Friday, 13 May 2011

Beer Rationing: Saskatchewan Liquor Laws in the 1940s

Image source
During the Second World War, beer parlours across Canada experienced a shortage of beer because Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King wanted Canadians to cut back on drinking. In a national radio broadcast on December 16, 1942, King announced the Wartime Alcoholic Beverages Order which reduced the alcoholic content of beer by 10%, wine by 20% and spirits by 30% for the duration of the war. King’s order also prohibited all advertising of beer and liquors, and asked the provinces to shorten the hours of operation in beer parlours and liquor stores.

Tommy Douglas. Source
Earlier that year, a delegation of temperance advocates received a sympathetic hearing from King when they urged him to reduce the traffic in liquor. King views on alcohol jived with those of a Baptist church minister from Saskatchewan by the name of Tommy Douglas. At the annual conference of United Church ministers on July 1, 1942, Douglas, leader of the provincial CCF party, called for wartime liquor rationing. Tea and coffee were being rationed, he said, so similar rationing for beer and whiskey would not be out of line. “Bottles are hard to get for milk, but have we heard of any shortage for bottles to contain beer?’ Douglas asked. He called liquor “the No. 1 saboteur of the war effort.” (“Active Temperance Federation Urged,” Regina Leader-Post, July 1, 1942) 

Prime Minister W .L. Mackenzie King. Source
King justified the alcohol restrictions, saying they were in accordance with government policy of not allowing profiteering as a result of the war. “The brewers have profited more than anyone out of the war,” King wrote in his diary* on December 10, 1942. “Indeed, the liquor interests and the newspapers have been the real profiteers.” In his CBC broadcast on December 16, 1942, he emphasized the importance of temperance during wartime. “Regardless of what one’s attitude towards prohibition may be, temperance is something against which, at a time of war, no reasonable protest can be made,” he stated. “No one will deny that the excessive use of alcohol and alcoholic beverages would do more than any other single factor to make impossible a total war effort.”  


The Government of Saskatchewan complied with King’s wishes. Starting on February 1, 1943, Saskatchewan beer parlours were only allowed to stay open for eight hours, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., as part of the imposition of wartime temperance. In addition, beer was supplied to liquor stores and licenses premises on a quota basis reflecting the 10% reduction in the amount that could be brewed and sold.

Beer Rationing

Beer ration coupon book from Ontario.
Photo by Will S. Image source
In May of 1943, beer ration coupon books for home consumption were issued across Canada. Rationing of products like sugar or butter, gasoline or rubber, was implemented due to supply problems resulting from military conflict. Beer, however, was brewed from Canadian ingredients which were in plentiful supply. Nevertheless, in Saskatchewan in 1944, beer coupon books were sold for 25 cents and each person was entitled to only one book. The maximum quantity of beer that one person 21 years of age and over could purchase in one month was 12 bottles – six bottles in the first two weeks in a month and six bottles for the second two-week period. Beer rationing continued until January 1947.

Some of these wartime temperance measures worked to the advantage of Saskatchewan’s hotels. In Bruno, for example, Elizabeth (Pitka) Ulrich remembers that, because beer was rationed, “local people lined up on Main Street and the hotel’s stock would be sold out in approximately two hours.”(Fields of Prosperity: A History of Englefeld, 1903-1987) The closure of 72 government beer stores due to poor sales was another direct result of the liquor restrictions. Many of these stores were located in places where people could buy their beer at the local hotel beer parlour. “The tempo of hotel life in Saskatchewan accelerated,” H. G. Bowley writes in his history of the Hotels Association of Saskatchewan (1957), “Due largely to wartime travel and general wartime prosperity, receipts increased.”

Too much foam!
The breweries passed most of the burden of the beer shortage on to the beer parlours, but hotel operators were not allowed to raise the price of a glass of beer. To compensate for this, the operators reduced the size of the beer glass. In addition, some instructed their bartenders to pour less beer and more foam into the smaller glass. Complaints about “short service” started pouring in to the Saskatchewan Liquor Board. The Provincial Treasurer C. M. Fines issued instructions to his department “for cancellation of licenses of any hotel vendor who continues to serve glasses of beer with large heads of froth.” (“More Wine in Next Two Months,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, October 25, 1944)

The perfect pour. Image source
Despite all of the efforts of the arid Mackenzie King government, beer consumption rose steadily in Canada during the war years. The men who fought overseas and the women on the home front who entered the workforce en masse, rejected abstinence. Small-town hotels blossomed, due largely to the general wartime prosperity. By the end of the war, Bowley writes, hotel lobbies across the province were decked out with modern wood panelling; stairways were retreaded; rooms were redecorated and refurnished; facades were rebuilt; and beer parlours – hitherto hardly celebrated for their cheery d├ęcor – became more inviting. “At long last,” George Grant, the president of the Hotels Association of Saskatchewan, stated in 1948, “it seems, the plain, bare, uninviting beer parlor is becoming what it should be – an attractive, smartly decorated, spotlessly clean workingman’s club.”

It would be another 15 years before provincial legislation finally permitted women to enter beverage rooms. 

The Antler Hotel beer parlour, n.d. Source: Footprints in the Sands of Time (1983):
 *For the complete Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King click here

© Joan Champ 2011

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