OPINION

As It Were: Prohibition, weather kept New Year's Eve revelers inside in 1920

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist

It was a rather unusual New Year’s Eve in 1920 in Columbus.  

For one thing, it was warm. At 59.4 degrees, it was the warmest New Year’s Eve since 1897, when the high reached 60. For a place where December usually meant ice, snow and freezing weather, the town almost seemed like spring.  

And as often happens in the spring, it was wet.  

Ed Lentz

To dampen the spirits of potential party seekers, a light drizzle settled over the city as the evening progressed. The actual amount of rainfall was miniscule, but the overall effect of the drizzle kept many people indoors.  

A local paper reflected on the differences in the way Columbus welcomed in the New Year.  

“Certainly not like a lion, in fact not even with the madness of a March hare, but very much like a tired and bedraggled lamb, 1921 came in and is taking up his long career. Still, all’s well that ends well and if Friday night’s wake for 1920 and revelry for 1921 lacked the fanfare, tumult and shouting of the good old days, Columbus is not going to start prejudiced against the baby year, the first little ‘one’ in the 1920s, not even when it settled down early Saturday morning in weeping with all the skill and gloom of Memorial Day. 

“Most of Columbus went to bed at an early hour on Friday night, after reading the paper, smoking a pipe, playing a new record on the Whatola and yawning severely – New Year’s Eve flirting and beckoning and dancing outside the window failed to convince the large part of the population that she knew where a real party was going on. The retinue of Eve downtown was small and unmarked by the riotous color and colorful noise of ye olden days.” 

What the newspaper was inferring was stated more directly in the headline of an adjacent article. 

“WHOLE COUNTRY SOBER – Prohibition Agents Busy in All Sections Seeing That Law Is Obeyed.” 

The prohibition on the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages in America had been put in place Jan. 17, 1920, with a constitutional amendment. 

A local paper observed the difference.  

“Of course, there was whisky, evidenced by sagging overcoat pockets and these swellings of the hip peculiar to one who had fallen on the ice, but liquor was a disconnected undertone, not the blare of bugles that it used to be. As opposed to the one-time squads and phalanxes and parties and columns of laughing, shouting and more or less ditzy merrymakers, an intoxicated person Friday night generally drew a small knot of curious onlookers after him as he homeward wove his weary way.” 

This is not to say people weren't partying. They simply were partying inside. 

“The hotels, remembered as headquarters of old Rip Revelry in the days that are no more, were by no means deserted Friday night. There was dancing and merriment, frolic and disporting, with paper caps and trick favors, and all the former accompaniment and atmosphere of the Eve, but the life of the party was not there. In most places, the committees of reception for the new year broke up at a comparatively early hour, at the Athletic Club the revelry stopping at midnight.” 

None of this should imply that the town was deserted on New Year’s Eve. In addition to the hotels and restaurants, most local churches were open and holding special watch services as the New Year approached. 

Even if the rather raucous celebrating of earlier years was not to be found on the streets, people still found a number of places to spend their time on New Year’s Eve.  

Of course, several people perhaps retired early because New Year’s Day would be busy, as well.  

Traditionally, New Year’s Day was celebrated with people visiting and receiving friends and neighbors with greetings and best wishes for the new year. Many residents of Columbus, especially those of “a certain age and background,” still made the rounds and paid the respects expected of them. 

Other people found other things to do. The Ohio State University football team was in California to participate on New Year’s Day in the traditional East-West game, this time against the University of California.  

Ten thousand people gathered in the state fairgrounds coliseum, where a play-by-play account of the game was read as the game was played.  

“The spectators showed they were of the dyed-in-the-wool type and stuck with the Wilcemen (Ohio State’s coach was John Wilce) even when the score was overwhelmingly against them. They cheered every chance they had. The demonstration was a wonderful testimonial to the staunch backing of the followers of the Scarlet and Gray.”  

Ohio State lost 28-0. 

Nevertheless, “it was a holiday bedecked crowd that rocked the Coliseum, jovial and optimistic.” 

It was a rousing beginning to the decade that soon would be known as the Roaring Twenties. 

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.