Why the true story of Prohibition matters today
Every American has an impression of Prohibition, that 14-year stretch of constitutionally mandated abstinence. Its components usually include young women in flapper dresses dancing to the music of a jazz sextet; mobsters sporting fedoras, scowls, and thuggish street lingo; and federal agents in black cars screeching around corners in pursuit of fleeing gangsters who are in turn spraying a hail of Tommy-gun bullets in their wake.
All those things comprise the visual record and the soundtrack to an era, as offered to us by the Hollywood myth factory. All of them also happen to be accurate, at least in part.
But none of those images and sounds convey the story behind the Hollywood version—the true story of how Prohibition happened, and what Prohibition actually was.
This is what I wanted to do when the National Constitution Center asked me to curate this exhibition, to a large extent based on my 2010 book, Last Call. Working with the Center’s excellent exhibition staff, notably Vice President of Exhibitions Stephanie Reyer and Exhibit Developer Sarah Winski, I wanted to explore a number of questions little addressed today, but which are central to understanding this singular period in American history.
What led a nation that has always valued individual freedom to install in the Constitution an amendment that made it impossible to buy a legal glass of beer? Who were the political strategists who were able to twist the democratic process—entirely legally—to their own ends? What was life actually like during those 14 years that elapsed between the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which mandated Prohibition, and its repeal in late 1933? And, finally, how and why did repeal actually happen, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment marking the only time in U.S. history that a constitutional amendment was rendered inoperable?
American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition includes its share of flappers and mobsters; you can’t render the story of Prohibition accurately without them. But I think we successfully tell the deeper story, too.
We begin with a rendering of how serious a social problem drinking had become during the 19th century, and how it motivated an army of women to rise and try to stop it. We introduce the fantastically successful pressure group that tied the energy and commitment of those women to an anti-alcohol coalition that itself stretched from the Ku Klux Klan through the Progressive Party to the far-left Industrial Workers of the World. And then we get into the story of the Prohibition years themselves.
My colleagues at the Center really rose to the occasion by collecting a treasury of artifacts: bottles of so-called “medicinal liquor,” available to anyone who had three dollars to obtain a prescription from a cooperative physician (of whom there were thousands); “wine bricks,” consisting of dehydrated grape skins, stems, and seeds, packaged in a wrapper that warned purchasers not to add water and yeast and put in a dark place, lest it turn into wine; hollowed-out canes and books; and even mock cigars that disguised containers an individual could fill with booze.
We also introduce the visitor to a selection of individuals little known today, but who were, at the time, among the best known people in the country. Chief among these are Wayne B. Wheeler, the brilliant pro-Prohibition lobbyist who, according to the New York World, “could make the Senate of the United States sit up and beg”; and Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the assistant attorney general who was the highest ranking woman in the federal government and directed the national enforcement effort. Apart from the first lady and various stars of the entertainment industry, Willebrandt was likely the most famous woman in 1920s America.
Like Wheeler and Willebrandt themselves, most of the story of Prohibition has faded from our national consciousness.
But with American Spirits, we have retrieved it from the mists and myths of the past—and have demonstrated why it remains urgently relevant in a modern political culture that is still riven by debate concerning the proper role of government in the lives of the American people.
Daniel Okrent, former public editor of The New York Times and Pulitzer Prize finalist, is the best-selling author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. He is the curator of American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition at the National Constitution Center.
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