Repeal Day is a growing cultural phenomenon in America, a day filled with a variety of meanings and lessons, both political and sociological. Most of the issues of Prohibition are well-known to educated Americans, especially those in the bar trade, or those who like Ken Burns. But even for a history geek like myself, there is always a new, and sometimes important, angle to learn about anything.
Repeal Day is December 5th, the anniversary of the date when Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah all ratified the 21st Amendment, ending Prohibition and restoring to legality America’s most hallowed pastime, recreational alcohol consumption. At the time, American’s celebrated by remaining on the barstools they had occupied throughout Prohibition anyway, and ordering another round. They might have gone outside to moon a cop or something, in a gesture of victorious contempt, but the cops were likely all inside the bar, having another round as well.
These days, the greater knowledge of history in the resurgent cocktail world has led bar professionals to treat Repeal Day as the national holiday of the trade. This always feels a little odd to me. I grew up in Georgia, raised in the metaphorical shadow of Jacksonville, Florida. It doesn’t take much experience with the Georgia-Florida Game to understand why it has been called The Annual Celebration of the Repeal of Prohibition for longer than most of today’s Repeal Day celebrants have been alive.
But as a bar lover, I embrace the trade’s desire to make this a day of reflection on the mistakes of the past, and their consequences, good and bad. It’s a proud day for America, in that it showed we can actually own up to a mistake, and correct it. We learned that just because you have someone else’s very best interests at heart, it is probably not the best idea to always use the government to force everyone to comply with your agenda. The collateral damage of Prohibition was dire, while the promised benefits were difficult to find once put into practice.
But while the end of domestic abuse and personal bankruptcy, skyrocketing productivity, and a general end to poverty all failed to manifest themselves during Prohibition, there were a number of positive social changes that did arise from the Noble Experiment, not all of which were likely viewed as victories by those responsible for foisting Prohibition upon the general populace in the first place. Chief among these is the simple fact that there are women in that photo atop this post.
Before Prohibition, women did not go to bars. Full stop.
You know… unless they were literally prostitutes, and then only at very specific kinds of bars. But the saloon was outlawed, and was replaced by the illegal (though just as busy) speakeasy. This was a new cultural space, and newly enfranchised women took this opportunity to make sure they had a place in it. Sure, it was still considered a bit naughty for women, well-bred or respectable working class alike, to be in a place that served alcohol, but since everybody, men and women alike, within were being deliciously criminal, the shared rebelliousness neatly occluded a change that otherwise would likely have induced decades of sturm and drang.
Last night, I went to the first Repeal Day bartender’s celebration that I know of in Ohio. Both the northern and southern chapters of Ohio’s USBG got together at the always excellent Mouton here in Columbus, for a midnight toast to the arrival of Repeal Day. The Cleveland gang actually chartered a
bus luxury motorcoach to get them down and back safely! It was a great time to hang out with the pros who are really beginning to make some progress on bringing the kind of craft that has been nurtured in the larger markets for a while now into bars in Ohio, as well as making some real, original contributions of their own.
There were toasts at midnight, and that’s when I learned a new angle on Prohibition and the effects I just discussed. In vino veritas….
The event was sponsored by Pama, and their national brand ambassador Lynn House was there. Just before midnight, she raised a glass and noted that she felt especially thankful for Prohibition and its repeal, “because I have boobs.” It got the laugh she expected, but she went on. “Everyone talks about how Prohibition let women into bars to drink, but for those of us women working in the industry today, it is very important that Prohibition let women into bars to work as well.” (I listened to this at midnight at a bartender party. The chances that this is an exact word for word transcription are slim…)
Remember before, when I noted that only women in saloons were working there, but not behind the bar? Without the social upheaval and general image reset that came from Prohibition, it would have been far longer before women would have been let anywhere near a respectable bar’s staff. And even today, there would probably still be some nasty social undertone associated with women bartenders.
Instead, we have a world with people like Audrey Saunders. And Lynn House. And some of the best bartenders I know in Ohio: Cris, and Pilar, and Lindsay, and Emily.