Saturday, 19 March 2011

Beer by the Glass: Saskatchewan Liquor Laws in the 1930s - Part 1


During Prohibition, too many people in Saskatchewan were drinking illegally, thanks to a proliferation of stills and home brew. Prohibition had also contributed to a marked increase in crime and violence. The new slogan became “Moderation.” In 1924, the Saskatchewan government repealed Prohibition, established the provincial liquor board, and implemented a new system of severe liquor control designed to limit alcohol consumption. 

Highly restrictive liquor regulations did not help to improve business at Saskatchewan’s hotels. For one thing, the Saskatchewan Liquor Act of 1924 did not allow the sale of beer by the glass in licensed premises. Hard liquor, beer and wine had to be purchased from government stores. There were only two places that people were allowed to drink: in their own home or in a hotel room in which they were registered. Nightly drinking parties took place in hotels, to the great annoyance of owners and other guests. 

W.W. Champ.  Family collection
W. W. (Wes) Champ, President of the Saskatchewan Hotels Association (SHA) in 1925, highlighted the problems this situation created for hotel owners.“While the liquor stores sell the desired drink and secure the profit, the onus is unpleasantly placed on the hotelmen of providing the room wherein the liquor may be consumed," Champ wrote in a statement to the press. "This is undoubtedly a complaint on the part of the hotelmen of the province that deserves the serious consideration and sympathy of all those who desire a healthy, sober community surrounded by well-kept hotel establishments.” The SHA circulated a petition in 1928 asking for legislation permitting beer parlours, or at least a plebiscite to determine the will of the electorate, and got 70,000 signatures. Premier James. G. Gardiner’s government denied the petition. (H.G. Bowley, A Half Century of Hospitality; The Story of the Hotels Association of Saskatchewan, 1906-1956, Regina, 1957)

When the Depression hit in 1929, Saskatchewan’s hotels drifted into debt and decline. As the Depression deepened in the 1930s, hotel keepers, like everyone else in the province, struggled to scrape by. They were unable to replace deteriorating furniture and equipment, or to renovate their shabby premises. Often, taxes went unpaid. Then, in 1935, the government finally introduced the sale of beer by the glass, providing a welcome source of revenue and some relief for the hotel business. 

Premier J.T.M. Anderson
The SHA had managed to achieve this major concession from Premier J.T.M. Anderson’s government in 1934. A plebiscite was held during the provincial election in June which asked the question: “Are you in favor of the sale of beer by the glass in licensed premises?” A large front-page newspaper ad was placed by the SHA stating that “Bootlegging, Law Breaking, Secret Drinking, Respect for the Law, Increased Revenue for the Government – which can be accomplished by voting for the Sale of Beer on Licensed Premises.” An advertisement by the Moderation League of Saskatchewan stated, “If you have the interest of the youth of the Province at heart, vote for the sale of beer by the glass.” The plebiscite carried by 30,130 votes. The final count was: Yes - 191,722; No - 161,592. Half the majority was from Regina and Saskatoon; many rural areas voted against it. (Regina Leader-Post, June 28, 1934, p.1)

Forbidden to Sell Anything But Beer
 
The government wrestled for weeks with the framing of the new liquor act and resolutions. In the end, the rules established for beer parlours seemed designed to make them as unattractive as possible. Customers could drink only while seated, unlike in the old-time taverns. They could not carry their drinks between tables. On January 22, 1935, Omer Demers, MLA for Shellbrook, pointed out to the Legislature that, “We used to stand up and drink and when we had enough we knew enough to leave. Now we sit down and don’t know when we’ve had enough.” (Regina Leader-Post, Jan. 22, 1935, p.8) There could be no meals or sale of food, no sale of soft drinks, no dancing, no musical instruments, no playing cards, no slot machines, and no entertainment of any kind in beer parlours. The only thing they could sell in these cheerless places was beer. Women could neither work in, nor patronize, the province's beer parlours [see separate blog post]. Liquor board inspectors were sent out to watch for violations. 

By April, hundreds of Saskatchewan hotels were applying for liquor licenses. The SHA said that, out of its 480 members, 80 – mainly Chinese hotel owners – would not be able to qualify. (Regina Leader-Post, Mar. 12, 1935, p. 1) Chinese were excluded because the law required that the applicant for a liquor license had to be a person who was entitled to vote. The Chinese in Saskatchewan did not receive the provincial franchise until 1947.

New beer parlour at the Maymont Hotel, c.1935.  From Sod to Solar (1980)
"Spigots spouted suds in 22 Saskatchewan hotels on Thursday [May 2, 1935], and draft beer became legal again for the first time in 20 years," the Regina newspaper stated."Not since 1915 has beer by the glass been legal in a public way in this province." (Leader-Post, May 2, 1935, p. 1) 

In order to take advantage of this new turn of events, hotels had to spend money to build or fix up their beer parlours. The government had set rigorous architectural standards before licenses would be issued to sell beer. Only hotels that had a minimum number of guest rooms and adequate dining rooms for guests could be licensed. Most of the hotel keepers went further into debt, but it was hoped that, with the added revenue, they would be able to carry on. 

A big obstacle for many small-town hotels was the question of “local option.” The new legislation passed on January 22, 1935, allowed communities to vote on whether or not they wanted a beer parlour in their local hotel. In Carlyle, controversy raged for weeks over whether or not Jim Anderson should be allowed to apply for a beer parlour license for the Arlington Hotel. In the end, 123 voted Yes and only 7 voted No. “One old timer chuckled [that] he couldn’t find one solitary person who admitted to a ‘yes’ vote so he could never figure out where the majority came from,” the Carlyle history records (Prairie Trails to Blacktop Carlyle and District, 1882-1982). Redvers was one of the few towns that defeated the local option vote. The hotel closed, and the owner had to wait three years before he could reapply for a license. In 1939, the town voted in favour of a license, and, with the revenue from the beer parlour, the Redvers Hotel was able to start making improvements and upgrading its facilities. (Redvers, 75 Years Live, 1980) Saskatchewan’s hotel industry did not fully recover, however, until the return of better economic conditions after the start of the Second World War. 


© Joan Champ 2011

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