In 1892 South Carolina adopted the dispensary system, which gave the state a monopoly on the sale of liquor. In the early 1890s South Carolina was poised to adopt statewide prohibition. Governor Benjamin Tillman, however, pressured the legislature to pass instead his proposal for state liquor monopoly legislation. Basing his idea on European models, Tillman portrayed the dispensary as a compromise between the private sale of liquor and prohibition that would promote temperance and clean up politics.
The dispensary law prohibited the manufacture of liquor and provided that only the government could sell liquor. Each county chose to have either a dispensary or prohibition, with all but two counties eventually choosing to establish dispensaries. The state board of control set dispensary policies and also appointed county boards of control, which in turn appointed local dispensers. Dispensers sold liquor at set prices and divided the profits among the state, the municipality, and the county. The law also created a special liquor constabulary.
From beginning to end, the dispensary failed to work as designed. The constables charged with enforcing the law bore the brunt of resistance. In Darlington a riot over attempted implementation of the system led to a revolt of the state militia. Tillman responded by imposing martial law. Moreover, the system lost its temperance trappings and soon turned into a money-making machine. Patronage battles and widespread corruption characterized its operations.
Overwhelmed by these problems, the state dismantled the dispensary system. In 1907 the system was closed, but counties were allowed to continue local dispensaries. Six counties kept the system; their vast business prompted six others to join them by 1913. In the meantime, prohibition was gaining momentum in the South and the nation. In a 1915 referendum the state voted to adopt prohibition and shut down the dispensaries. But following the failure of national prohibition in 1933, many states followed South Carolina’s lead and created state liquor monopoly systems.
Eubanks, John Evans. Ben Tillman’s Baby: The Dispensary System of South Carolina, 1892–1915. Augusta, Ga., 1950.
Heath, Frederick M., and Harriet H. Kinard. “Prohibition in South Carolina, 1880–1940: An Overview.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1980): 118–32.
Hendricks, Ellen Alexander. “The South Carolina Dispensary System.” North Carolina Historical Review 22 (April 1945): 176–97; (July 1945): 320–49.
Wallace, Rita Foster. “South Carolina State Dispensary, 1893–1907.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1996.