There have been a handful of times in this country when the outcome of a political campaign was truly stunning. Such was the case in 1919 when several groups known as the “Drys” won a 70 year campaign to prohibit the production, sale, and distribution of alcohol. The 18th Amendment abolished booze in 1919. The law was enforced in 1920 with the Volstead Act.
The “Drys,” a loose coalition of 18th Amendment proponents lead by the Anti-Saloon League, believed that alcohol was corrupting American society. Little did they expect that the abolition of the substance would simply stimulate the desire for it. In fact, the 18th Amendment produced the opposite outcome — American ingenuity came up with the most inventive ways of producing and imbibing alcohol.
Today we’re toasting the end of prohibition’s thirteen years — the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th, was ratified on December 5th, 1933.
The fall of “the Noble Experiment” came about for a variety of reasons. The high price of bootleg liquor meant that the nation’s working class and poor were far more restricted during Prohibition than middle or upper class Americans, who could always find a way to get a bottle. As costs for law enforcement, jails, and prisons spiraled upward, support for Prohibition began to wane by the end of the 1920s. In addition, fundamentalist and nativist forces had gained more control over the temperance movement, alienating its more moderate members.
The country was mired in the Great Depression by 1932. Creation of jobs and revenue by legalizing the liquor industry had great appeal. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president that year on a platform calling for Prohibition’s repeal, and easily won victory over the incumbent President Herbert Hoover. FDR’s victory meant the demise of Prohibition, and in February 1933 Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. The amendment was submitted to the states, and in December 1933 Utah provided the 36th and final vote necessary for ratification.
During those thriteen “dry” years, the Villages were hotbeds of illicit drinking! Here are just a few speakeasies that were fixtures then, and some of them even now!
86 Bedford Street
Chumley’s is a historic pub and former speakeasy at 86 Bedford Street between Grove and Barrow Streets in the West Village. It was established in 1922 by the socialist activist Leland Stanford Chumley, who converted a former blacksmith’s shop near the corner of Bedford and Barrow Streets into a Prohibition-era drinking establishment. The speakeasy became a favorite spot for influential writers, poets, playwrights, journalists, and activists.
Chumley’s is fabled to have coined the restaurant term to “86” something, or get rid of it. When warned of a police raid, the Chumley’s staff were told to send their customers out the Bedford Street door. Somehow, the cops would always enter through the Pamela Court entrance, allowing the customers to escape without being seen. The old Chumley’s closed down in 2007 when the chimney collapsed. It’s open again as of 2017, but it’s now a gastro-pub and reportedly hasn’t got too much left of it’s original gritty, mysterious, nature.
McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 East 7th Street, East Village
McSorley’s is perhaps New York’s most famous historic bar. It was opened in 1854 by Irish immigrant John McSorley. Way back then, it was considered an Irish working man’s saloon, selling beer for pennies. Between 1864 and 1865, the building was improved to become a five-story tenement, and The McSorley family purchased the entire building in 1888.
The early 1900s brought a “brief experimental period” in which McSorley’s served hard liquor along with the ale. It didn’t last long, and McSorley’s remained an ale house from that point forward. (Through Prohibition, they got away with selling what the bar called “Near Beer.”) This unique pub, however, wasn’t open to all New Yorkers. When many of New York bars started admitting women, McSorley’s continued to hold its philosophy of “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.”
The bar sold to New York City policeman Daniel O’Connell in the 1930s. After New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell published his book, “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” in the 1940s, it got attention from around the country. Still, women weren’t allowed inside–and wouldn’t be until 1970, after the bar owners was sued for discrimination. A woman’s restroom was finally installed in 1986, and the first woman to work behind the bar started serving ales in 1994. At the bar, you can only order the one beverage McSorley’s has served in its long history: ale. You may order it either dark or light.
White Horse Tavern
567 Hudson Street
This West Village haunt opened in 1880 and quickly earned a reputation as an after-hours longshoreman’s bar serving the men working the Hudson River piers. But the White Horse–nicknamed “The Horse”–picked up a new clientele in the 1950s, when the bar became popular with writers and artists. The poet Dylan Thomas found the tavern reminiscent of his favorite haunts in his home country of Wales.
Portraits of Thomas embellish the walls, and a plaque commemorating his last trip to the tavern hangs above the bar. Other literary giants to frequent the pub include James Baldwin, Anais Nin, Norman Mailer, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. To this day, the interior features white horse pictures and figurines alongside heavy wood paneling that hasn’t changed much throughout its history.
Holiday Cocktail Lounge
75 St. Mark’s Place
Every neighborhood in New York City is dying, they say. High-rise condo buildings and a homogenized landscape of national chains and personality-free restaurants have replaced mom-and-pop shops, neighborhood meeting places, and local dives. In the East Village, though, one such dive has gotten a new chance to be its old self.
Holiday Cocktail Lounge, located at 75 St. Marks Place, was once, the story goes, the go-to bar for people like Allen Ginsburg, Iggy Pop, The Rolling Stones, and even the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Its almost 100-year history began in 1919 when it opened as a speakeasy, and ever since, its clientele has been a creative mishmash — a reflection of the neighborhood where it’s located. The 1983 Madonna hit “Holiday” is said to have been inspired by the place.
“It has been part of the East Village’s social fabric for generations and a nexus for those who embrace iconoclastic creativity, artistic passion and boundless intellectualism and served as an antidote to everyday life,” says owner Robert Ehrlich, creator of the snack Pirate’s Booty, who spent three years renovating the bar.
Michael Neff, the bar manager formerly of Ward III and The Rum House, is especially keen on the historical relevance of Holiday. “With so much of authentic New York disappearing, it was truly a privilege to rescue a bar with almost a century of history,” he says, noting that during the renovation they found a Prohibition-era tunnel in the bar that takes you across the street.
GVSHP is proud to be presenting an evening at Holiday Cocktail Lounge in January. It’s been 99 years since Congress passed Prohibition, and we’re celebrating with the same kind of revelry and persistence that characterized the Village’s many speakeasies, which operated in defiance of the law. Whether it was to cover up a particularly unpalatable batch of bathtub gin, or to stretch the booze a bit further, the Prohibition era birthed some truly iconic cocktails. Join us to taste some of these cocktails, and to learn some tidbits about Prohibition cocktail and bar history, provided by author and drinks historian David Wondrich, and the master bartender at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. Stay tuned to our emails for more information!