Prohibition At The Palmer House

Prohibition At The Palmer House

Chicago’s historical landmarks can tell a story.  If the walls inside Chicago’s famous Palmer House could talk, the stories would go as far back as Chicago’s Great Fire.  Built in 1871, the original building was intended as a wedding present from Potter Palmer to his fiancé, Bertha Honore.  It burned down thirteen days later in the fire.  When Palmer House 2.0 was rebuilt, it was billed in the Tribune as the “World’s Only Fire Proof Hotel.”  Again, the building was rebuilt in the 1920’s, growing from seven stories to twenty-five stories into the building that we recognize today.

Newspaper articles from the 1920’s paint contrasting pictures of the Palmer House during Prohibition.  Was it dry?  It was on December 31, 1927 when it canceled all reservations for public dining rooms out of fear that imbibing patrons might cause problems with the government.  It’s possible this motivation in 1927 followed the December 29, 1927 meeting of the Illinois States Attorneys Association at the Palmer House where states attorneys gathered to discuss enforcement of Prohibition.  Again in 1929, though, all main dining rooms were closed to protect the furniture, the chandeliers, goldfish ponds, and even the bellboys from rowdy drinkers.  No mention is made of 1928 in the papers, though, leading one to believe that 1928 was the party that only the walls can tell.

Perhaps because it was notoriously dry on New Year’s Eve, the Palmer House threw the city’s favorite party on December 5, 1933 when word came down that Prohibition would be repealed.  The Palmer House installed a telegraph line near the bar and guests waited for the official message that Utah had ratified the 21st Amendment, bringing an end to Prohibition.  Patrons at the Palmer House engaged in good-spirited races to see who could finish the first legal drink at the Palmer House bar.  Even women were admitted that day, despite the bar being a men’s only watering hole.  The winner of the race was New York writer, Benjamin DeCaseres who reportedly drank a scotch in two and one-half seconds.  Oscar Meyer, everyone’s favorite meat packer (yes, he was a real person!) finished second, downing a “Virginia toddy” in only four seconds.

Weeks later, on New Year’s Eve 1933, the Palmer House reopened its formerly closed NY dining rooms, filling the Empire Room to capacity with four hundred fifty men and women.  The Grand Ballroom was equally as packed.  It was reported that between December 5, 1933 and December 31, 1933, the Palmer House served alcohol to 130,000 patrons.  On New Year’s Eve alone, the bar earned an estimated $25,000 on liquor and $4,000 on champagne and anyone that tells you this can’t be done by one person in a bar in Chicago right now is lying!  Those numbers do not account for a century of inflation.

All’s well that ends well, of course, and the third version of the Palmer House remains a Chicago landmark and the epitome of prestige and class.  If the walls could talk, though, it would be nice to know what happened to the goldfish and the bellboys in 1928!

Written by Amy Williams

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