Weathering bitter cold New Year and Prohibition

By Thomas V. DiBacco – – Sunday, December 31, 2017


Historians suggest that one of the worst ’s in the nation’s capital occurred in 1933, during the long four-month interregnum between the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the departure of Herbert Hoover. Then the Great Depression problem was what one writer has described as a “poverty of abundance,” or too many products leading to oversupply, loss of jobs and falling prices. But a good case can be made that Jan. 1, 1918, was even worse.

For one reason, the nation was involved in World War I and its attendant shortages in terms of supplying troops abroad and Americans at home. But then came a record-breaking cold spell that paralyzed the city. On Dec. 30, 1917, for instance, the high temperature in Washington, D.C. was 8 degrees, with a low of minus-3, not counting the wicked winds. “Even the White House was fooled by the winds,” read one newspaper account. “The big windows of the Executive Mansion have never been supplied with double sashes and the big state rooms were cut off last night and heating concentrated in that part of the house used by the family.”

New York City experienced its coldest low ever: 14 degrees below zero, the same with Syracuse at 30 below and Richmond at a minus 2. Only Florida was spared. The dilemma was a shortage of coal. Some utilities on the east coast were down to a two-day supply, and William Gibbs McAdoo, President Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, tried as director general of the railroads to get coal cars first to New England where the temperatures were lowest. But the cold was so intense that workers in the chain from mines to railroad cars had to suspend work.

Government employees never shed their outerwear during their work hours, what with the heat cut off as a method of preserving coal. Then there was the price of coal, if it became available. In the words of one ongoing commission at the time: “The price of coal to railroads and other large consumers has increased from 100 to 150 per cent, while the prices to small consumers have often increased as much as 200 to 400 percent.”

And a cord of wood was selling for an astronomical price: $50. Not surprisingly, water pipes froze, and in efforts to unfreeze, fires were often the result.

Little wonder that New Year’s Eve was a dud, even in the city that never slept. Again, a correspondent’s description. “With Broadway almost deserted, the metropolis observed its ‘quietest’ celebration tonight. Revelry of all sorts was taboo.”

But D.C. had a double whammy: the bitter cold and no booze. Earlier in 1917, two years before the Prohibition or 18th Amendment went into effect, Democratic Sen. Morris Sheppard of Texas (1875-1941) got a Bone-Dry bill through Congress, prohibiting the sale of any liquor in the nation’s capital.

It was bitterly contested in the Senate, which after a long fight passed it by a vote of 55 to 32 on January 9 and sent it to a more receptive House. A compromise effort in the Senate, to permit a referendum on the matter by District residents, failed by a tie vote of 43 to 43, with Vice President Thomas R. Marshall absent, not wanting to get involved in the controversy. Sheppard’s goal was to make D. C. a “model dry city” that would influence other cities and states to ban liquor.

The irony was that President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill in March, even though he would later veto the Volstead Act implementing the 18th Amendment. Efforts by labor leader Samuel Gompers to push for a veto on the grounds that beer was the workingman’s water failed, no matter that the District had four breweries. The reason: Wilson needed the backing of prohibitionists in the event the nation entered World War I, which happened in April 1917.

So on Nov. 1, 1917, Washington went dry and saloons closed, after a spirited last day of drinking on Halloween.

Of course, personal use of liquor wasn’t prohibited, which meant that capital citizens could bring it home from other areas. Or, as the Washington Herald put it in a post- article: “Baltimore has become popular and late trains returning home bring many local residents and when heavy suitcases are lifted down a rattle of many bottles resounds.”

Sen. Sheppard became a pariah in the nation’s capital — a role he bolstered when a resolution to repeal the prohibition amendment with the 21st was debated in the Senate. He filibustered for eight-and-a-half hours but to no avail. And he may have made the worst prediction in the history of American politicians in his view of the fate of national prohibition in 1930, three years before it came to an end. “There’s as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment,” he said, “as there is for a humming bird to fly to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.


Leave a Comment