What Was It Like in the Bad Old Dry Days?

WHAT WAS Philadelphia like during Prohibition?

Though the 18th Amendment banned the sale and consumption of alcohol nationwide in 1919, the city was notoriously described as “wet as the Atlantic Ocean.”

* Estimated number of illegal taverns citywide: 8,000. (About 1,300 operate today.)

* Between 8th Street and the Delaware, north of Chestnut Street, hundreds of saloons and speakeasies, known as blind tigers operated in a zone known as the Tenderloin.

* Beers, 5 cents; highballs, 25 cents.

* It was said to be impossible to buy a lime in the city because the entire supply “had been bought up by saloon men for their streams of gin rickeys . . .”

* Several breweries, including Ortlieb’s, continued to operate well into the ’20s. Officially, they made soda and no-alcohol beer; unofficially, the mash tuns never shut down.

* Least favorite brew: “near beer,” with less than 1 percent alcohol. The popular quip of the time was: “Whoever called it near beer was a poor judge of distance.”

* Other no-alcohol beer was dosed with ether, or sold with a bottle of raw alcohol and a syringe (a/k/a “needle beer”).

* The hard stuff was smuggled from distillers in Canada and illegal moonshiners in the backwoods of Maryland. Inside the city, chemists made a vile brand known along the east coast as Philadelphia Rotgut.

* Ten to 12 people died every day from alcohol poisoning.

* Philadelphia wasn’t the only town to ignore Prohibition. Pittsburgh was described as “wet enough for rubber boots.”

* City Hall refused to spend money for the extra police officers needed to enforce the law.

* In 1925 alone, more than 10,000 speakeasy operators were arrested. But only 10 percent were brought to trial and fewer than half of them were actually fined.

* Organized crime syndicates, controlled out of New York, flourished. Local boss: Irving “Waxey” Gordon, a bootlegger who later emerged as one of the nation’s biggest heroin dealers in the 1940s and ’50s.

* When Prohibition ended in 1933, the newly formed Liquor Control Board was met with skepticism. The earliest products were watered down and expensive.


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