The date in the photo above is June 30, 1919. According to the Library of Congress, it was taken moments before midnight, when wartime prohibition legally took effect. This legislation, passed in 1918, banned the sale of alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content over 2.75%. It was an attempt from the government to ease the American public into the 18th amendment, which prohibited the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages, taking effect in January 1920.
This is a significant moment in American history, and it’s really something to see so many people out enjoying the last publicly legal alcohol for sale (let’s face it: anything under 4.5% isn’t really alcohol). Some individuals are smiling for the camera, others are giving it a distinct glare. In terms of glares, my eye is drawn to the middle bartender- he salutes the camera, with a very ‘eff you’ sort of look overwhelming his features. Perhaps he’s an owner, sensing the closure of his bar in the very near future? Or is he a disgruntled employee, about to lose his job? Several glasses are full, waiting behind the bar for the next glass to be empty – calls of ‘drink ’em quick, boys, midnight’s almost here’ seem to emanate from the bartender in the immediate foreground. The clink of glasses, idle chatter, a ‘glug glug’ as a beer is downed-I can imagine it all.
The atmosphere is predominantly male: there is only one female standing at the bar, one from the end at the far left. The boater hat is very in-style at this point, and this bar is in an upper-class area of New York, as each man wears a suit with a bow tie, along with his boater. The ‘newsie’ in the right foreground seems very out of place among these New York elite with his open collar shirt and flat cap-both associated with immigrants in the workhouses and tenant areas. I can imagine those at this bar, several years from this moment, saying, ‘Yes, I was at this bar as the clock struck twelve, savoring my last beer until 1933.’ However, I’m sure many of these individuals figured out ways to enjoy their alcohol even after Prohibition began!
American prohibition continued until its repeal 1933.
Lerner, Michael. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.