During the era of Prohibition, Americans could no longer manufacture, sell, or transport intoxicating beverages from 1920 until 1933. A new exhibit, Spirited: Prohibition in America, on view September 1st – October 20th at the Historical Museum, explores this tumultuous time in American history, when flappers and suffragists, bootleggers and temperance lobbyists, and legends, such as Al Capone and Carry Nation, took sides in the battle against the bottle. Organized by the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA, in partnership with Mid-American Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO, Spirited: Prohibition in America explores the era of Prohibition, when America went “dry.” Visitors will learn about the complex issues that led to the repeal through the 21st Amendment in 1933. Through the exhibition, visitors will learn about the amendment process, the changing role of liquor in American culture, Prohibition’s impact on the Roaring 20’s, the role of women, and how current liquor laws vary from state to state.
In 1830, the average American consumed 90 bottles – or about four shots a day – 0f 80-proof liquor each year. Saloons gained notoriety as the most destructive force in American culture, where men would drink away their families’ money. Following extensive campaigning and lobbying by the Anti-Saloon League along with groups representing women’s suffrage and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, on January 16, 1919, there 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and beginning January 17, 1920, Americans could no longer manufacture, sell, or transport intoxicating beverages. However the Volstead Act, the law enforcing the amendment, made exceptions for sacramental, medicinal, and industrial purposes as well as allowing families to “preserve fruit” through fermentation.
In the years following, the country was split between “wets” and “drys,” speakeasies flourished, legal authorities gave chase to gangsters, and many created inventive ways to circumvent the law. Governmental agencies, including the Prohibition Bureau and the Justice Department, charged with enforcing the Volstead act were ill equipped to deal with the flood of illegal booze. Along with the rampant law breaking, Prohibition brought unexpected cultural and societal shifts from the development of mixed-gendered speakeasies to the growth of organized crime syndicates into national enterprises.
The exhibition draws on the histories told from both sides of this divisive issue that riled passions and created volatile situations. In the end, after a decade of wide-spread corruption, wavering public opinion, and the need to generate revenue from an alcohol tax, the 18th Amendment became the first ever repealed. With the passing of the 21st Amendment, Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933 to a very different America. Today, Prohibition’s legacy can be traced through state laws regulating alcohol, created to avoid the excesses before Prohibition and the corruption and lawlessness experienced during the Roaring ‘20s.
Spirited: Prohibition in America is based on the exhibition American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, organized by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA, in collaboration with Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Spirited has been made possible through NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It has been adapted and toured by Mid-America Arts Alliance. Founded in 1972, Mid-America Arts Alliance is the oldest regional nonprofit arts organization in the United States. For more information, visit www.maaa.org or www.nehontheroad.org.