Unearthing the Historical Significance of South Carolina’s Mysterious Red Dots on Liquor Stores

"Red dots on buildings"

Unraveling the Mystery Behind Red Dots on South Carolina Liquor Stores

The appearance of red dots on South Carolina liquor stores has been a unique and intriguing characteristic for many years. While some may dismiss it as merely a design choice, the truth behind this mysterious symbol dates back to the Prohibition era and tells a colourful tale of state history and clever innovation.

The Dawn of the Red Dot

Liquor sales became legal again in South Carolina two years after the era of Prohibition ended in 1933. However, the sale or consumption of the hard stuff was treated like a shameful secret. People couldn’t simply walk into a restaurant and order a bourbon. Instead, they had to bring in their own liquor and pay for a glass and mixers — a system that lasted until the 1970s. As for liquor stores, they were allowed to operate, but any form of advertising or signages were strictly prohibited, except for a sign indicating the license number, retailer’s name, and the phrase “retail liquor store.”

The widely recognized “red dot” that adorns many South Carolina liquor stores today was introduced in response to these restrictions. Originating in Charleston, this clever symbol has since become an iconic emblem statewide. The first known red dot was reported in 1945 when local liquor store owner, Jesse James Fabian, hired C.A. “Doc” Wansley to paint a sign for his store. In a stroke of inspiration, Wansley created a big red circle as a background for the sign itself.

The Legacy Continues

The red dot soon spread across the state as a sort of clandestine method of advertising, easily notifying locals where they could purchase their liquor. Despite a brief moment in 1968 when the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission declared the red dot a form of advertising and an attempt to outlaw it, the Legislature stepped forward and approved a bill legalizing them. From then on, red circles were allowed to be up to 36 inches in diameter.

The enduring popularity of the red dot symbol provides a clear glimpse into the unique history and attitude of South Carolina towards liquor sales. Even as the state’s signage laws have evolved to allow larger signs, sale prices, and even bottle displays in windows, the red dot persists, transcending its original purpose.

Tradition Intersects with Modernity

To liquor store owners, the red dot has become a hallmark of their identity. Even new entrepreneurs, like Clyde Burris, who has been running liquor stores in the Charleston area since the 1960s, honor this tradition. When Burris built a new store on Meeting Street in 2015, he included the iconic “red dot” in the building’s design.

Not all liquor stores, especially some large-scale alcoholic beverage chain stores, carry the red dot. However, the majority have maintained the tradition, a fact that attests to the enduring power of the red dot. Today, the red circle stands as a testament to history, innovation, and the enduring spirit of South Carolina’s liquor business.

Unearthing the Historical Significance of South Carolina's Mysterious Red Dots on Liquor Stores

Author: HERE Irmo

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