From Illegal Liquor Stills to Legal Christmas Cheer

By Thomas F. Schwartz

President Hoover and wife Lou greet veterans on the White House lawn during the Veterans’ Garden Party, June 1931.. 31-al57-09

Prohibition kept law enforcement officials busy busting wooden barrels of illegal spirits and confiscating copper vats and tubing from illegal stills.  The District of Columbia decided to put the confiscated property to good use and sent the copper to occupational therapy instructors at Walter Reed Hospital.  Here the materials were given to veterans who transformed the copper sheets and tubing into fanciful Christmas items.  The material cost the veterans nothing, having been provided by the police department through their successful raids on bootlegged stills.  A guest at the annual Christmas sale of occupational therapy products was First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.  A candlestick patterned from a traditional design of a wide, flat base and curved handle caught Lou’s attention.  Made from the copper of confiscated stills, the materials were transformed into a handsome hand wrought candlestick with a patina created from the application of acid.  A pair of candlesticks cost two dollars.  Lou purchased the pair and inquired if they could make 40 pairs more as gifts for friends.  The copper-working shop of the occupational therapy unit went into full battle mode to meet the request.  Normally, it took an average of three days to make one pair of candlesticks.  The request was a challenge but one that seems to have been successfully met.

Other items available at the sale were baskets, rugs, pottery, leather goods, sterling silver jewelry, lamp shades, and hand-made dolls.  Many of the crafts were designed to accommodate certain disabilities.  Sight impaired and blind veterans excelled in basket weaving while many orthopedic cases found pottery and rug-weaving a helpful exercise of muscles.

Mrs. Hoover provided the largest single purchase sale of items.  By noon on the first day of the sale, more than three hundred dollars of items had been sold with hopes of surpassing the previous year total of $1,500.

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