Strolling into a convenience store at 7 a.m. holding a Vodka Tonic from the bar down the street isn’t unusual in New Orleans. It’s the way life works. The city’s famous to-go cup culture, which allows you to walk anywhere carrying an open container of alcohol, is so ingrained into the fabric of local society that residents couldn’t imagine life without it.
After a recent trip that had me joyfully carrying open booze throughout all corners of the Big Easy, from trips to the supermarket to short jaunts around the neighborhood to a friend’s house, I got to thinking: How on earth did this start? Why is open alcohol allowed in some cities like New Orleans and not in others?
My initial investigation led me to discover that, while New Orleans is the most famously liberal with its open-alcohol policy, it’s not the only place where to-go cup culture flourishes in America. A handful of smaller towns and cities across the country like Butte, Mt., and Erie, Pa., also permit open carry of booze throughout most of the city with a few restrictions, although they are in the minority.
In most cities where open alcohol is permitted, it’s confined to designated entertainment districts such as the Las Vegas Strip, Beale Street in Memphis, the Savannah Historic District and Kansas City’s Power & Light District. And many additional cities are looking to jump on the recent trend of creating open-booze-permitting districts in an effort to boost local economies.
But to truly understand the history of the to-go cup, one must understand its evolution in New Orleans, where it all began. In fact, the tale of to-go-cup booze in New Orleans is less a story of what happened and more a story of what didn’t happen.
“It wasn’t always illegal in all of America,” says New Orleans drink historian Elizabeth Pearce, who’s also the owner of New Orleans booze tour company Drink & Learn and author of the book “Drink Dat.” “Drinking in public was not illegal for a very long time.”
Pearce says drinking outside became prevalent in the late 19th century, when working-class men would have a growler during their lunch break and wives would fetch them metal pails of beer on long sticks. “There was nothing wrong with drinking in the street,” says Pearce. “The thing that was illegal was public drunkenness.”
This started to become a problem, says Pearce, around the 1950s in Chicago, where “bottle gangs” (groups of single men, mostly homeless) would get drunk, start fights and leave bottles of beer on the curb. Wanting to nip the problem in the bud before the fights started, the city passed a law in 1953 that prohibited “drinking in the public way.”
With the advent of civil rights actions, says Pearce, vagrancy laws began to be enforced throughout many municipalities, many of them racially motivated. When vagrancy laws were struck down as unconstitutional, “communities realized we can make drinking in public illegal,” says Pearce.
Drinkers in New Orleans (image: Joel Carillet)
And starting in the 1970s, many municipalities began to do just that, with counties and cities adjacent to one other often following suit after the neighboring municipality passed a similar law “to prevent hobos from one area coming into another area,” says Pearce.
“Public drinking becomes associated with this seedy and unseemly nuisance behavior,” says Pearce. “It’s a new idea.” Yet while all these laws are taking hold throughout much of the country, “something very different is happening in New Orleans,” she says.
Bourbon Street began to emerge as a major tourist center after WWII, says Pearce. Tens of thousands of single men heading off to Europe would “come to New Orleans for one last hurrah” before being shipped off to war from the port city. She says that in the 1950s many of the city’s major clubs were controlled by the mob with a large number of locals not wanting to go into the seedy establishments for that reason.
With the emergence of hippie culture in the 1960s and the widespread availability of plastic, the practice of “window hawking” began to emerge in New Orleans, in which club owners would sell portable drinks from a window. This more or less turned Bourbon Street into the pedestrian thoroughfare it is today.
“The destination is the key to the experience everywhere else,” says Pearce. “In New Orleans, the journey is equally relevant, and in some cases, there’s no destination. The street itself becomes the show, and everyone is strolling around with a drink in their hand.”
The city passed a law outlawing window hawking, but the ordinance was thrown out as being vague, and window hawking became legal in New Orleans in the 1970s. While initially confined to the French Quarter, it was soon expanded to the whole city, because bar owners outside the Quarter wanted it too, and the law confining it to a certain district was deemed “too confusing” for visitors, according to Pearce.
“You carry the spirit of the bar with you when you drink in public,” says Pearce. “You’re a little more open, a little friendlier, maybe a little more tolerant. This is what New Orleans residents get to experience in our city daily.”
While New Orleans was busy popularizing to-go drinking culture for legions of tourists, 2,000 miles away in Butte, Mt., people just wanted to be left alone.
At the turn of the 20th century, the former mining boomtown was once the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco, attracting a large number of Irish immigrants to work in the mines. While the mines have largely left (just one still remains), that independent frontier spirit is still strong today.
(image: People Images)
“A hundred years ago, in its copper mining heyday, with copper mines running 24 hours a day … the idea of trying to implement some control to drinking didn’t make any sense to anyone,” says Courtney McKee, the CEO of Butte distillery Headframe Spirits. “That rugged nature of the residents really hasn’t changed.”
“During Prohibition, nothing changed about alcohol consumption,” says McKee. “Prohibition really didn’t exist in Butte. They just switched to calling bars soda shops. … That culture and spirit of wildness and lawlessness did not change.” The only restriction on public drinking is a recent law that prohibits public imbibing between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m., and even that was met with significant opposition from locals.
“Some people take the experience to the extreme and make it about quantity and recklessness,” says McKee. “But for the most part, it’s a quality experience and a family experience.” She paints a picture of a local resident talking to a cop through an open police car door with one hand leaning against the car and the other with a drink in hand as an example of what to expect when visiting Butte, especially during its annual St. Patrick’s Day party when the community roughly doubles in size.
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away, in Erie, Pa., the city’s open-container laws (where beer is allowed for public consumption but not liquor or wine) have helped revitalize a Rust Belt community of around 100,000 on the shores of Lake Erie.
According to lifelong Erie resident Chris Sirianni, the owner and operator of The Brewerie at Union Station, Erie is a “blue-collar town that’s transitioning and reinventing itself” as manufacturing leaves and more white-collar jobs move in. And while the town is currently in a heated battle with Buffalo to break the record for the most snow accumulation in a season over the past 40 years, “for three to five months a year, there’s nowhere better to live or visit.”
The city’s beaches and bays may be big summer attractions, but the town is also known as a place where you can drink in public. “It has been great for the bars and restaurants, great for special events,” says Sirianni, who maintains that the public drinking laws are essential to the success of the many street festivals and block parties put on by the city every summer as Erie seeks to reinvent itself as a tourist destination.
Yet despite the open-container laws that help bring in a large number of visitors from Erie’s suburbs and surrounding communities, the city has recently been experimenting with restrictions on open alcohol.
“The only downside,” says Sirianni, “is the city is now asking the question: Where do we draw the line?” Last year, Erie created limits and boundaries on where public alcohol is permitted for the first time in response to large numbers of people showing up with their own beer and not contributing to the local economy that helps the city put on the free block parties and events in the first place.
While adjustments to the law may be made, no one expects Erie to get rid of its open-container freedom anytime soon. “When you see what it brings to downtown businesses,” says Sirianni, “there’s a very strong argument for it.”