On February 20, 1933, Speaker Garner struggled to maintain order on the House Floor as Thomas Blanton, a “dry,” made a final stand in support of Prohibition. Garner impatiently tapped the inkstand on the rostrum as Representatives booed and shouted “Vote, vote!” After the House voted to repeal Prohibition, the galleries and halls overflowed with the applause of spectators. Yet dismantling the legislative trails of the 18th Amendment took nearly a year. Like a bar crawl, the end of Prohibition was full of awkward moments, fights, and beer.
The 18th Amendment, known as Prohibition, was ratified in 1919, and took effect in 1920. It outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating drinks. Spelling out the details of Prohibition further, the Volstead Act defined what constituted intoxicating beverages and how the law would be enforced. According to the Volstead Act, any “beverages which contain one-half of 1 per centum or more of alcohol by volume” would be forbidden. Throughout the 1920s, pro-potable “wets” and anti-aperitif “drys” continued their battle.
By 1933, the scales of Prohibition had started to tip—toward tippling. On February 16, 1933, the Senate approved the repeal of the 18th Amendment. The House agreed four days later, after the battle came to a head in the House Chamber. But to repeal Prohibition, a 21st Amendment still had to be ratified by 36 states. And ratification took months. While passing the amendment was a big victory for “wets,” nobody was drinking legally yet.
Chipping away at Prohibition, Congress modified the Volstead Act in March, legalizing brews that contained up to 3.2 percent alcohol. One photograph shows a group of Congressmen tapping a keg outside the Capitol, right after passing the 3.2 percent legislation. Representative John J. O’Connor grins at the camera as his cup overflows. William Sirovich, standing to the right and gazing pensively at the suds, had given a speech on the House Floor the previous year arguing in precise dietetic detail that beer was pretty much the same thing as milk (except for the alcohol content). In the photograph, beer almost seems to be flowing from the Capitol, down the street, and across the country.
Newspapers and photographers captured Representatives enjoying the malts and hops of their legislation. “Congressmen get their beer at last,” reads the title of one photograph from April 17, 1933. Representatives John Boylan, William Berlin, John Delaney, and Joachim Fernández each lifted a glass of 3.2 percent ale in the House Restaurant. After more than a decade, beer was once again legally served in the Capitol—although some Representatives and Senators had illegally obtained alcohol from a bootlegger who made Capitol Hill house calls in the 1920s.
As 1933 progressed, states called conventions to ratify the amendment. On December 5, Utah became the 36th state to approve, officially making the 21st Amendment part of the Constitution. Unless state laws said otherwise, producing and transporting alcohol once again became legal throughout the country.
That same day, Fred Britten, an Illinois Representative, made a celebratory visit to the Continental Distillery. Surrounded by stacked boxes of Dixie Belle gin and lipsticked young women, Britten cut the distillery’s ribbon with a hatchet. Wearing a giant grin, the Congressman “released a mythical ocean of gin, to dampen the throats of thirsty Americans who have waited these many years for the repeal of the 18th Amendment,” the photo caption buzzed.
But the ban on hard liquor in Washington, D.C., remained in place until February 28, 1934. This created an uncomfortable mash between Britten and Adolph Sabath, another Illinois Representative, on the House Floor. In January, while D.C. was still supposed to be dry, Britten said to Sabath, “I was going to ask the gentleman when he was going to return the bottle of gin he borrowed of me three years ago,” while Prohibition was in full swing. Sabath replied that he couldn’t repay his debt, as purchasing a bottle would still be against D.C. law. “Nevertheless,” he continued, “I now promise in this presence to repay in kind my accommodating friend that bottle of gin as soon as the prohibition law still in effect in the District of Columbia shall be repealed; and when I do so it will be with twofold interest, with my everlasting gratitude, and a really high-grade gin—certainly better than he loaned me.”
A year after the vote to repeal Prohibition, the legalization of alcohol was still fermenting in Washington.
Sources: Jeff Hill, Defining Moments: Prohibition (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004); New York Times, December 21, 1932, February 21, 1933, and March 21, 1933; Washington Post, February 27, 1994; Chicago Daily Tribune, January 6, 1934.Follow @USHouseHistory