Party Like it’s 1919, Chicago Style

Party Like it’s 1919, Chicago Style

Twas’ the Night Before Prohibition—Party Like it’s 1919, Chicago Style

Prior to the 18th Amendment, Chicago became subject to the Wartime Prohibition Act on June 30, 1919.  If you were in Chicago, you might have enjoyed a perverse, reverse-New Year’s Eve of sorts with the drinking being done well in advance of mid-night on June 29, 1919 with the taps drying out at the stroke of midnight.  You might have gone to your favorite drinking hole early, some opening and staying open for as many as nineteen hours before the law came into effect.  Jazz was in its early stages, the flapper movement only just starting to toe the social norms, but gin—gin was there for you.  But like all good relationships, its hours, too, were numbered.

For Chicago, the concept of Prohibition took longer to take hold, though, and Chicago hasn’t changed much in the last one hundred years, with even June 29, 1919 becoming a day worth celebrating.

On June 29, 1919, the Chicago Daily Tribune’s headline warned the masses, “Dry’s Give Out Warning on Eve of Prohibition.”  There would be no exceptions made for revelers that tipped a glass after midnight and those caught would be subject to $1,000 fine (or about $15,000 in today’s money) and up to 1 year in prison.  Even by Chicago’s prices, that’s a hefty bar tab!

It was, of course, just a precursor to the far more extravagant Prohibition Eve celebrations that would strike the city on January 16, 1920.  Now Chicago was facing the true end of an era with no end in sight.  Chicago tavern owners were openly debating on the pages of the Chicago Tribune whether to treat the Eve of the 18th Amendment as New Year’s Eve, a wake, or just Thursday.  Saloon men called it “their greatest and saddest day.”

Did anyone in Chicago actually take the threat of Prohibition arrests seriously, or even then did they know that liquor was about to enter the high holy days of intoxication?  Maybe a little of both.  Debates ranged across the city as to whether the federal agents were targeting bootleggers and gangsters or average drinkers that wanted a cocktail at home.  Even two years later on a real New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1922, Prohibition agents took to the press to insist that they were taking it all seriously.  “In so far as the prohibition office is concerned, New Year’s Eve will be a lawfully observed.  The mere fact that flasks are concealed under tablecloths or napkins is no defense,” said the Chicago field office in the Chicago Tribune.

Perhaps, in an effort to celebrate our illustrious ancestors, you should prepare to party like it’s June 29, 1919 this summer.  Make it count, but leave the flasks at home.  Eat, drink, be merry, and dry up for a day or two in July.  At least in 2019 we know that it’s just an homage and not the law of the land.  Yet, anyway!

Written by Amy Williams

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