iowa history, my novels, research

Booze and Writing

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammitt is one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s relatively short, hits all the marks for what a mystery should be, and the dialogue is just plain awesome. I adore the sexually charged banter between Nick and Nora Charles (and they’re actually a married couple!).  Re-reading it again recently I was also struck by the exceedingly high levels of their alcohol consumption.

My current novel takes place in Des Moines, Iowa in 1937, where Hammitt placed his characters in 1934 New York. After Volstead was repealed each state was left to determine how much alcohol they’d allow their citizens to consume.

Iowa has a long history of tried and failed attempts at prohibition. They were one of a handful of states that went dry prior to the Federal government demanded it with the passage of the Volstead Act. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Liquor Control Act the following year, giving the state a monopoly over the wholesale and distribution of all alcohol except beer.

Liquor by the drink was banned in restaurants and taverns (beer had to be > 3.2% alcohol content). However, an individual could still buy liquor by the drink. They applied for a liquor logbook which they were required to take with them when they made their purchases at the state-run liquor store. These stores were often in run-down and out of the way places. Browsing was not allowed. An individual filled out a form and the liquor store clerk pulled the bottles off the shelves. From the 1930s to the 1950s punch cards were used. The store clerk had sole discretion on what and how much they sold to an individual. If you had more punches then they thought reasonable they had the right to deny the sale. By the 1950s the punch cards were replaced with logbooks.

Many businesses flouted the rules to meet the needs of their customers. Illegal “key” clubs were the direct results. The business kept a row of lockers where individuals would store their liquor. An individual would give the waiter their key and the restaurant would supply the set up (glasses and ice). The legislature in the early 1950s made key clubs legal, but selling booze directly to restaurants was not. It wasn’t until the 1960s when a charismatic politician decided to change the law that Iowa’s liquor by the drink controversy would meet its end.

Harold Hughes was a WWII vet, former alcoholic, truck, driver, and, astute politician. He made it a part of his platform as governor to change the law. He said:

Let’s face it. You know and I know and every honest person in Iowa knows that we have liquor-by-the-drink in this state now…The moral issue, then is: Shall we straight-forwardly legalize the sale of liquor-by-the-drink, enforce the law and really control the liquor traffic in this state? Or shall we perpetuate the present wide-open club system that subsidizes the bootleggers and racketeers with revenue that rightfully belongs to the taxpayers of Iowa?

In January 1963 Hughes wielded his powers of the executive branch and began a system-wide crackdown on businesses, taverns, and even places like the VFW. Public pressure pushed the Iowa legislature to act and by July 4, 1963, liquor-by-the-drink was legal. The legislature, however, continues to hold a monopoly on the distribution of all liquor (except wine and beer) in the state.

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