Corbett's alcohol plan touches on Pa. history

H.D. Fretz gets a bottle of alcohol at the State Store at 1225 Arch St. on Jan. 2, 1934, the day Pa. State Stores opened.
H.D. Fretz gets a bottle of alcohol at the State Store at 1225 Arch St. on Jan. 2, 1934, the day Pa. State Stores opened. (Temple Archives)

Will private sales create a public menace?

Posted: February 12, 2013

When Prohibition was repealed at 5:32 p.m. on Dec. 5, 1933, millions of Americans galloped to their favorite speakeasies to raise a glass of champagne - or beer or whiskey or gin, or whatever else stood on well-stocked shelves - to celebrate the passing of an almost 14-year period in which the manufacture and sale of alcohol was banned in the United States.

But it didn't take long for puritanical instincts in some states - especially Pennsylvania, famous for its Blue Laws against many forms of Sunday recreation - to take hold.

"The great irony of that period, nationwide, is that it soon became harder to get a drink when it was legal than when it was illegal," says Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and also curator of a current exhibit on Prohibition at the National Constitution Center.

Pennsylvania, more than other states outside the South and Plains, moved to restrict where, when, and how much liquor could be sold. It sought to finally end the role of the bootlegger by operating the wholesale and retail markets in "hooch" itself.

What was created has stuck.

The restrictive and confusing liquor-control system Gov. Corbett is working to abolish - as Republican governors before him tried to do - owes its structure to decisions made in Harrisburg at the close of 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, bringing an end to Prohibition.

The next time you complain that you can't buy a six-pack at the 7-Eleven, can't buy less than a case at a beer distributorship, or can't purchase beer in a liquor store, you probably should blame Gifford Pinchot.

Pinchot, a founding father of the environmental movement, was governor in 1933. Liquor proponents and opponents in those days were called "wets" and "dries." Pinchot was dry all the way.

If it had been solely up to Pinchot, Pennsylvania might have banned alcohol altogether. Okrent notes that one way wets in the legislature softened Prohibition was by underfunding enforcement. Pinchot had gotten the Women's Christian Temperance Union to provide money.

In November 1933, as repeal neared, debate raged in Harrisburg over formation of a state-controlled system.

Pennsylvania passed "about as tough a series of liquor laws as existed" in America, Okrent said.

On Jan. 2, 1934, the first 63 State Stores opened. "Rum stores," the Bulletin called them.

The retail clerks had to pass an exam and were chosen according to a merit system.

Restaurants and clubs that sold food were permitted to apply for licenses to dispense drinks on the premises.

It wasn't until 1935 that Gov. George H. Earle signed a law to somewhat "liberalize" drinking laws, as the Bulletin saw it.

"Immediate restoration of the old-time bar," a Bulletin headline said.

"Drinks over the bar permitted," another headline said.

But rules were still strict. Soldiers and sailors in uniform were not to be served. Bars had to close (as they do now) at 2 a.m.

Corbett hopes to break down much of that system.

The governor proposes selling the 600 or so state-owned stores to high bidders. Some establishments that win licenses would be able to sell beer, wine, and liquor all in the same place, a first for Pennsylvania since Prohibition. Corbett would also let bars sell 30-packs of beer. He would let restaurants that have liquor licenses sell wine to go.

Pennsylvania, in other words, would become much like many other states.

The stated purpose of the Liquor Control Board since the 1930s has been to protect the public - its welfare, health, peace, and morals.

The laws also sought to curb accident and injury. But Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said there was little to prove state control of alcohol sales does much to prevent drunken-driving deaths.

He said he compared such deaths over several decades by how strictly a state controlled sales.

"Not just DUI fatalities, but also binge drinking, underage drinking, all of these things that proponents say are good outcomes of liquor control - if you look at the data, it's not the case," he said.

Proponents of the status quo remain convinced that expanding the availability of alcohol would constitute a social menace.

A Franklin and Marshall College poll released Thursday found that a majority of the state's voters who responded - 53 percent - favor selling off the liquor stores.

But poll director G. Terry Madonna said voters don't show a lot of passion on the issue. It's not at the top of their agenda.

Republican leaders, especially in the state Senate, have so far not made a major push for change, Madonna said.

"I'd say it probably has a 35 to 40 percent chance of passing," he said. "The odds are more against it than in favor of it."

Contact Tom Infield at 610-313-8205,, or follow on Twitter @tinfield.

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