Why Do South Carolina Liquor Stores Have Red Dots?

No sunsets or illiterate tipplers, just convoluted liquor laws

By Robert F. Moss

In my post on the origin of the term “package store,” I mentioned that in South Carolina liquor stores are often called “red dot stores.” The reason for that is simple: almost all of the ones in the state seem to have at least one if not multiple big red dots on their signs or painted on the sides of their buildings. But why did owners start painting those red dots on them in the first place?

South Carolinians often speculate various explanations: that it’s because liquor stores owners needed a way for the people who couldn't read could to find their stores, or because it represents a red sun because the states liquor stores were originally opened from dawn to dusk. The real answer lies back in the swirl of odd and often puzzling alcohol control legislation that emerged in the wake of Prohibition’s repeal.

As I detail in Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South, when the 21st amendment was ratified in April 1933, Southerners didn’t immediately break out the bubbly. The amendment allowed each state to determine its own alcohol laws, and only a single Southern state—Louisiana—allowed liquor sales immediately upon repeal. Legal drinking returned to the rest of the South in fits and starts as each states legalized alcohol in all sorts of patchwork ways.

South Carolina allowed the retail sale of liquor to return in 1935, but there were constant political challenges from those who wanted to tightly restrict the industry. In 1945, the Legislature passed a measure that strictly limited advertising by liquor stores. They could have no neon signs, no price advertising, and no bottles displayed in their front windows. They only signage allowed were the words “Retail Liquor Dealer,” which could be printed in letters no more than three inches high, along with the dealer’s name and license number in two-inch high letters.

Within a few years, though, people started noticing big red dots painted on the sides of liquor stores around the state. In October 1951, the Associated Press reported that the origin of the symbol “seems to be a mystery. But in the two years since state Tax Commission officials and retail stores owners say they first noticed its use, it has become universal.”

A month later, Dan T. Henderson of the Charleston News & Courier tracked down the source. A Charleston liquor dealer named Jesse J. Fabian, Henderson reported, was first to have the red dot on his store at the corner of Spring & King Streets, and it appeared there in July 1945, just after the state’s advertising ban went into effect.

Fabian had hired C. A. (Doc) Wansley, a long-time Charleston sign painter, to inscribe “Retail Liquor Dealer” letters on his store, using the required three inch letters, but they didn’t show very well. Inspired by the logo on a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, Wansley painted a large red dot around the lettering to serve as a background. Henderson was unable to account for how the symbol spread to other stores, but by 1949 they could be found all the way up in the northwestern part of the state.

The state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board tolerated the red dots for more than two decades, and for South Carolina residents it became the main way they figured out where to go to buy a bottle. Suddenly in 1968, though, the ABC board ruled that the red dot was indeed advertising and could no longer be used. Several legislators promptly introduced legislation exempting red dots from the ban, codifying the use of the symbol in law. In 1976, the rules were further clarified, specifying that "Red dots not exceeding thirty-six inches in diameter may be placed on each side of the building and on the rear and front of the building."

The laws prohibiting liquor store advertising were gradually relaxed over the decades that followed, and today the South Carolina statutes ban only advertising “addressed to and intended to encourage persons under twenty-one years of age to purchase or drink alcoholic liquor.” But the red dots have stuck, much to the bafflement of folks from other parts of the country.

So, if you're visiting the Palmetto State and want a little nip of the hard stuff, keep an eye out for the big red dots.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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