American Spirits: A Look Back at the Prohibition Era
Posted Tuesday, December 18, 2012 7:54 AM
Just imagine: you can eye a sleek black 1929 Buick Marquette—a “whiskey six” -- with more than one compartment for its illegal bounty, before you even enter the exhibit. But be forewarned: before you’re face-to-face with the likes of mobster Al Capone and learn to dance the Charleston, Bible-thumpers like hatchet-wielding Carry Nation and evangelist Billy Sunday will do their best to keep you “dry.” By the time the 18th Amendment is repealed, you’ll be ready to step outside and into one of the City of Brotherly Love’s cleverest ways to celebrate—the speakeasy.
It’s all happening at American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, the world premiere exhibition on view at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center on Independence Mall. The Center made a wise choice in Curator Daniel Okrent, the author of Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition. .
More than 100 rare artifacts are displayed in the Center’s 5,000 square-foot exhibition space, including such curiosities as the original paraphernalia for making moonshine at home, ratification copies of the 18th and 21st Amendments and a collection of Roaring Twenties dresses. The flask collection alone show you how far camouflage was carried to hide the “hooch.” One bar set, “Mr. Dry,” is in the shape of a casket, with the cork-headed corpse concealing a corkscrew body. Even Carrie Nation’s own hatchet from one of many barroom-smashing raids is on display.
Are you a “wet” type or a “dry” type? Just enter the Anti-Saloon League’s portion of the exhibit, take a seat in a handy church pew and join an interactive quiz on IPad screens created for this purpose. You can determine quickly enough by gender, religion, politics and geography which side of the fence you’re likely to fall on. Part of the success of the Amendment’s passage in 1917 was the vague wording—“intoxicating beverages.” Many people did not equate beer consumption with the ban. When reality set in, one of the hardest hit groups was Anheuser-Busch in Missouri and similar breweries that felt the pinch in their pockets. You can view one of the first crates Budweiser produced after the “Beer Act” of 1933, which changed the legal alcohol limit to 3.2 percent per volume.
A speakeasy has also been set up, complete with a wooden dance floor with footstep diagrams to four versions of the Charleston. Small cocktail tables surrounding the dance floor carry dinner plate graphics with 1920s slang. If you’ve never heard of a “blind pig,” it’s a designation from the 19th century for a low-down establishment that sold alcoholic drinks illegally. The operator would charge customers for the sight of a pig or some other poor animal as the main attraction, then serve a gin cocktail as a complimentary beverage.
As entertaining as these parts of the exhibit can be, its success lies in its educational overlay. Prohibition is such a rich and often misunderstood part of U.S. history, and this outstanding exhibit is crammed full of fascinating facts. Arranged chronologically, visitors can be grateful to start at the beginning.
In the early 1800s hard cider was the favored staple of farmworkers and “grog time” was a much anticipated break at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. The biggest culprit was the males-only saloon. Between 1870 and 1900, the number increased nationwide from 100,000 to 300,000. Women weren’t complete teetotalers though. A bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for female complaints contained 20.6 percent alcohol in a 14 ounce bottle. Statistics on placards abound at every turn and they are sobering: One adult death every 8 minutes. On another wall, we’re told that the Titanic carried down 1503 souls and that drink carries off 1502 men and women every 8 days in the year.
For many women, temperance became the byword if not total abstinence. When Eliza Thompson of Hillsboro, Ohio and her cohorts knelt in the snow one Christmas Eve in front of each saloon, within days, nine of thirteen drinking establishments had closed their doors. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded shortly thereafter with a 250,000 women’s army. The campaign soon bled over into political life and in 1893 the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) was born. Today’s lobbyists should take note. This group became the most effective pressure group in American history.
Carrie Nation holds her weight in this section, with exhibition notes that tell us she was “six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden and the persistence of a toothache.” According to Kyle McQueen’s “Carrie Nation: Militant Prohibitionist”, from Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics, she described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.” She called her saloon raids “hatchetations.” A barking Billy Sunday sermon will remind you that alcohol is “God’s worst enemy and Hell’s best friend.” Wall notes advertise that if he succeeds, “Hell will be forever for rent.”
The exhibit also pays homage to Wayne Wheeler, the man who made the 18th Amendment happen. As chief lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League, he personally shepherded its passing on January 16, 1919.
Another powerbroker was Andrew Volstead of the House Judiciary Committee who stipulated what was legal under the new law. There were three exceptions for alcohol usage—sacramental wine, medicinal alcohol, and fruit preservation through fermentation. That didn’t allow for a lot of wiggle room. H.I. Phillips, a New York Sun columnist quoted in Okrent’s Last Call, quipped that “the history of the U.S. could be told in 11 words: “Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus.”
American Spirits can be seen at the National Constitution Center, 525 Arch Street, Independence Mall, Philadelphia, PA 19106, (215)409-6600. www.constitutioncenter.org. through April 28, 2013. The tour will extend into 2016, and will visit Seattle, WA; St. Paul, MN; St. Louis Mo; Austin, TX; and Grand Rapids, MI.
Sandra Betrand is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.