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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Klair Law

Rolling advertisement for Prohibition Repeal, Wilmington 1930
 New Years has just passed, which always brings to mind two things (OK, it may mean other things to other people, but I'm picking these two): alcohol and new laws. If you're thinking historically, the convergence of intoxicating beverages and legislation can mean only one thing -- Prohibition. But the Eighteenth Amendment (which prohibited the production, sale and transport of "intoxicating liquors") and the Volstead Act (which filled in the details as to what was and was not allowed, and provided penalties for violating it) were really the culmination of the Dry Movement (about as fun as it sounds), not the beginning. Anti-alcohol forces had been hard at work since at least the beginnings of the Temperance Movement in the late 1700's, to varying degrees of success.

The two major pieces of national legislation that went into effect in 1920 were by no means the only such laws on the books in the US. Many jurisdictions enacted Dry Laws prior to National Prohibition, and some of these laws went further than did the federal ones. Here in Delaware, pioneers that we are, we had both. At the time, the state was divided into four "local option units", which seems to mean regions that can have laws pertaining to them (I'm not a lawyer) -- the three counties and Wilmington. In 1907, Kent and Sussex Counties voted to go "no-license", which meant that saloons would no longer be permitted to sell alcohol (I think that meant that no one could get a license to sell, but I'm not sure if it affected possession). After defeating the measure several times, New Castle County finally followed suit in 1917, leaving Wilmington as the only wet area in the state.

In addition to the no-license mandates, Delaware had two statewide laws that went into effect before National Prohibition did, and went beyond the federal statutes -- the "Loose Law" and the "Klair Law". (The Klair Law may have technically been an amendment to the Loose law, but it was usually treated as a separate law.) The Loose law dealt mainly with the transport of liquor, and seems to have stayed more of less within the boundaries (or at least the spirit, no pun intended) of the Volstead Act. The Klair Law, however, was a different story. It seems to have been one of the most controversial, most discussed and most disliked laws of the Prohibition Era in Delaware. And it was introduced by, and named for, a Mill Creek Hundred resident -- Aaron F. Klair.

The Klair Law (we'll eventually get to its namesake), which went into effect March 21, 1919, not only beat the Volstead Act to the (non-spiked) punch, it also went further than did the National Prohibition Law. There seems to have been two major aspects of the Klair Law's draconian reach that inspired the most ire. First, under the Volstead Act, it was not actually illegal to possess alcohol -- it was only illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell it. This led to fights elsewhere over the legality of "Private Stock" -- stores of liquor that people had bought legally before Prohibition, then stored away. Not so in Delaware. Here, the Klair Law made it illegal for anyone to possess more than one quart of intoxicating liquor.

In addition to the one quart limit, there was one other piece of the Klair Law that in many people's opinion went too far -- the prohibition on medicinal use. The Volstead Act provided for several exceptions to the alcohol ban, including the use of alcohol in manufacturing, for religious sacramental use, and for medicinal use. At the time, it was still common for doctors to prescribe liquor for a variety of ailments. The Klair Law removed the medicinal exception, making it illegal for even doctors to dispense alcohol for therapeutic purposes. Many saw this ban as being dangerous, and endangering lives.

While Prohibition in general faced opposition throughout its 13 year reign, in Delaware, the Klair Law in particular was the target of almost constant, passionate attacks. Almost immediately after its enactment, groups began lobbying for its repeal. Eventually, groups like this one banded together to make coordinated attempts at repealing the dry laws. If you look closely at the ad run by the Delaware Division of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, you'll notice their headquarters are located in the DuPont Building. This is no coincidence, since the most powerful and outspoken opponent of the Klair Law was none other than Pierre S. DuPont. In fact, in 1930, DuPont went so far as to send out a questionnaire to every adult in the state, about 112,000 of them, asking whether they supported the law or not.

The Klair Law was finally repealed in January 1933 to the delight of almost all, except for those like the Anti-Saloon League, whose president literally wrote the Volstead Act. In December 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, officially ending Prohibition in the US. For 13 years, though, the name "Klair" was on everybody's lips, mostly because it helped keep off of their lips what they really wanted -- a legal alcoholic drink. In the next post, we'll take a quick look at the man whose name was given to the hated law, Aaron Francis Klair. If nothing else, it'll be a good excuse to spotlight an important local family which has been almost absent from this site.


  1. Interesting article. I noticed that Wilmington had 161 saloons back in 1917. Dang...they really were the good old days!

  2. Yeah, and only 26 in the rest of New Castle County! I know the city had more people, but still....makes you wonder how they got anything done. Plus, those numbers don't include the several breweries in Wilmington that shut down, too.

  3. Did you notice on the same page of the Sunday Morning Star as the article about Mr. Dupont's questionnaire there is an article about the discovery of kaolin clay in the "Ockessin Valley"?

  4. Great article, Mill Creek Hundred. Thanks