The Illicit, Underground History of the Happy Hour

Mark Yocca / Supercall
Mark Yocca / Supercall

Happy hour is an all-American tradition (even though it is banned in a few states—more on that later). It’s what we look forward to on slow Thursday afternoons. It’s what we count on for cheap beer and dollar oysters. It’s what many fast casual chains have used to launch their brands nationwide, with some going so far as to make the event, which usually takes place between 4-8 p.m., an all-day affair (hi, TGI Fridays!). But its origins are much less commercial and much more illegal than you might think.

It Started with the U.S. Navy

Back in 1913, a group aboard the USS Arkansas (which was part of an American contribution to the British Grand Fleet before the U.S. officially entered World War I) who called themselves the “Happy Hour Social” arranged a twice-weekly “smoker” (a party, essentially). The crew took to calling the events “happy hours.” During these gatherings, which took place in the early evening, the sailors would watch movies, play music or go for a few rounds of boxing or wrestling. The idea caught on and by the early 1800s, Naval units across the Atlantic were holding happy hours. The U.S. Navy officially went dry in 1914, so we can’t be sure if there was or was not alcohol at these early happy hours. But we do know, thanks to old issues of Our Navy, that there were cigars and cigarettes as well as the occasional ice cream and cake.

It Became Trendy Thanks to Prohibition

This is where the alcohol (and the illegality) comes into play. When the 18th Amendment passed in 1920, people were driven to drink underground in speakeasies. While you might imagine these secret bars kicking off around 10 p.m., they were actually hopping in the early evening when thirsty throngs crowded into them to get sauced before heading to dinner at booze-free restaurants. Possibly taking a tip from the sailors, people started calling these illegal pre-gaming sessions happy hours. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the concept of a happy hour as a sort of cocktail hour stuck around, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when bars caught on and started offering discounts.

It Became Illegal Again

As we alluded to earlier, there are a few states where happy hours are back to being illegal. While Illinois and Kansas came to their senses in 2015 and 2012 respectively, others are holding fast to their convictions, averring that happy hour deals encourage excessive drinking and increase the likelihood of drunk driving and other alcohol related issues. Right now, these states enforce a full happy hour ban: Alaska, Indiana, Massachusetts (which was the first to outlaw happy hours in 1984), North Carolina, Oklahoma (though it could be on the way to reinstating happy hours), Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont. It is in these states that happy hour’s rebellious, illegal history lives on.