicted that Prohibition would be only temporary, and that the liquor stores would close temporarily, or operate for a time in other businesses.

In the end, Wartime Prohibition was replaced with an even stricter Prohibition, that further restricted laws around the sale and possession of alcohol; the related Volstead Act set the penalties for violating them.  Prohibition, as it turned out, proved to be too much for Lowell-area liquor dealers.  In 1915, there were 15 city merchants selling ales, wines, and liquors that were successful enough to place advertisements in that year’s Lowell City Directory.  Seven years later, by 1922, only three remained, as ‘beverage’ sellers; not one of those took out a directory advertisement.

1915 Lowell City Directory

One of those merchants, P. Dempsey & Company Liquors, located in Lowell’s downtown area on Market Street, had origins in Lowell that dated to 1846, when it closed during Prohibition.  The shop sold the “finest orange bitters”, creme de menthe, vermouth, and even Fisher Rye, the “Finest High Ball Whiskey in America”.  Its advertisements appear on each side of this paragraph, 1915 at left; 1880, below.  The Downtown Lowell landmark had closed by 1922, its location vacant.

1880 Lowell City Directory

E. A. McQuade, another prominent Downtown Lowell merchant and the exclusive dealer of Pullman Club whiskey, had a successful enterprise located at 73-77 Market Street in Lowell in 1915, which was well-known locally as “The Big Liquor Store”.

1915 Lowell City Directory

By 1922, his business had closed and the location then housed Carleton & Hovey Medicine, which sold the famous Father John’s Medicine.

1922 Lowell City Directory

Another successful liquor store, Peter H. Donohoe & Co., located at 40 Church Street, sold wines, brandies, and whiskies to Lowell clientele until Prohibition.

1915 Lowell City Directory

By 1922, its doors had closed.  The Church Street location was taken over by an electrical contractor.

1922 Lowell City Directory

On the eve of the “Thirsty-First” in Lowell, its residents and visitors likely could not have envisioned the sweeping changes that Prohibition would bring to their city, which included the changing of storefronts.  The changing of those storefronts presaged another more serious, and unanticipated, effect of Prohibition – an increase in the illegal production of alcohol, i.e., moonshine.  But, there’s enough information in that topic to justify saving it for a future post.


On the Eve of Prohibition in Boston: January 1920

“Let’s have something.”  Jake turns back from the bar, and pulls a quart of whisky from his pocket.

“$10 . . .” he sighs.  “A full Hamilton, this one cost me.”

You examine the label in the dim light.  It’s not even one of the better brands.  The bartender glances at the bottle of whisky, smiles, and places three tumblers, each filled with ice, on the mahogany of the bar.  Jake takes the hint, pours three glasses, and you toast to the memory of John Barleycorn, who, to those opposed to Prohibition, has come to personify intoxicating liquors and all the revelry associated with them.

You smell the whisky as it swirls in the tumbler and take in the press and din of the crowd beyond the bar.  Hundreds of John Barleycorn’s mourners crowd the dance hall of the American House Rathskeller.

A 1918 Boston City Directory Ad for the American House

Recreating the image of a wake to the letter, all are dressed in elaborate mourning garb.  Through the press of the bodies, you catch glimpses of a black coffin set atop a table near the hall’s entrance.  Candles have been placed in bottles at each end.  On the wall behind the coffin, a banner with a skull and crossbones has been placed.  As you sip your whisky, you read its words:

“In memory of John Barleycorn.  Not dead – only a trance.  Born BC?, Dead 1920?”

You gently push through the crowd and, in a moment or so, notice that the body of John Barleycorn is actually a collection of empty bottles.  As you examine them, a woman approaches and adds her own to the pile.

1920 Fashion - Boston Globe, 1/16/1920, Pg. 7

“What’s yours?  She asks, slightly slurring her words, while she eyes your tumbler.  “Whisky.”  You hold it up, realizing it’s now half-empty.  She chitters before her friend pulls her back into an animated conversation a few feet away.  You press back to the bar, where Jake is still talking to the bartender.

“I’ll lose my job tomorrow.”  he tells Jake.  You learn his name is Joe.  You watch Joe’s eyes instinctively fall to your tumbler.  His is still, or more likely, once again full.  “We’ve been holding on since the ‘Thirsty-First’ of June.”  He continues, takes a gulp, with sad eyes.  “The Volstead Act is going to put me out of work.  Tomorrow is the last nail in the coffin.”  You try not to look at the coffin behind you.  It’d just be too sappy.

He’s talking about the National Prohibition Act, of course, which takes effect at midnight on January 17, 1920, tomorrow night.  The “drys”, temperance workers, have finally succeeded in the prohibition of the manufacture, transportation, or sale of any beverage containing alcohol.  On the “Thirsty-First of June”, i.e., July 1, 1919, about six-and-a-half months ago, over President Wilson’s veto, the Wartime Prohibition Act took effect, which banned the sale of intoxicating liquors.  So convinced were liquor dealers that the prohibition was temporary that they, in most cases, closed shop temporarily until the surely forthcoming reversing order would again enable the sale of alcohol.  It didn’t come, and in fact, only got worse when the Volstead Act came along, which established a legal definition for “intoxicating” liquors, provided stiff penalties for prohibition violations, and took effect at midnight on January 17, 1920.

Advice on the New Laws - Boston Globe, 1/17/20, Pg. 1

“See that man over there?” Joe asks, over the rim of his tumbler.  “He’s a field agent for the Internal Revenue Department.”  We look in the general direction of the coffin, at a man standing alone, stiffly excluded from the surrounding conversations.  You notice a notepad and pencil clutched tightly in his right hand, where others are holding drinks and bottles.  His cheeks are still red from the frigid cold outside.  We nod back to Joe.  “He’s here to take notice of my stocks,” he continues, indicating his many bottles behind the bar, “he’ll be back tomorrow night to make sure these are gone.”  As we watch him, his eyes meet yours and narrow.  He turns and walks toward the entrance, his notepad clutched to his chest.  Several revelers turn to look at him as he abruptly jostles past them.

1920 Fashion - Boston Globe, 1/16/1920, Pg. 7

“I’ll need to hide these or pour them into the gutter before midnight tomorrow.”  Joe says, mostly to himself.  Frank offers to buy a bottle.  “Are you kidding?”  Joe responds.  “By next week, these’ll be scarcer than a penny in your change for the Elevated.”  He’s referring to Boston’s subway system, which is contemplating a fare increase that would bring the cost of a trip to an even dime.  “You’d do best to home-brew your own wine.”  Joe continues.  “That’ll still be legal, as long as you don’t sell or move it. . . .”  he reflects.  “But that won’t.”  He indicates the quart bottle of whiskey that Jake empties into our three tumblers.  Joe adds another cube of ice to each.

You catch yourself looking for the man with the notepad.  He’s gone.  “Have you seen the Copley Square tonight?”  Jake changes the subject, referring to the hotel in Boston’s Back Bay section, across town.  Joe shakes his head, “Been here all night,”  he says.  “I passed the drys on the way over – the National Christian Endeavor Society. . . .”  he reflects for a moment over his whisky.  “They were putting a sign over in Central Square in Cambridge – ‘A Saloonless Nation in 1920’.  It said.”

“They’re getting ready for tomorrow night.”  Jake offers.

“Yeah,” you all say, almost in unison.

“Happy New Year.”  Joe says.