Sunday, December 5, 2010

The end of Prohibition, from The New Yorker (1933): "This repentant land"

"Four and twenty Yankees, feeling very dry,
Went across the border to get a drink of rye.
When the rye was opened, the Yanks began to sing,
"God bless America, but God save the King!"
(1919 anti-Prohibition song, as reported by Edward Prince of Wales on a trip to Canada)

The memorable end of Prohibition on December 5, 1933 -- the ratification of the twenty-first amendment after thirteen years of what was sometimes called The Noble Experiment -- should be an inspiration to us at this end of another year, when we all really could use a drink.

The tide had been turning for awhile. On March 5 of that year F.D.R. signed an amendment to the Volstead Act allowing some alcohol sales: "I think this would be a good time for a beer," he said. In St. Louis, Anheuser-Busch complied, sending a case of beer by Clydesdales to the White House. The anticipation of Prohibition's repeal was enough to make Americans light-headed, if not outright dizzy. From The New Yorker, October 21, 1933:

"Even as you read this, the first large post-prohibition cargo of liquors, cleared frankly and legitimately for this repentant land, probably will be at sea, churning westward. Reports from Liverpool were that the loading had been completed early this week and that the ship was expected to sail Thursday, the nineteenth. It's an eight-thousand-ton freighter, chartered by Park & Tilford, and bound for San Francisco. It is expected off that port about December 1, and the captain is instructed to lie twelve miles offshore until he gets a certain signal and then to rush right in as fast as his little propellers can carry him.

A second ship, of twelve thousand tons, will shortly start loading 150,000 cases of potables for New York; and a third, and others, probably. The two boats mentioned by tonnage are chartered by Park & Tilford, our enterprising sellers of liquors, who have been doing all the full-page newspaper advertising lately. They are American boats, and the owners were so happy when they were hired that they exuberantly offered to repaint both ships any color that Park & Tilford wanted.

The San Francisco ship wasn't redone, because there wasn't time for the paint to dry, but the New York boat will be repainted in some appropriate color not yet decided upon and, to boot, will be probably renamed the Park & Tilford. It will be off New York by December 1 and P. & T. hope it will be the first liquor boat to land here, but expect a race, for at least one other importing company is known to have chartered a special ship for the deadline, and probably others have, too. There's quite a bit of mystery about the business.

We learned the foregoing when we called at Park & Tilford's central office to in
quire about prospects in the liquor business and the results of their big advertising campaign. They wouldn't give us the figures on the advance orders they have received as a result of their advertising, but they did tell us that they considered it a terrific success and that they now intend to continue it all the way up to December 6, the date upon which they hope to land their first liquid imports.

And it would have done your heart good to see the activity about the place -- a dozen customers in the reception-room waiting to place their orders and make their deposits of te
n dollars a case, and scores of clerks in the order-room with mail-openers, typewriters, adding machines, etc., receiving orders and lovingly filling memos for future deliveries. Orders and inquiries have kept a hundred clerks busy since October 5, we were told, twenty extra office workers being hired that day. October 5 was the day P. & T. ran full-page ads in six newspapers. Since then, they've been running a page a day, rotating it among the papers.

The firm wouldn't tell us the names of any big orderers but said the largest order received came from a very big political bug right here in New York: sixty-five cases of assorted scotch, brandies, champagnes, and gins. The second-largest came from a man in Denver (richest man in Colorado, they had heard): twenty-five cases of gin, twenty-five of sherry, and two of vermouth. The average order is for two or three cases. Scotch is the biggest seller, half the total. Orders have been received from every state in the Union, and the ads, although they only appeared in New York papers, have brought in five thousand inquiries about wholesale prices."

(Reported by Helen Cooke, Charles Cooke, Clifford Orr, and Harold Ross. Reprinted in The Fun of It: Stories from the Talk of the Town, edited by Lilian Ross, published in 2001.)

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