The famous “We Want Beer” Prohibition protest in New York City featuring Mayor Jimmy Walker. (Image Courtesy Associated Press)
On January 16, 1919 in New York City history, one of the largest social experiments came into effect: Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the constitution was ratified on this date and made it illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport, “intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.” In New York City, the mayor sent all his constituents instructions to make their own wine, as was still allowed for “religious purposes.” It wasn’t until later in 1919 and onward that law enforcement was able to prosecute violators of the prohibition laws, which led to the arrest of over 7,000 people in NYC between 1921 and 1923. (Only 27 of these arrests resulted in convictions.)
In principle, the argument for prohibition by temperance groups seemed very noble. It was a drug that was crippling the population as it neared the Great Depression. As we get further away from this time period, more numbers surface from research suggesting that the 18th Amendment did more harm than good. A whopping 75% of New York City’s state revenue at the time was derived from liquor taxes. With Prohibition in effect, that revenue was immediately lost.
The stories of speakeasies as fronts for selling alcohol during Prohibition is very common, but the number of registered pharmacists in New York State tripled during Prohibition. Pharmacists were legally allowed to prescribe whiskey for any number of ailments, ranging from anxiety to influenza.
Woman in New York poses next to an Anti-Prohibition car decal. (Image courtesy Library of Congress via NYDaily News)
Effects of Prohibition varied nationwide and New York City was no exception to the wrath of this period in history. Legislators surely had no idea they would leave behind so much interesting history tied to this period ranging from abandoned beer caves to back-room speakeasies.
Stay tuned for more from our On This Day in NYC History column. Get in touch with the author @uptownvoice.