Vancouver History Blog

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Westender – an article about Prohibition by Will Woods

Will wrote a piece on prohibition, speakeasies and blind pigs in Gastown for the Westender on April 25, 2013.

westender article clipping - prohibition in Vancouver

The Westender article by Will Woods

The piece focussed on the loop-holes in prohibition-era law that allowed people to continue drinking despite the sale of liquor being illegal. Private members clubs were an effort to exploit the rule that drinking in one’s own home was never illegal during prohibition. So private members clubs argued that these were private venues, owned by the members, who consumed their own liquor inside. An example of course is the Vancouver Club, which even today still has whiskey lockers for its members – a relic of the club’s battle with prohibition in the early 20th century.

Blind-pigs were the other end of the scale to private members clubs. Typically run down, ramshackle places run by organized crime gangs. They were for the working man to get a drink. These places made no effort to comply with liquor regulations and were frequently raided and closed down by the police and liquor board inspectors. Often found in basements or back rooms – patrons did not go there for the decor!

Many of the saloons that existed pre-prohibition converted to “near beer bars” – since selling beer with an alcohol concentration of less than 2.5% was still legal. Enterprising owners tried also to offer sodas and food to attract patrons. Although it’s fair to say that many of the bars had a stash of stronger stuff under the counter if you knew who to ask.

The “bottle club” really arrived after prohibition – a period in which liquor laws were still very strict. The Penthouse, the Panorama Roof at the Hotel Vancouver, and the Commodore Ballroom were all large venues that offered food and live entertainment, but did not have liquor licenses until the late 1960s. So for decades these supposedly “dry” venues allowed patrons to sneak hard liquor inside in paper bags. Provided you hid it from sight during a police raid, no one raised an eyebrow of course!

You can find out more about the city’s prohibition past on Forbidden Vancouver walking tour Prohibition City!