by Jim Weaver
Less than a mile from my home is a friendly neighborhood bar, The Blue Bird. During the Prohibition Era (1920 to 1933) it was a speakeasy called Molly’s Tea Room and, as it is today, a popular spot for locals. When I’m there I like to think of how it must have been when Molly was in charge. I wonder if anyone actually drank tea.
The recent PBS documentary series “Prohibition” by Ken Burns, exposed millions of viewers to the history of the period. Now the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is the first to present a traveling exhibit called “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” Its the first comprehensive exhibition about America’s most colorful and complex constitutional issue. Spanning from the dawn of the temperance movement in the 1830s, through the Roaring ’20s, to the unprecedented repeal of a 18th constitutional amendment in 1933, this world-premiere exhibition brings the whole story of Prohibition vividly to life.
The exhibit features over 100 rare artifacts including flapper dresses, temperance propaganda, a 1929 Buick Marquette (mobster car), and original ratification copies of the 18th and 21st Amendments. There’s also a re-created speakeasy where you can learn to Charleston and explore the fashion, music, and culture of the Roaring ’20s.
The show also includes films, music, photos, and multimedia exhibits including the dazzling Wayne Wheeler’s Amazing Amendment Machine, a 20-foot-long, carnival-inspired contraption that traces how the temperance movement culminated in the 18th Amendment. There’s also a custom-built video game where you participate as a federal agent tracking down rumrunners.
America had a serious drinking problem in centuries past. Water was not always safe, but alcohol was. The Pilgrim’s ship Mayflower carried 10,000 barrels of wine for just 750 passengers and crew. People were drinking three times as much alcohol in the early 1800s than they do today. Alcoholism was rampant and it was destroying families and communities. Women, wives and mothers, took up the cause for “Temperance.” Spurred on by religious leaders the movement gained strength throughout the 19th Century. By 1920, there was enough political will not only to pass a constitutional amendment in Congress, but to get three quarters of the state legislatures to agree.
What was initially a noble cause, turned out to have unforeseen consequences. People did not stop drinking, in fact illegal alcohol proved very popular. Saloons had been for men only, but speakeasies attracted many women as well. There was illegal money to be made and organized crime began to flourish. After thirteen years, nearly everyone admitted that prohibition was a failure and the amendment was repealed.
You might think it ended then and there, but there are vestiges of prohibition still around today. Today, in Pennsylvania, I can only buy alcohol from a “Wine & Spirits Shoppe” a state operated establishment of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. The Board was established shortly after the repeal of the 13th Amendment to tax alcohol and to make it more difficult to purchase. There are still cities and counties across the country that are “dry” where no alcohol is sold and no bars can operate. Legal age limits on the purchase and consumption of alcohol are also a throwback to prohibition. Organized crime is still around too in other forms.
The exhibit “American Spirits” will run at the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, through April 28, 2013, before embarking on a nationwide tour to Seattle, WA; St. Paul, MN; St. Louis, MO; and Grand Rapids, MI.
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