Philadelphia museum exhibit explores the rise and fall of Prohibition
Fans who have not gotten their fill of flappers, bootleggers and roaring '20s glitz and glamour from recent TV shows and movies like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and “Lawless” can delve a little deeper into the Prohibition era at a new exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
At "American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," which opens on Friday, visitors can find out about real-life legends like Al Capone, learn to dance the Charleston at a recreated speakeasy, join gangsters in a mock criminal lineup for a photo opportunity and play the role of a federal agent tracking down rumrunners from the seat of a speedboat in a custom video game.
The exhibit was about three years in the making, said Stephanie Reyer, vice president of exhibitions for the Center. “We knew this was a good story,” she said. “It captures the imagination of the American people,” covering everything from social change and popular culture, including music and clothing of the period, to important lessons in history about the temperance movement and how government works.
The 18th Amendment, which imposed the federal prohibition of alcohol, “is essentially the only amendment ever passed that limited personal freedom,” aside from the 13th, which limited slave ownership, Reyer said. “And it’s the only amendment ever to be repealed.”
Prohibition was the period from 1920 to 1933 when there was a federal law forbidding the making or selling of alcoholic beverages.
Daniel Okrent—the show’s curator and author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” the book that inspired “American Spirits”—said the exhibition highlights the impact of the American political process , which has affected everything from personal habits to tax policies, and also helps shed light on lesser-known luminaries of the era.
Wayne Wheeler, an attorney for the Anti-Saloon League—a lobbying organization for Prohibition—used his political skill to influence the government. He was the Karl Rove of his day, “the political genius that made it happen,” Okrent said. And Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who served as assistant attorney general for eight years during Prohibition, “was the best known woman in America at the time,” Okrent said, apart from actresses and singers. “Now,” he said, “nobody knows her.”
Displays will show why and how laws differ from state to state and how the idea of drinking responsibly has evolved since the 1930s. Some exhibits debunk myths, Reyer said, like one that allows visitors to sit in a recreated pew from an early 1900s church to take a quiz to find out if they would have been “wet” or “dry” sympathizers. She said people are often surprised to learn that many women during Prohibition would have voted “dry,” as the suffrage movement—which worked to gain women's right to vote—was aligned with the temperance movement.
The exhibit will feature more than 120 rare artifacts, including: temperance propaganda; original ratification copies of the 18th and 21st Amendments; authentic barware; original home manufacturing items used for making moonshine, homebrewed beer and other liquor; the hatchet used by Carry Nation, a colorful member of the temperance movement, during a barroom-smashing raid; and the phone used by Roy Olmstead, the defendant in a landmark wiretapping case, to run his bootlegging empire.
“They are real-life artifacts that really draw you in and put you in the time period,” said Reyer. “We've tried to make it playful, engaging and fun, [and] as accessible as possible. Every surface is a learning opportunity.”
Admission is $17.50 for adults, $16 for seniors and students, and $11 for children ages 4-12. The exhibit will run through April 28, 2013, after which it will tour a number of U.S. cities.
But stepping back in time does not end at the center’s exit.
Several bars and taverns that operated during the prohibition are in business today in the Philadelphia area, like the still family-owned McNally's Tavern—where a citation from a 1920s enforcement raid hangs by the door—and the Cherry Street Tavern that replaced its bar with a barber's chair during Prohibition. “But patrons were able to get more than a shave and a haircut,” according to The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, which lists Prohibition-era related activities on its website.
Visitors to the Eastern State Penitentiary can see Al Capone’s cell (complete with lavish paintings, polished desk and a high-end cabinet radio receiver), or stop by Betty's Speakeasy, a storefront and café where local beers and spirits are tucked into “Bootleggers” cupcakes.