A phenomenon that piques the curiosity of both visitors and lifelong residents: why do South Carolina liquor stores display red dots? The answer lies in a heated battle between drys and wets that developed when liquor sales became legal again in 1935 after Prohibition. During the ensuing decade those selling booze, diehard Prohibitionists, and the State Tax Commission (given the task of regulating this revived trade) wrangled constantly over on-site advertising.
Storefront ads so infuriated upcountry drys that in 1938 authorities decreed that only a discreet “Retail Liquor Dealer” sign could be displayed. Seven years later, with creation of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC), they decided to reduce any such sign to letters only a few inches high placed in the lower right-hand corner of a display window or on the front door. Liquor stores of that era had no back door.
Under these circumstances, Jesse J. Fabian, a successful Charleston liquor dealer, hired “Doc” Wansley to create a legal sign for one of his shops. When it was completed, Wansley realized that few would notice such minuscule lettering and, inspired by a design then found on every pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, drew a bright red circle around his masterpiece. Thus was born South Carolina’s famous red dot.
These now-familiar circles grew and prospered until January 1968, when the ABC suddenly ruled that these constituted advertising and should be banished from the landscape. The General Assembly voted instead to save the dot, although members agreed that on each exterior wall of a store there could be only one dot, not to exceed thirty-six inches in diameter. These subsequent rules have been relaxed somewhat, but into the twenty-first century the red dot remained a faithful beacon for those seeking liquor, as well as a warning sign for those determined to avoid it.
Moore, John H. “Solving the Red Dot Mystery.” Sandlapper (spring 2000): 32–34.