When Sundays Ran Dry, 119 Years Ago
One hundred nineteen years ago today, on March 23, 1896, a law introduced by New York State Senator John Raines was passed by the state legislature, making the sale of liquor illegal on Sundays, except at hotels. The law defined a hotel as a place that served food and had at least 10 rooms to let, so rather than shut down, many saloons began serving sandwiches and offering rooms upstairs for rent – and these “Raines Law hotels” often became de facto brothels.
The Raines Law was passed by politicians for different reasons (pandering to upstate voters and increasing tax income) than those for which it was supported by citizens (reducing the effects of drunkenness on health and welfare). Once nationwide Prohibition went into effect in 1920 and the unintended consequences of massive corruption and crime became clear, Al Smith was all too happy to repeal the Raines Law in 1923 after becoming governor of New York.
Smith’s ally, then opponent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported ending Prohibition largely as a way to raise revenue for empty federal coffers. And thus on Dec. 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment was ratified by enough states and Prohibition was repealed.
The reality of “the noble experiment” in both the state and the country was that liquor flowed freely for the upper classes. The working man, who drank beer – more cumbersome to make than bathtub gin – mainly suffered, being separated from his elixir of choice. Greenwich Village was home to plenty of speakeasies, from the 21 Club to Chumley’s.
The Raines Law was one of the many so-called blue laws prohibiting the sale of liquor, the opening of shops, or other secular activities on the Christian Sabbath, that have been instituted and/or repealed throughout American history right up to the present. Some Village bookstores ran afoul of the blue laws in 1961, for example, according to this Village Voice article. A dozen states still prohibit the sale of liquor on Sundays.
Lord knows what Senator Raines would make of today’s trendy Sunday pastime, the bottomless brunch. Not to mention the fact that two latter-day faux speakeasies operate under the title of his namesake law.