24 Golden Rule Drunks: National Repeal Day was a dud in 1933

Repeal Day WOOHOO!

Even while I’m gearing up for all sorts of fun events to celebrate National Repeal Day on December 5th, I’m still digging into exactly what Detroit’s celebration looked like on December 5, 1933. Since we all know Detroiters love to party, I’d assumed that the streets were filled with throngs of merrymakers and the booze flowed like a river, especially since most of it came from right across the river.

Only, as it turns out, not so much. This is one of the not-so-fun parts of historical research: occasionally, you find out that historical events (or at least what we consider historical events, anyway) were…well, pretty much duds at the time. That’s the case with December 5th and the days surrounding it in 1933. In order to figure out why we’re celebrating so much harder, 80+ years later, than they did at the time, we need to look at the chronology of events that surrounded Repeal.

First off, Michiganders had been legally drinking beer since May 10, 1933. This was after we became the first state to vote in favor of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment. There’s a whole other article on that (which I really should’ve gotten around to back in the spring). At that party, Julius Stroh, heir to the Bohemian brewing dynasty, poured the first legal beer for a massive party at the American Legion Hall. It’s reported that nearly 50,000 people celebrated on that day.

Party on, Wayne (county)
Party on, Wayne (county)

So, why wasn’t National Repeal at least as massive a drunkfest? A couple of reasons, really.

First, as you may already suspect if you’ve read anything about Prohibition’s effectiveness in curbing drinking habits, we were already pretty much ignoring the laws. Especially with such easy access across the river to Canadian breweries and distilleries, Detroit was never particularly dry. We’d certainly been whooping it up for the holidays all along. The Detroit News reported on New Year’s Day in 1924 that over 100,000 revelers clogged the city streets in “a carnival of drunkenness” with “ribald cries and profanity”. Despite Prohibition, the News tells us, “it was drink, drink, drink everywhere.” Sounds about right. December 5, 1933 fell on the Tuesday  directly following Thanksgiving. If Detroiters then were anything like they are now (and I have no reason to suspect they weren’t), everyone was likely still laid up in a food coma.

Okay, so we’d had beer (legally) for months, and easy access to bootlegged booze from Canada. But anything higher than 3% ABV was still technically illegal nationally. What the voting process for the 21st Amendment did was repeal NATIONAL Prohibition, not statewide. And that vote continued through November and December 1933. So, despite the fact that Michigan voted for Repeal way back in April, we still had to wait around for the rest of the country to get its act together. As late as November 7th, the Free Press was speculating that Utah was iffy at best.

But, finally, it happened: At 5:32 and 30 seconds on December 5th, Utah, after dragging its proverbial feet to make sure Pennsylvania and Ohio voted first, voted for Repeal. Being the 36th state to vote in favor, they officially rang in the repeal of Prohibition. The vote itself took a couple of minutes to be officially recorded, as it was interrupted by nearly two solid minutes of raucous cheering from an ecstatic Congress. Praise the Lord and pass the whiskey, right?

Not so fast.

Detroit Free Press, December 5 1933
Detroit Free Press, December 5 1933

You see, Michigan legislators still had to get together and decide what our state liquor control process would look like. They’d already jumped the gun once, having approved 1,000 cases of whiskey and an additional 134 barrels for import into Detroit from Windsor on December 2nd, only to find it was still technically taboo under federal import laws and Michigan saloon laws. Remember: it wasn’t illegal to consume alcohol during Prohibition, but it was illegal to make it, buy it, sell it, or transport it. So, rather reluctantly it appears, Michiganders waited patiently for the legislators hammered out the basics so we could legally get our drink on.

In the meantime, as the Free Press reports, “In Blind Pigs, the motto will be: Business as usual.” A party was planned for the 5th at the American Legion Club at Cass & Lafayette. Expected attendance was to be in the thousands. A folk dance ensemble performed. The Detroit Police Quartet sang. Beer was had. Mild merriment ensued. But in the end, only about 2,000 attended, and that was pretty much it for Detroit’s celebration of National Repeal.

The Amalgamated Order of Pretzels, for one, was jubilant.
The Amalgamated Order of Pretzels, for one, was jubilant.

As the Freep reported the following day, “‘Der Tag’ came Tuesday–the day that many in Michigan have looked forward to for 14 years–and it was pretty much like any other Tuesday.” It included “nothing of the orgy that had been expected by some”. Likely many were either partying as they had been all along, in their local blind pig, or everyone who wanted to stay on the right side of the law was put off by the rather stern reminders in local papers that it was still at least technically illegal to drink in Michigan.

It would take another couple of weeks for the legislators to sort out our new liquor laws in Michigan. In fact, I know quite a few that would argue we never did get it right. Later this week, we’ll cover Part Two, in which we find out when Detroiters were finally legally allowed to drink–and how that too was a dud. We’ll figure out what a Golden Rule Drunk is and where the governor was when he was supposed to be signing the bill into law. We’ll also dive into the sundry ridiculous provisions written into the new liquor legislation, including the first actual liquor stores, the banning of waitresses and drinking at the bar.

Check our Facebook page for full details on all the events around town for Repeal Day. They’re likely to be at least as exciting as those of 1933. See you at the bar.

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Don't stare at the bartender Written by:

Mickey is a Detroit-based author and researcher on Detroit Prohibition history. Her upcoming book, City on a Still: Detroit During Prohibition, is in the works. In the meantime, she spends her days trudging through old bars and buildings and sifting through old newspapers.

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