‘Bone dry’: The ups and downs of banning booze

‘Bone dry’: The ups and downs of banning booze

Like a tipple? History curator Kirstie Ross looks at the ways New Zealand tried to curb excessive drinking in the early 1900s and its affect on society.

As you get rid of the last of your Christmas and New Year’s empties, stop for a minute and reflect back 98 years, to 17 January 1919 when the 18th Amendment of the US Constitution came into effect.

Christmas and New Year empties, 4 January 2017. Photograph by Kirstie Ross

This amendment declared that:

‘the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.’

More to the point: booze was banned!

There would be no New Year’s Eve blowouts until after the amendment was repealed until 1933 – at least officially, as Prohibition was notorious for the inventive ways that Americans managed to keep their glasses full. Secret and not-so-secret clubs and stills were rampant. The 1920s was a decade of speakeasies, gangsters, moonshine, massacres, and molls.

Not only in America

Towards the end of the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th, New Zealanders were also grappling with how to deal with the ongoing negative social and economic impacts of excessive drinking, the same ones that had culminated in Prohibition in the US.

They watched with interest to see how the US coped with going ‘bone dry’.

Prohibition poster, 1925, New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic, Wright Jaques Ltd, Eph-D-ALCOHOL-Continuance-1920s-01, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

In both countries, and elsewhere, two major solutions to the problems caused by (usually male) drunkenness were:

  • voluntary personal abstinence (also referred to as temperance) or
  • mandatory prohibition, either locally or nationally through legislation

(Another option, of course, was moderation.)

Prohibition was a long time coming to the US, and was the result of a strong temperance lobby.

New Zealand has had its own love-hate relationship with alcohol.

We too had temperance unions – the Women’s Christian Temperance Union is the most well-known one because of its members role in women’s suffrage. Members of certain faiths also abstained from the ‘demon drink’.

Putting it to the people

In 1910, the New Zealand government set up a process whereby a national referendum would be held every three years in which the country decided whether or not it would maintain the status quo (‘continuance’); inaugurate state control of alcohol; or ban alcohol altogether.

The poster below, produced by prohibition interests, outlines the options and their alleged consequences.

Prohibition poster, 1911-1925, New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic, Wright & Carman Ltd, Eph-D-ALCOHOL-Prohibition-01, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

In the same year that Americans were coming to terms with a life without liquor, New Zealand also came close to prohibition. It was just 1,632 votes that tipped the balance in favour of the status quo – votes that were cast by soldiers returning home after the Great War.

Kiwi ways of drinking

Our licensing laws and regulations also produced a very idiosyncratic legislative framework that evolved into a particular practice and culture of drinking.

This included the separation of entertainment from bars and hotels, the non-licensing of restaurants (unless they were in a hotel), restrictions on the employment of barmaids, and separate laws pertaining to Māori.

Ladies of Thames, Brian Boru Hotel, Thames, Thames, by John Fields. Purchased 2016 with Ellen Eames Collection funds. Te Papa (O.043671)

Drinking in public was also segregated by gender and often by race.

Swill time

The six o’clock swill was the most infamous of these practices. The closure of pubs at six o’clock was a measure introduced in 1917, to encourage wartime efficiency. It remained on the law books until 1967. During those five decades, intensive binge drinking in charmless surroundings was par for the course.

New Zealand photographer Brian Brake documented this ritual in 1960:

[Men drinking in pub], 1960, New Zealand, by Brian Brake. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa (E.005414/21)

[Crowded pub], 1960, New Zealand, by Brian Brake. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa (E.005436/04)
[Crowded pub], 1960, New Zealand, by Brian Brake. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa (E.005436/04)
It’s quite unusual to see women drinking in this environment – it doesn’t look very convivial! I like the blurred arm to the right of the image, trying to get the attention of the harried bar staff.

Tools of the trade

If you look closely, you can see that the beer is being served and consumed in standardised jugs and glasses. Te Papa has examples of this glassware as souvenirs of the swill.

HANZ glassware, mid 1960s, New Zealand, by Crown Crystal Glass, Hotel Association of New Zealand. Purchased 2011;, 2012, 2014. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH021024; GH021025; GH023164; GH024221)

Another souvenir of this history is the flagon case, below, which allowed for the discrete transport of home brew.

Flagon case, circa 1960, New Zealand, by Flight. Gift of Mr Geoff Kelly, 2009. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH012214/1-8)


Record – “Rugby, Racing, and Beer” by Rod Derrett., 1963, New Zealand, by Rod Derrett, His Master’s Voice (N.Z.) Limited. Purchased 2001. Te Papa (GH009832)

These days some would say that New Zealanders have a more sophisticated approach to alcohol – that the mantra of ‘rugby, racing and beer’ not longer applies to our drinking behaviour.

What holds the future?

However, the full force of our waxing and waning history of drinking is still being worked out. As the pros and cons of lower drinking ages and liberalised access to alcohol continue to be debated – and chop and change – alcohol will continue to inflame the passions and quench the thirst of Kiwis.

Pub quiz: Thinking not just drinking

Come to Red Gates Bar at Te Papa on Friday 20 January at 6.30pm for a pub quiz with a twist. The Gates won’t be closing until 8pm so you won’t have to swill your lemonade.

Special guests includes members of the Wellington Ukulele Orchestra, helping out with a music round.

Playwright and television scriptwriter Dave Armstrong will be quizzing us on the century that was.

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