It is not uncommon to come across screw-top liquor bottles from the 20th century that are boldly embossed on their shoulders or bases with the above text. After Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, US laws once again allowed the legal manufacture and sale of alcoholic drink. Liquor was legal but producing it was subject to greater Federal control.
One law required that alcoholic bottles must be embossed with the text, “FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS SALE OR REUSE OF THIS BOTTLE” This law went into effect in 1935 and was repealed on December 1, 1964. Here is a direct link to the Office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue – Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division document. The reason for this legislation is fairly obvious: after over a decade of Prohibition, law enforcement was well aware of the illegal trade in alcohol (bootlegging) and wanted to prevent the refilling of bottles by black market businesses.
Jack Sullivan, in an article called ‘ “Nasty Words” and Nifty Whiskeys‘ suggests that one unintended impact of this legislation was to “discourage distillers from putting their legitimate products in “fancy” containers as many had done prior to Prohibition.” Unfortunately, he provides no proof of this. It seems to me that there was simply a change in bottle styles thanks to the automated bottling machine and mass production techniques. The new distinguishing features in packaging came in the form of colorful labels with pictures and graphics.
As you can see in this document, the repeal of the legislation did not require that this marking of bottles cease immediately. Rather, it was simply no longer required. As you might expect, bottlers did not cease production on that very day. In fact, Bill Lindsey has documented one such FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS… bottle that he has accurately dated to 1974.
Federal Law PROHIBITS Sale or Reuse of this Bottle?
At times you will see references online to the words FEDERAL LAW PROHIBITS instead of FORBIDS. This is a persistent error which has been reported on some web sites (including, we admit, on ours at one time), although the wording with PROHIBITS does not seem to exist on any bottle. Do you have a bottle embossed FEDERAL LAW PROHIBITS? Let me know – I want a photo! I might even buy it.
I have noticed regular auction listings on ebay where the seller lists the bottle with the word PROHIBITS but the photos clearly show the word FORBIDS. What started this trend, anyway? I have no proof, but I would suggest many associate this embossing with Prohibition, and the collective conscious of collectors simply got started on the wrong foot.
Value of bottles marked “Federal Law Forbids…”
If you come across such a bottle, you can date it in this time period. Such bottles do not yet hold much interest or value to collectors. However, if you come across one with good labels that have attractive graphics and it is in perfect condition, hold on to it. These are the collectibles of tomorrow.
Photographs of several “Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse…” bottles
This last image shows the FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS SALE OR REUSE… embossing on the base of the bottle. Note the R-105 marking. The R stands for Rectifier; on other bottles you may see a D-[number] where D indicates Distiller. The 58-56 marking indicates the date of the bottle, which was also required by law. See The Code of Federal Regulations of the United States of America, pp. 23-25 for more information.
A direct quote from the regulations: “There shall be blown legibly either in the bottom or in the body of each liquor bottle the permit number of the manufacturer, the year of manufacture (which shall be indicated by the last two numerals), and a symbol and number assigned by the Commissioner to represent the name of the bottler procuring the same…”
For the bottle above, the year of manufacture would be 1956, presumably 58 is the permit number and 105 is identifying number of the bottler.
Many bottles will be marked following this pattern, ie. a D or R along with 3 other numbers. I have noticed that some bottles that do not follow this pattern; at this time, I am not sure how to interpret the meaning of the markings in such cases.
The Illustrated Guide To Collecting Bottles, Cecil Munsey. 1970.
Internal Revenue Service, Industry Circular, #64-18, October 23, 1964
Tippecanoe and E. G. Booz Too!, Tom Haunton, self-published, 2001, 2003
ORDER BANS REUSE OF LIQUOR BOTTLES; Treasury Issues Regulations, Effective Aug. 1, for Blown-In Markings. New York Times, July 15, 1934
LIQUOR BOTTLE RULES ARE EFFECTIVE TODAY; Marking of Containers and Destruction When Empty to Be Enforced Strictly. New York Times, January 1, 1935
RUM-RUNNERS AGAIN CHALLENGE THE LAW; From Their St. Pierre Stronghold They Resume Their Old Trade in a New Way, New York Times, January 13, 1935