The National Prohibition Act, or Volstead Act, went into effect 100 years ago at midnight on Jan. 16, 1920.
There were rumors tavern owners in Pittston were going to stage a protest in the form of a mock funeral for “John Barleycorn.” That didn’t happen and the city’s bars stayed open “like any other Friday night,” according to the Pittston Gazette.
That weekend local churches had special collections as a thankful offering for the Prohibition victory. The money went to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for child welfare work and campaigns to increase the health, morality and education of the nation.
Prohibition enforcement was a federal mandate and in January 1920 there were only 400 agents to cover the entire country. While local police and the county sheriffs made token arrests where liquor dealers or bar owners were too obvious to ignore, in many cases local police looked the other way.
After Jan. 16, 1920, some bars continued to operate as if the 18th Amendment didn’t exist. Some breweries continued business as usual, but most retooled to make 2.75 percent alcohol beer, even though the Supreme Court ruled 2.75 beer was subject to Prohibition. Those who made their livings from alcohol held out hope the Supreme Court would invalidate Prohibition or some other legal remedy would save their businesses.
In March 1920, $12,000 worth of booze ($150,000 in 2020 dollars) was stolen from P.J. Conway’s warehouse in Spring Alley. He had a legal wholesale distributorship on South Main Street before 1920, but after Prohibition he moved his liquor to Spring Alley. Police investigated the theft and discovered the thieves had broken into the building by hammering locks, but “owing to Prohibition the Pittston police will not be able to offer assistance to Mr. Conway in the way of running down the culprits,” the Pittston Gazette wrote. For that reason, theft of booze stockpiles was a common crime in the early days of Prohibition.
Prohibition had a huge impact on the Greater Pittston economy with many business owners being forced to close their establishments at the start of 1920.
There were between 50 and 60 licensed bars in Pittston in 1919, most of them family owned. After Jan. 16, 1920, the proprietors either flouted the law and kept on pouring or turned their barrooms into confectionery and grocery stores, soda fountains and small restaurants.
Prohibition put bartenders, brewery employees and drivers out of work and bar owners out of business.
Research into liquor licensees shows Walutes’s on Seventh Street in Wyoming as the only bar in Greater Pittston licensed under the same name before and after Prohibition.
An unintended consequence of Prohibition was the effect it had on Pittston City’s budget. The city’s 1919 budget took a $26,000 hit in licensing fees and taxes, 20 percent of the city’s $125,800 revenue and more than the police department budget.
The opposite happened in Nassau, Bahamas, a British Colony where alcohol remained legal. As the closest refuge from the dry United States, alcohol tourism enriched the colony. Thanks to duties on the liquor and wine which poured into the colony to serve Americans, the colony’s budget went from a $154,000 deficit to a surplus of $555,000.