America’s Puritanical stripe has never been wider or weirder than it was during the era of Prohibition (1920-33), when the federal government—pretending to act upon “the will of the people”—passed the 18th Amendment of the Constitution, outlawing the manufacture, distribution, and sale of demon alcohol. But try as they might, it was a few other laws—the law of supply and demand; the law of unintended consequences; Murphy’s Law—that doomed the feds’ effort to plug the national spigot of debauchery and sin.
The rest, as they say, is history—which is why it makes sense for the Minnesota History Center to mount American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition . What’s a bit more surprising is that the organization that created this show (it’s a traveling exhibition) is the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Prohibition was one of the federal government’s biggest failures, after all, and the eventual repeal of the 18th amendment was one of the loudest “never mind”s in history.
And yet, the fact that Prohibition could be enacted in the first place, then reversed, is a fascinating case study in the strengths and weaknesses of the American democratic process, which—despite the entertaining presentation—is what American Spirits is all about.
The exhibit starts with a huge graphic of illuminated bottles informing us that the average citizen of the United States in 1800s consumed 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor per year. Big deal, you might think, because didn’t they use the stuff for things like stove fuel and sterilizing bullet wounds? No—they drank most of it, which is but a small indicator of how rowdy the parties were. John Adams, we are told, started each day with a tankard of hard cider. Women inoculated themselves against the indignities of being female with 80-proof “home remedies.” And men drank and gambled their lives away as if they had nothing better to do.
What follows is a flurry of propaganda: posters, billets, advertisements, testimonials—and even early film footage—alerting the public to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. “The Saloon is the most destructive force in American life,” reads one quote. Cue the killjoys—The Anti-Saloon League, the Temperance Movement, Eliza Thompson, Rev. Billy Sunday—and, eventually, a name you’ve probably never heard of: Wayne E. Wheeler.
Wheeler—head lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League and chief architect of the 18th Amendment—is the guy who took a small minority’s concern over alcoholism and transformed it into a federal mandate. That’s not an easy feat. Passing a Constitutional amendment is a complicated process—and, as I mentioned, one of the main purposes of this exhibit it to explain—in a fun way—how that process works.
The Constitution, unfortunately, is not a very entertaining document. As with all such edu-tainment exhibits, the trick is how well the bitter taste of education is disguised by the sweet syrup of entertainment. The reality of the American political process is a particularly difficult pill to swallow, though, so it’s no surprise that the candy coating here is laid on thick and gooey.
“Wayne E. Wheeler’s Amazing Amendment Machine” is a huge, steampunk-ish game device that—through various pulleys, levers and visual aids—attempts to illustrate the complex political machinations behind passage of the 18th amendment, from coalition-building to election targeting to media manipulation, influence peddling, and, eventually, voting and passage of the bill.
Unfortunately, the least interesting thing about Prohibition is the law. It’s the gangsters, speakeasies, rum-runners, flappers, and all the other manifestations of defiance and debauchery that people love about the era. So, in American Spirits , you can get your mug shot taken with a lineup of gangsters—then email it to your friends! You can play a simple but amusing video game that lets you pilot a boat and capture illegal rum-runners. You can play a Q&A game that tells you all the many legal ways alcohol could be legally consumed during Prohibition (doctors in the 1920s started the list of ailments that today’s medical marijuana advocates have so creatively expanded). And you can sit in a makeshift speakeasy, where the kids can learn how to make such common drinks as a martini or daiquiri, as well as a “Prince of Wales” and something called a “Widow’s Kiss.” And, of course, you can try to learn the Charleston on a dance floor where the steps are all laid out for you. (Good luck following them.)
Minnesota’s role in the re-inebriation of the nation isn’t a prominent part of the exhibit, but it isn’t completely ignored. There’s an homage to Minnesota 13, a high-quality corn liquor that was popular nationwide, and our state’s entrepreneurial spirit is celebrated with the observation that, during the 1920s, practically every basement in Minnesota had an operating still.
In general, American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition adopts the common narrative that Prohibition was a moral crusade against public drunkenness and the impact of alcohol on the stability of the American family. What the exhibit glosses over is industrialism’s impact on the effort to sober the nation up. The need for factory workers to show up on time and operate heavy machinery without losing body parts was an important factor in the perception that habitual drunkenness was a growing health risk. But it wasn’t all about health and morals; it was about profit too. Alcohol consumption has many adverse affects—domestic violence, liver disease, impaired judgment, and public embarrassment among them—but the government didn’t really start to care about the downside of the public’s drinking habits until it began affecting the nation’s business productivity. America can tolerate many things, but a loss of productivity is not one of them. Ironically, it was also big businessmen—particularly John D. Rockefeller Jr.—who recognized Prohibition’s failure and eventually argued in favor of repeal.
Be that as it may, American Spirits does a commendable job of looking at Prohibition as both a cultural phenomenon and object lesson in the limits of government overreach.
A tip: Bring your reading glasses if you go, because there are lots of placards and captions to digest (the educational stuff) while you’re wallowing in all that wonderful nostalgia.
American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition at the Minnesota History Center runs from Nov. 8-Mar. 16, 2014.