There’s no gainsaying that a lot of champagne was uncorked Monday evening, New Year’s Eve — and other alcoholic beverages, too. Generally, American culture supports ringing in the new year with alcohol; it’s a time-honored tradition. That’s especially true in Alaska where, depending whichever poll one consults, the rate of alcohol consumption is among the highest in the nation. So, too, is the incidence of alcohol abuse, unsurprisingly.
Imagine, then, what it was like when the sale of alcohol in Alaska was strictly forbidden by law. That was between 1918 and 1933. By legislation adopted in the U.S. Congress, subsequent to a referendum put before Alaska voters by the territorial Legislature in 1916, Alaska’s so-called “bone dry law” went into effect on New Year’s Day 1918, prohibiting both the sale and manufacture of alcohol. Alaska voters approved the ban by a 2-to-1 margin, and Alaska’s delegate to Congress, James Wickersham, dutifully and diligently moved the proposed law through the legislative process in Washington, D.C.
It wasn’t all that difficult. Sentiment favoring prohibition had been building in the country for some time; Congress passed the constitutional amendment on national prohibition the next year, 1919, and it took effect six years later. But anti-alcohol agitation dated to well back in the 19th century; a late comer, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, was founded in 1874.
Prohibition in Alaska, though, took place at the height of the Progressive reform movement, the widespread political effort embraced by much of the nation and supported by Theodore Roosevelt after the turn of the century, a movement much broader than prohibition. Goals included protection of the safety, rights and equal opportunity of ordinary citizens, curtailment of corporate exploitation of labor and elimination of corrupt politics. Nationally the movement was responsible for a host of socially conscious laws and regulations that restructured American life. These included legislation on child labor, workplace safety, pure food and drug production and sales, graft in municipal government, bank fraud, anti-trust, workmen’s compensation, regulation of public services, conservation of natural resources, women’s suffrage, implementation of initiative, referendum and recall in state electoral politics, and the direct election of U.S. senators. Many of these affected Alaska. More directly, prior to prohibition, Wickersham persuaded Congress to fund a federally owned railroad to compete with the Guggenheim monopoly, and to authorize biennial election of a bicameral territorial legislature so the residents would have more direct influence in the formulation of government policies. Moreover, in many places, Natives were permitted to vote, even though Congress did not enact a universal voting right for Natives until 1924.
It is difficult to recapture the sweep of social justice reform in the Progressive era. Not only did most candidates for office need to voice some level of support for reform, but socialist political parties enjoyed perhaps their greatest success ever in American politics. Socialist Eugene Debs captured 6 percent of the national vote in the 1912 presidential election. At the state level, in the first two decades of the 20th century, more than 1,000 socialists were elected to public office.
A number of important social justice reformers were active in Alaska. Lena Morrow Lewis, a Socialist Party executive, lived in Alaska from 1913 to 1917 and campaigned vigorously for women’s suffrage and prohibition. Cornelia Templeton Hatcher, a suffragette, lived and worked in Alaska from 1909 to 1924. She was president of the Alaska chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and campaigned for prohibition, and school reform. A number of Alaska’s most accomplished historians have written about the bone dry law, among them UAF professors Mary Ehrlander and Ross Coen, and former UAA Provost Beverly Beeton. Ehrlander pointed out that even though voters approved prohibition by an overwhelming margin, the frontier ethos of individualism and masculine capability militated against effective enforcement of the law, or compliance with it.
So, imagining what life was like during Alaska prohibition, alcohol flowed readily and was easy to obtain. Illegal stills abounded; smuggling was rampant; speakeasies were endemic, 30 or 40 in Anchorage alone, often fronted by cigar parlors and pool halls. On successive New Year’s Eves, then, copious champagne, or whatever passed for it, accompanied those revelers singing “Auld Lang Syne.”
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