The History Museum's 'American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition' is Rich and Fascinating
The newest exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” which opens today, Saturday, April 26 and continues through August 17, begins with the sobering statement, “America had a drinking problem.” On average, Americans in 1830 drank seven gallons of pure alcohol each year, equal to about 90 bottles of 80 proof liquor. It was a problem that required some kind of action. Everyone knows what came next—Prohibition—but visitors to the exhibit will be amazed at how little they actually know about this colorful and complicated period in the nation’s history, and the lessons that our prohibition history can teach us.
The first section brings the American binge into clear focus. In rural America, the whole family could have a drink from a barrel of hard cider sat by the door, while in cities a bell tolled at 11am and 4pm, signaling “grog time,” when workers could take a break and get their drink on. Middle and upper classes viewed social drinking in the home as sophisticated and respectable, and women drank medicinal alcohol for “female problems.”
As immigrants poured into the U.S. during the latter third of the 1800s, the number of saloons tripled and beer manufacturers—like Anheuser-Busch—prospered and grew. Artifacts on view include a Growler-style pail from the 1890s used to carry beer from saloon to home, drinking glasses and artwork commissioned by Anheuser-Busch to display in thousands of saloons across the country, and a decanter, wine glasses, and other glassware that might have been found in a middle or upper class home.
The Temperance League would rise from the alcohol quagmire. Championing everything from moderation to total abstinence, the TL did not yet envision absolute prohibition, but a significant event changed the course of the temperance movement when a group of women, led by Eliza Thompson, went to each of the saloons in Hillsboro, Ohio, knelt in the snow and prayed. Within a few days, 13 of the town’s saloons shut their doors. It was a major victory, and more significantly, the women realized that if they had the right to vote, they could have a much deeper impact, so they joined forces with the suffragists. Many artifacts document this period, as well as presenting a photo op for visitors posing with cutouts of Temperance League members.
The TL gave rise to the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), led by Protestant ministers. In this section—we’ll call it the propaganda room—the stern faces of Carrie Nations, Billy Sunday and others dourly look down on visitors. A hatchet used by Nations is displayed beneath her large portrait, while a copy of Sunday’s “booze” sermon with handwritten notes is displayed beneath his. Temperance leagues used everything at their disposal to win the day. Posters, flyers, and artwork are displayed on the walls with moral messages that aimed for the heart while others stressed the negative health effects of damaged livers. Others were simply to scare the bottle out of one’s hand, such as the claim that as alcohol passed down your throat it burned off the skin.
Visitors can sit in re-created, turn-of-the-century church pews and read about the ASL’s rise to prominence, accomplished largely by joining with other groups regardless of the other groups’ main interest, so long as they supported prohibition. Even the KKK was embraced for their pro-prohibition stance, who used the stereotype of the “drunken Negro” to demonize African-Americans and protect their own power in the segregated South. One of the pews has a hymnal titled, “Temperance and Prohibition Songbook,” with song titles like “Down in De Bottom ob de Glass” (presumably raising the fearsome specter of drunk “negroes” again), and “Tell Mother I’ll Vote Dry.” They even utilized film, as in the short silent film (small segment above) about a husband and father in the clutches of alcohol which causes him to neglect his family, apparently to the point of his daughter’s death.
With their confidence bolstered by winning many smaller battles within some states, the Temperance League set their sights on the grand prize—federal law. Wayne B. Wheeler—the chief lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League—was tireless in his dogged pursuit of nothing less than a Constitutional amendment. To illustrate the process, “Wayne Wheeler’s Amazing Amendment Machine” is a carnival contraption twenty-feet-long and eight-feet-tall with moving parts, bells, and whistles that follows the birth of Prohibition from its origins in 1913 to the 18th Amendment’s ratification. It’s an amusing, informative and fascinating device.
With prohibition in effect, speakeasies sprang up and proliferated. The exhibit recreates a speakeasy complete with a bar, tables and chairs, and a dance floor where guests can learn the Charleston while a film plays showing the activity inside one of these hidden watering holes. Examples of flapper dresses and other accoutrements are on display, as well as a “powder room” for the ladies. For the first time, makeup was marketed as a positive, beautifying product, versus its previous reputation as a product meant to hide flaws. It’s an interesting and somewhat spectacular display, only lacking the hidden entryway requiring a secret password that we’ve come to expect from films that have depicted them.
Throughout the remainder of the exhibit, museum-goers will see a moonshine still, rifle through the personnel records of government agents, see the gallery of rogues, drive a speed boat with a video game display as a government agent chasing down rum runners and see many more artifacts such as a small tin for Pabst cheese—which that they aged in their factory basements— as well as see Busch Ginger Ale and Bevo bottles (non-alcoholic beverages the brewer marketed to survive the beer drought). Even the original Bevo car used as a marketing tool is on display.
There’s also a lot more information. Not only will you see on display a bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound—a successful patent medicine marketed to women as a remedy for “female complaints” that contained 20.6 percent alcohol in its 14-ounce bottle—but you’ll learn that doctors could write 100 prescriptions per month for alcohol to treat a variety of ailments, and churches and synagogues, which were still allowed wine for sacramental uses, bought way more than they needed and allowed congregates and non-congregates to acquire it for holy and non-holy events, thereby becoming bootleggers themselves.
It was said two groups benefited from prohibition: Baptists and Bootleggers. We can now add visitors to the Missouri History Museum to that list. This is an epic exhibit that can easily fascinate and thoroughly inform on this amusing but turbulent time in American history.
“American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” created by the National Constitution Center with a special St. Louis section curated by MHMs Sharon Smith, continues through August 17. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for seniors, students and active military, and free for those 18 and younger. For more information, visit the Missouri History Museum website.
Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly