When Baltimoreans hailed `New Beer's Eve'


Back Story

April 13, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,[Sun Reporter]

"Back again, back again, We've got Franklin D. Roosevelt back again, Since Roosevelt's been re-elected moonshine liquor's been corrected, we've got legal wine, whiskey, beer and gin." Recorded by Bill Cox in 1936

The year 1933 brought an end to the Volstead Act - one of the hot topics of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 presidential campaign - beginning when Congress legalized beer of 3.2 percent alcoholic content.

The great national drought began 13 years earlier when the Volstead Act, enforcing the 18th Amendment, which the states had ratified in 1919, went into effect Jan. 16, 1920.

While President Herbert Hoover had described Prohibition as "the great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose," Maryland's governor, Albert C. Ritchie, refused to pass any enforcement issue regarding the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors," as stated in the 18th Amendment.

Ritchie was a leading "wet" - an opponent of Prohibition - with a national reputation; his attorney general had ruled that Maryland police were not required to enforce the Volstead Act and limited their role in protecting federal agents in raids on speakeasies, clubs, breweries and distilleries producing and selling illegal alcohol.

Thirty-three days after taking office, Congress fulfilled one of FDR's campaign promises when the "wets" passed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which raised the alcohol allowed in "near beer" from 0.5 percent to 3.2 percent.

Maryland's legislature wasted no time in taking advantage of the new law.

During its 1933 session, the legislature authorized the sale of beer in all counties except Caroline, Carroll and Garrett, "in each of which the same was made subject to a referendum," according to the 1934 Maryland Manual.

On Thursday, April 6, 1933, which had been dubbed "New Beer's Eve," eager crowds gathered all over downtown Baltimore waiting for the moment when the hands of the clock crossed over to 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time - the exact moment when the Cullen-Harrison Act allowed the legal sale and consumption of beer in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

"Baltimore last night gave beer a gay and noisy welcome," reported The Sun in its editions of April 7. "The downtown section was a Mardi Gras. Hundreds of horns, whistles, guns and small cannon shrieked and roared while the hands of `Big Sam' - the City Hall clock - crept past midnight."

At the appointed hour, whistles blew and 100 beer trucks took to city streets in five minutes to deliver their cargoes of brew to slake the thirst of the faithful, The Sun reported.

Parking was at a premium, reported the newspaper, as crowds headed indoors to avoid heavy rains and enjoy beer that briskly sold for 10 cents a glass:

"Every hotel bar was thronged - hotel lobbies were jammed for hours before the death knell of Prohibition was sounded at 12:01 a.m. Not a single arrest was reported in the city - the behavior of the celebrators was uniformly orderly, reported the police."

The first shipment of beer arrived at the Southern Hotel at 12:01, and 20 minutes later, hotel manager A. J. Fink handed the first beer drawn at its bar to Walter H. Hopkins, who "drank it in one draft," reported The Sun.

Across town at the famed Rennert Hotel at the corner of Saratoga and Liberty streets, H.L. Mencken, who had kept up a steady drumbeat against the horror of Prohibition, had arrived at the hotel with several newspaper cronies and friends to await the arrival of the fateful hour.

He had been invited to the hotel by manager Paul Lake to enjoy its first beer, which was handed to Mencken at 12:29 a.m.

"All eyes were on the honest and discerning mogul as he bent his elbow and `open-throated' the beer in the German manner," observed The Sun.

"Here it goes!" said Mencken.

"There was a moment's apprehension among all present lest the bitter verdict of `Hog wash!' pass his lips. ... The champion of better beer was grinning and his blue Nordic eyes were dancing," reported the newspaper.

Mencken slapped the stein on the bar and exclaimed: "Pretty good. Not bad at all."

"And as he made the proclamation the word went quickly forth into the world - the assurance for which millions were waiting. The new beer was good," the newspaper reported.

Revelers at the New Howard Hotel on Howard Street erected a tombstone in the hotel's dining room which they inscribed: "Here lies Andrew Snoop, borne January 17, 1920, drowned April 7, 1933, in a wave of public sentiment."

Full-page ads with foaming glasses of beer were published in the city's newspapers. Advertising copywriters spared no adjectives in describing the glories of their product.

"The people spoke!" proclaimed an ad for Arrow Beer and Arrow Bock Beer brewed by Baltimore's Globe Brewery.

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