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Why do SC liquor stores have red dots on them?

History of the red dot

Story + Photography by Michael Reynolds

Visitors to South Carolina are often puzzled to see that so many of the state’s liquor stores have red dots on them — sometimes a single red dot on the sign or painted on an exterior wall, but more often three bright red dots side by side. Ask a Carolinian why that is, and they are likely to shrug their shoulders and say,
“I don’t know.” The red dots are only found in South Carolina.

Bluffton SC's first dispensary
This historic building in Old Town was Bluffton’s first dispensary, opened in 1939 by J.F. Coburn Jr. The building, which was originally built as a filling station in the 1920s, quickly became a popular spot for local spirit lovers. Prior to its opening, the nearest liquor store was 15 miles away in Hardeeville.

Legend has it

Some who have taken a stab at explaining it assert that liquor store owners once needed a way for people who couldn’t read to find their stores, although that leaves hanging the question of why other types of stores wouldn’t need similar symbols to attract illiterate clientele. Others have speculated that it represents a red sun, since the state’s liquor stores were originally opened only from dawn to dusk — and indeed today are required by law to open no earlier than 9 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

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.

A real buzz kill

When the 21st Amendment was ratified in April 1933, Southerners didn’t immediately bust 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 state legalized alcohol in all sorts of patchwork ways. North Carolina opted for a state monopoly system for liquor sales, resulting in a byzantine system in which 168 local Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) boards own and operate liquor stores in their communities and are overseen by a state-level board that warehouses and distributes liquor to each locality.

South Carolina, on the other hand, allowed the private retail sale of liquor to resume 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 liquor retailers from engaging in any sort of promotional activities. Liquor stores could have no neon signs, could not advertise prices and could not display bottles in their front windows. The 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. You could sell liquor in South Carolina, but you weren’t supposed to let anybody know about it.

Abandoned Red Dot Liquor Store
Many abandoned red dot stores are scattered across Beaufort County and the rest of the state. There are currently 40 liquor stores operating in Beaufort County.

Connecting the dots

Within a few years 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 store 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. He reported that a Charleston liquor dealer named Jesse J. Fabian was first to have a red dot on his store, which was on the corner of Spring and King streets. 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 identified 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.

It’s interesting to ride around South Carolina today and see new and old (abandoned) liquor stores with the red dot still making its appearance. It’s even true with our own old Colburn’s liquor store in Old Town.