2009-12-09 / Star Journal

Queens Celebrates Prohibition End In December 1933

G et into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you're likely to discover

a subscriber of the Long

Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper's name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).

Welcome to December 1933!

Under banner headlines proclaiming “Borough Thirsty Ready To Celebrate Repeal Tonight On Wave Of Liquor,” Queens, as well as the rest of the country, prepared to celebrate the death of a 14- year experiment, the Volstead Act, which banned the consumption of alcohol. Prohibition was about to be repealed.

With the entire city in the holiday spirit, and with hotels, clubs, and restaurants booked to the limit of sumptuous celebrations that evening, Queens prepared to join the festivities in no less gala fashion. Throughout the borough, establishments displayed newly minted liquor licenses ready to fuel the festivities. About 80 restaurants, hotels, and retail liquor stores were approved to sell legal liquor in Queens.

Many expressed fears that the supply on hand was not sufficient to meet the demand of thousands of parched throats. “There will be plenty for all” liquor dealers responded. In Long Island City, two warehouses stood crammed with crates and bottles valued at $500,000 (in 1933 dollars). That valuable cargo, some just brought in from Europe and Canada was ready to help city wet its whistle to mark the end of the dry era.

All waited for Utah, the final state needed to repeal the law, to flash word around the country that the law was dead. There was concern that Utah would wait until later in the evening, at least until after 8 p.m., the time that bottle stores had to close, restricting access to purchases by the drink for patrons of clubs or restaurants. Hotels could serve drinks only to guests with rooms. The Waldorf–Astoria, built in 1931, did not have a wine cellar. Hotel management took over the 16th floor to hold their wine and spirit inventory.

With all these restrictions and confusion, speakeasies anticipated a rush of business that evening, Dec. 5, 1933. Despite doubts that the supply was able to meet the demand of thirsty drinkers, they were ready to let loose a flow of good cheer.

Next to the news story on Prohibition’s repeal was a column with the helpful title “Morning After Recipes Listed For Celebrants”. Experts stated that the best remedies for celebrants regretting the morning after were a cup of hot black coffee, a bowl of canned tomatoes eaten cold and liberally salted, a bowl of hot bread and milk, or toast and hot milk

The following day, Benjamin De Casseres, a New York journalist and author, got credit for being the first man to have a legal drink in the United States in over a decade when he downed a scotch highball two and a half seconds after Repeal.

I want to be as modest as possible about being the first one,” De Casseres wrote. “It did not involve much effort outside of fast elbow work. The bartender handed me the glass when the [news] flash came.”

In Chicago, Oscar Mayer, inventor of the skinless hot dog, when discovering he missed being first by a second and a half, said he might demand a recount. Beverly West, actress Mae West’s little sister, recalled that an usher on the house staff of a theatrical production that she was starring in ran to the stage and handed her a drink. She said, “I downed it before you could bat an eye. After all, I learned everything I know from my sister!”

An unemployed Corona tile layer, who was quoted as hoping Repeal would bring back prosperous times, was hailed as the first purchaser of legal liquor in the city. Aubrey Hollingsworth, 29, of 31–32 102nd St. established his claim to buying the first bottle of spirits when he purchased a bottle of White Doe Port at Bloomingdales in Manhattan. Hollingsworth gave his order at 5:21 p.m. and was handed the bottle at 5:33 p.m. just as word came that Prohibition had come to a legal end. A half hour later the bottle was opened when Hollingsworth, and his mother, sister and two brothers had a dinner in their home.

Surprisingly, drink prices were only slightly lower than under Prohibition: a rye highball was 35 cents, a scotch 45 cents, a gin and whiskey cocktail 30 cents, a brandy 50 cents, a cordial 50 cents and a glass of sherry 30 cents. Bottle goods started at $2 a quart for domestic wines to $8 for imports. Whiskey sold for $3 to $3.50 a quart.

In Queens, the Volstead Act was buried soberly, as the end of Prohibition was observed, rather than celebrated. The borough spent a quiet night with less drinking than on an average Saturday night. Although 15 plainclothes police were detailed to keep a lid on the exuberance,

the six precincts on the borough’s north shore reported only one arrest on a drunkenness charge.

“The liquor situation will be confused for at least ten days more,” State Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chairman Edward Mulroney said. “By Christmas, we hope to have things in good shape.

We must be careful every license we issue is approved by one of the members of the board, and we want to make as few mistakes as possible.” Some claimed liquor licenses only went to establishments with a wealthy clientele.

With 50 plainclothes policemen under Deputy Inspector Thomas Kelly touring Queens looking for unlicensed restaurants and night clubs, places were more careful than usual to follow the law in the following weeks and months. The speakeasy faded from the scene.

A Star-Journal editorial perhaps captured the real significance of the day best. “This does not mean that liquor had returned. Liquor has been with us all the time. The end of Prohibition means that legal liquor–tax paying, properly made, good liquor–has returned.”

Finally, although the borough seemed restrained in bidding adieu to the Dry Rule, the only evidence of public festivities was at Queens Plaza about 9 p.m. that evening. A derelict was accosting the occasional passerby, not with the familiar “Brother can you spare a dime?” but “Brother can you spare a dime – to celebrate, you know!”

That’s the way it was in December 1933!

The Greater Astoria Historical Society, located in the Quinn Gallery, 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City, is open to the public on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718- 278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org. Visit the Society’s online gift shop, too.

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