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Our holdings include hundreds of glass and film negatives/transparencies that we've scanned ourselves; in addition, many other photos on this site were extracted from reference images (high-resolution tiffs) in the Library of Congress research archive. (To query the database click here.) They are adjusted, restored and reworked by your webmaster in accordance with his aesthetic sensibilities before being downsized and turned into the jpegs you see here. All of these images (including "derivative works") are protected by copyright laws of the United States and other jurisdictions and may not be sold, reproduced or otherwise used for commercial purposes without permission.

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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Reverse Mixologist: 1920

Reverse Mixologist: 1920

Washington, D.C., circa 1920. "U.S. Treasury, Internal Revenue Department." Measuring the alcohol content of various libations and tonics at the start of Prohibition. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.

On Shorpy:
Today's Top 5

You shouldn't blame the Twerp, er, Scientist.

Here's your Prohibitionists!


Look at that pencil-necked twerp! He was probably the kid in school who was always tattling on the other students.

Make mine "up"

With an olive, please!

Hazardous to your health?

Not so much the alcohol but the acids and other concoctions used to do their testing. Those faucets and taps look decidedly corroded by some of the chemicals.

Testing for content.

I know a way to measure alcohol content without using test tubes. (Buuurp)

Poison and Prohibition

A very fun read on the subject of elixirs, poisons, perfumes, and alcohol is "The Poisoner's Handbook" by Deborah Blum. It is somewhat mis-titled, since there is a long section on the NYC medical examiner's office and problems associated with Prohibition. I was surprised to read about the escalating "arms race" between the federal government's development of various poisonous compounds added to denature so called "industrial alcohol," intended to discourage human consumption, and the bootleggers' effort to remove these poisons by redistilling alcohol containing liquids, such as perfume. Apparently this is a longstanding practice related to taxation. During Prohibition, it became a significant public health issue. The poisons that were added to denature drinking alcohol, which were mandated federal formulas and often contained other highly toxic substances besides just methyl alcohol, apparently injured and killed many people, and became quite a controversy. I didn't know much about the subject, and so it was quite a fascinating read.

Re: Poison

Another possibility is that the samples were deliberately denatured at the time they were collected, and labeled to prevent them being stolen from the analysts and consumed.

Proofing grounds

80 proof beer? I like the sound of that!

Who knew?

A young Foster Brooks at his first place of employment.

How much alcohol?

Young man, as you measure the alcohol content in these mysterious "poison" bottles, remember the words of Mae West: Too much of a good thing is better.


It is interesting that four of the bottles being tested have poison labels on them. Were they tonics or were they libations?

[Notes typed on the labels say beer. At first I thought the Poison stickers were a ruse to trick the revenuers. But the bottles are from different sources -- Springfield, Illinois, and Erie, Pennsylvania, to name two. Another label says the contents are a sample taken from a "bottling house." So these might be the agents' standard storage bottles (or labels) for seized booze. - Dave]

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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