It’s a word that was spoken in secretive undertones on Prince Edward Island for seven long decades when Prohibition forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages for anything other than medicinal purposes.
Now it’s the title for a new book, Booze: A Social Account of Prohibition on Prince Edward Island, 1878-1948.
Written by Clinton Morrison of Crescent Isle Publishers in Summerside, this 440-page softcover book gives readers a detailed look at the Prohibition era in the province and chronicles the rise of the major problems of bootlegging and rum-running in Island society and much more.
“You could live a whole lifespan of 70 years and be in a society where it was illegal to drink liquor for a beverage. You had to go to the doctor and lie, and say that you were sick to get a bottle. Other than that you couldn’t get one legally,” says Morrison, who coincidentally was born in the very year that Prohibition ended on P.E.I.
Growing up in Conway in Prince County, he was regaled with stories of rum-running and more, some of which pertained to his own family who ran a lobster factory and seafood cannery on the Conway Narrows sand hills in the 1920s and ’30s.
“The story I was told . . . was the fishermen would land the liquor from the Nellie J. Banks or dozens of (other ships) onto the sand hills and (it was said) that my grandfather would can rum or liquor in his fish cans, seal them and put mackerel labels on the cans and they’d carry case after case ashore. . . and nobody suspected anything,” Morrison remembers.
From the late 1770s and leading up to Prohibition, alcohol was in free-flow mode on the Island.
In 1825, P.E.I.’s population of just under 25,000 people consumed 54,000 gallons of rum, 2,500 gallons of brandy, 3,000 gallons of gin and 2,000 gallons of wine.
“This amounted to an annual consumption of approximately 2.3 gallons of alcoholic spirits for every man, woman and child (beer excluded)!” Morrison wrote in his book.
By the 1860s, the Temperance movement, which promoted restraint in the use of intoxicating beverages, had become well established on the Island, resulting in a decline to 1.3 gallons per person annually.
“It started out as temperance — ‘Use moderation, just drink occasionally and on special occasions,’ that kind of thing. And then of course temperance soon became abstinence: ‘Give it up completely because temperance doesn’t seem to be working,’” Morrison says.
“Alcohol posed some pretty major problems in society. Men were beating their wives and neglecting their children, not unlike today, but back then more so. Prohibition was a widespread movement (across North America), and churches felt it was their obligation to protect the people by preaching against liquor and so on and so forth.”
Two basic pieces of legislation got the Prohibition flow going on P.E.I. The first was the federal Canada Temperance Act, under which most of P.E.I. was “dry” from 1880 to 1901, with the exception of Charlottetown which was only onboard the no-alcohol bandwagon for 13 of those 21 years.
The second was the P.E.I. Prohibition Act of 1900, under which the Island became the first province in Canada to become totally dry. The American Prohibition, which be-gan in 1920 and ended in 1933, had a definite impact on rum-running on P.E.I. and the region overall.
“That was probably the height of Prohibition in Canada as well,” Morrison says. “Without the U.S. Prohibition, I don’t think rum-running would have been as important in the Maritimes. But with the U.S. dry and looking for liquor, the Maritimes had the means of getting the liquor to them and they had close access to Saint Pierre and Miquelon (which is French territory) and so they automatically started running liquor to the States. It was big money.”
There were many risks in the rum-running business, not the least of which was the weather.
“There were violent storms and lots of things could happen at sea. They did a lot of their work at night when it was hard to see where they were going and they never knew what they were going to bump into in the high seas, and navigation skills weren’t what they are today. And then of course the authorities (were) searching for them all the time,” Morrison notes.
In this case, abstinence did make the hearts of some grow fonder of spirits spirited in from abroad.
“It became a social thing: speakeasies and blind pigs as they called them. They were a place to hang out and drink and chat, kind of like today’s coffee shops but with liquor back then.”
This era also opened the door to female patrons, who before that time did not frequent places where alcohol was served.
“Before Prohibition, it would have been highly unusual to see a woman even drinking in public let alone going into a tavern. But after Prohibition began and speakeasies became common, men and women both patronized the places and there was no stigma attached. So in a way it liberated women in that respect as far as drinking alcohol in public . . . ,” he adds.
It also gave rise to some enterprising entrepreneurs. For example, Clovis Perry and his brother, Andy Perry, were well known Summerside restaurant owners who got their start in the 1920s in bootlegging and rum-running.
“They had restaurants which served as a cover for their liquor sales. They always had a room upstairs or a room in back where you could get liquor. If you went in and there were no cops around you could always ask for a cup of cold tea, which mean you wanted a drink of rum,” Morrison says.
By 1930, Prohibition was abolished in the rest of Canada. The U.S. followed suit three years later. P.E.I. persisted, but there was less support with each passing year.
“The number of people behind it started to dwindle,” Morrison says. “Every time they’d hold a plebiscite the percentage wanting Prohibition kept dropping, so you could see the handwriting on the wall until the (second) last plebiscite in 1940 was pretty much 50/50 — wanting it and wanting it out. But it lasted another eight years after that.”
In the final plebiscite June 28, 1948, the Island electorate voted almost three to one to end Prohibition, and the government assumed control of liquor sales at that time.
There were still strict controls of liquor sales in the beginning.
“(People were issued) a liquor permit book, and you were only allowed a bottle of hard liquor or a case of beer a week. And once you bought that you couldn’t get any more till the next week. And they stamped your book when you went into the liquor store. You can see the evolution of it. From 1948 to today the government became less and less restrictive in its regulations governing alcohol sales.”
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the end of Prohibition on P.E.I. The irony was not lost on Morrison when he spied front page headline in The Guardian newspaper on Dec. 29, 2012, that read “Banner year for liquor sales!”
“When I read that, I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, it brings back (headlines) way back in the 1890s when they were extolling P.E.I. as the banner province of Prohibition . . . ,” he laughs. “What a switch in a hundred years. What a total reversal.”
AT A GLANCE
Clinton Morrison will be launching his latest book, Booze: A Social Account of Prohibition on Prince Edward Island, 1878-1948, at Eptek Art & Culture Centre in Summerside on Sunday, June 2, 2-4 p.m.
Booze is a 440-page softcover book that has been seven years in the making. It chronicles the early use of alcohol on P.E.I. and its eventual abuse in colonial society, the rise of the Temperance movement and the Prohibition era, the increase of the major problems of bootlegging and rum-running in Island society and much more
The book is available at Indigo, Chapters, Coles, several Murphy’s P.E.I. Pharmacies and other Island retail outlets that sell Island books. It is also available at Global Genealogy (globalgenealogy.com) and Indigo Books and Music (www.chapters.indigo.ca) and may be purchased direct from the author, J. Clinton Morrison, 25 Jason Dr., Summerside, C1N 6M2, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Everyone is welcome to attend the launch.