As Pa. (slightly) loosens liquor laws, a look at when Philly was booziest town around

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Philadelphia Public Safety Director Smedley D. "Duckboards" Butler destroys barrels of beer with a pick axe in December 1924 during Prohibition and lets it run into the Schuylkill River.

All things considered, it was just another Tuesday night in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was Dec. 6, 1933: Repeal Day, the end of Prohibition, and Philadelphians weren't taking to the streets to celebrate. They were just casually doing what they had been doing for the last 14 years: getting their drink on.

"Of course, no one who really wanted a drink at any time during the past 14 years was compelled to deny his thirst," the Inquirer reported on that day.

The collective shrug at the historic repeal is surprising to me, considering that Philadelphians don't need much motivation to party. But perhaps those imbibers of old were scrying the future in their glasses of rye: that drinking in Philly was about to become so much more difficult.

That just as repeal was happening, their teetotaler governor, Gifford Pinchot, would do all he could to make buying alcohol as "inconvenient and expensive as possible." That he would form a Liquor Control Board and enact draconian and confusing laws that even today rival only those of Utah, where many don't even drink coffee.

This is a city that during colonial times had a bar for every 25 men and during Prohibition had an estimated 12,000 speakeasies. And it took us 80 years to be able to buy a bottle of pinot at Whole Foods.

The bill signed into law by Gov. Wolf last week allowing wine to be sold at some of the state's grocery stores is welcome news, sure, but just another baby step.

I'm not a native, but like anybody else, I scratch my head at the arbitrary and confounding liquor laws that leave us in the weird half-place where throwing a party involves tiring treks.

To the corner bar or bottle shop for no more than two overpriced six-packs. To the distributor for a case, and now 12-packs, but no six-packs, not at distributors. Then off to the State Store for wine and spirits.

So, when it happens, wine in Aisle 10 will be nice.

I called up some experts in Philly's boozy history and asked them how we got to the point where we celebrate wine in supermarkets with more enthusiasm than we did the end of Prohibition.

Bob Skiba, a historian and past president of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, offers a great tour called: "Prohibition in the Quaker City."

When tour guests ask him to show them the site of a former speakeasy, he jokes that he has a harder time finding a place that wasn't one.

"I don't think anyone in Philadelphia observed Prohibition," he said.

Today, in Philadelphia County, there are about 1,700 licensed drinking spots, according to the Liquor Control Board.

During Prohibition, there were believed to be more than seven times as many places to get a cold one, Skiba said. He dug up Prohibition-era police logs listing thousands of them, in every corner of the city. I'll bet none of them had the two six-pack limit.

And listen to poor Police Superintendent William Mills explaining in a 1922 newspaper story that his officers had arrested almost 33,000 Philadelphians - nearly 2 percent of the city's total population - that year for intoxication. And those were just the ones who got caught.

"The people despise the federal amendment and do not appear to regard the selling or drinking liquor as a crime," Mills bemoaned to the Inquirer.

And they let it be known by doing what Philadelphians so often do: They threw things.

During a 1922 raid of an Old City speakeasy, angry customers hurled their dishes at police before making for the back door, the paper reported. During another Old City raid, stubborn customers tossed "steel bolts and boards" - the 1920s-Philadelphia equivalent of the DD battery, I guess.

Then Pinchot got his way. And here we are all these years later, still suffering. Thanks, Giff.

A brief reprieve may come, as a recent Inquirer editorial pointed out, when the Democratic National Convention arrives in town next month. For our Democratic guests, state lawmakers want to temporarily suspend some state liquor laws, making it easier for their political pals to party.

Hey, we wouldn't want to inconvenience anyone.

So we will celebrate our little grocery-store victory while it's clear to everyone the whole system is 80-years-past-due an overhaul.

"We are being suckered and we keep lining up again to get hit," said Lew Bryson, the whiskey and beer writer, lamenting what he called our "viciously broken" liquor laws.

Exactly.

But at least I know where I'll be buying my pinot now.

mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759

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