Liz Flag Beer

This is the fourth piece in a five-part series about the history of the Chicago flag and its connections to Chicago drinking history.
 
Prohibition. It’s a topic that seems to fascinate every local as it does visiting tourists. There is an almost mysterious and romanticized image of Prohibition that has been fostered by the media and filmmakers. For historians, it’s an interesting point of discussion because many facts seem to be jaded by fiction. And in Chicago, this is particularly true.  
 
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Our country and our city has always been surrounded by groups wanting to enforce a type of Prohibition. The American Temperance Union was founded in 1833, the same year we were established as a town. In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was in full force and by the time the 1893 World’s Fair was underway, the Anti-Saloon league was too.
 
The Volstead Act prompted Prohibition and the 18th Amendment and was ratified by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. One year later, our country was dry. 
 
Or so they thought. 
 
Prohibition did anything but prohibit people to drink. We drank more. And it was fun, and it was needed because our nation was rebounding from a war and facing financial hardships. Times were tough and alcohol sometimes helps. Chicago thrived during the 1920s and it became a place of economic opportunity for anyone willing to engage in illegal activity. A tough place it was, but Chicago leaders wanted to deflect the idea that Chicago was nothing but a ghastly center of crime and bloodshed. They also wanted to try and boost local morale and revitalize the economy. Inspired by the success of the 1893 World’s Fair and by the popularity of other world festivals, they chose to throw another party.

The Century of Progress was meant to celebrate Chicago’s first 100 years. It would highlight business, science and cultures. It would provide jobs and bring people to the city. And it would serve as a beacon of hope to all that engaged. Planning began in the 1920s amidst the turmoil of Prohibition. Oil tycoon Rufus C. Dawes would serve as the board chair and he enlisted the Vice President of the United States, Charles, also his brother, to help. They formed committees and planned and planned and while the 1929 stock market crash was a blow, the resourceful brothers tapped into their wealthy colleagues for assistance. Their money was available and the planning continued. 
 
Chicago Flag Star 4 - Phil Thompson
 
It’s no surprise that because these business folks helped to fund the fair, the grounds would serve as an homage to corporate America. As they would stroll the grounds, patrons would be bombarded with marketing and advertising initiatives. Unlike the 1893 Fair, this one would be sleek and colorful. Architects, including Daniel Burnham’s two sons and soon to be famous Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings, designed the grounds. This was to be a modern Chicago.

Meanwhile, lawmakers recognized that Prohibition wasn’t working. Many politicians, including then-New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed that repealing Prohibition could boost morale and, more importantly, could be heavily taxed and get our country out of debt. Roosevelt ran his Presidential campaign on a wet ticket - vote for me and I’ll give you booze. He won. And just four months after he we elected, President Roosevelt signed the papers that would make alcohol legal once again. 
 
April 7th would be the date that beer would legally flow and the night before, April 6th, came to be known as New Beer’s Eve. People hit the streets like mad men. They lined up outside of saloons waiting to get in at 12:01 a.m. Droves of people ran to breweries and rattles the fences that separated them from the sudsy goodness inside. It was time and people were beyond ready. And for our Fair organizers, it meant their party was going to be a real party.

When the Century of Progress opened its gates on May 27, 1933, beer was handy - and legal. A few food stands and local saloons made sure it was pouring. The Eitel Brothers, who owned the famous Old Heidelberg Inn at State/Randolph, saw a great opportunity and chose to open a satellite location near the 23rd Street entrance. The 4,000 capacity mammoth of a bierstube served the best of German delicacies, including beer.  Live orchestras would entertain dancers and party-goers and, soon, the Fair location would serve as the most popular rendezvous point on the grounds. 
 
Excitement about the demise of Prohibition even reached the likes of Fair officials. Chicago’s Mayor Kelly and Alderman John Coughlin quickly made plans to declare November 8, 1933 as Personal Responsibility Day/Personal Liberty Day where 200,000 free sandwiches and 1,000 barrels of free beer would be distributed. The Fair closed on November 12, 1933 and its run was a success in a myriad of ways.
 
When President Roosevelt learned of the economic success, he urged the board to host the fair again in 1934. Many companies who chose not to participate in 1933 were suddenly anxious to get in for 1934. Century of Progress 2.0 lasted from May 26 - October 31, 1934 and the whole spectacle boosted Chicago to the next phase in progress and merited the fourth and final star on our flag.
 
On March 4, 2015 please join Liz and friends at Trencherman for a Chicago flag dinner to celebrate the 178th birthday of the City. Tickets to the dinner are available here.  
 
Illustration by Phil Thompson, Cape Horn Illustration