Prohibition exhibit is open at Philadelphia Constitution Center

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PHILADELPHIA -- For almost a century, suffragettes, preachers, populists, presidential candidates, progressives, conservatives and even the Ku Klux Klan, all railed against the evils of drink.

Eliminate "spiritous liquors" and, like magic, wife-beaters, vagrants, unruly workers and swarthy foreigners would all be wiped away, cleansing America of moral and alien scourges. Thus the passage, in 1919, of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the onset of Prohibition.

But it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, an era of flappers and gangsters, speakeasies and massive federal law enforcement bum-rushed the country headlong into the Great Depression.

By 1933, the bloom on the rose having been washed away by the oceans of beer dumped down the nation's storm sewers, the "Noble Experiment" ended with passage of the 21st Amendment -- repeal.

Happy days were here again.

This sweeping and quintessentially American story is the subject of "American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," an ambitious, self-curated show produced by the National Constitution Center, which runs through April 19 and will then embark on a four-year nationwide tour involving at least seven venues.

Curated by Daniel Okrent, historian, journalist, actor and author of "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," "American Spirits" seeks to educate and entertain, to bring back to life some of the nation's most vivid and powerful personalities, many utterly forgotten today, and to do so by focusing on that abstract touchstone, the U.S. Constitution.

Make no mistake, the story of Prohibition is one of the most romantic and theatrical stories embedded in the nation's founding document. It is also, as Mr. Okrent and the Constitution Center's exhibition head, Stephanie Reyer, make abundantly clear, a story intimately entwined with American identity, a story that echoes down to the present.

Concerned with surveillance and government invasion of privacy in the digital age? It all began with a wiretap placed on a Seattle bootlegger in 1923. The case eventually ended with the Supreme Court giving its blessing to electronic government snoops in the landmark decision Olmstead v. United States.

Seattle policeman-turned-bootlegger Roy Olmstead's actual phone, once tapped by G-men, is in this exhibition.

Mr. Okrent -- who says he really wanted to call his Prohibition history "How the Hell Did This Happen?" -- thinks of the whole saga as the culmination of a multitude of thunderheads producing one perfectly dry storm, shaken and stirred.

"It's not just a bunch of nasty, pinched-faced ladies who don't want their husbands to have any fun," he said in a phone interview from his Cape Cod home. "There was a reason for the movement. There were really horrible social problems created by alcoholism in the 19th century.

"We really made the effort [to show] that it's not just fun and funny. There was a reason for this to happen, and certainly the Hollywood version of what takes place during the '20s, which is all fun and games and shoot-ups -- this is an enormous part of the story. You can't avoid touching on those, but you can fill it in and give it more context.

"So I think and hope that people will be able to say: 'Hmmm, it's more complicated than I thought. I didn't realize that tax policy was essential to the passage of Prohibition and the repeal of Prohibition.' "

Yes, tax policy. Without a federal income tax, there would have been no Prohibition. As Okrent points out, the U.S. government floated on a sea of booze: Up to 40 percent of federal revenues were derived from the excise tax on alcohol. So step one of Prohibition was the 1913 ratification of the Constitution's 16th Amendment authorizing the federal income tax.

"The prohibitionists supported the Populists and the Progressives who advocated for an income tax. And it's the week after the first income tax is voted on by Congress in the spring of 1913 (that) the meeting takes place in the building that the Anti-Saloon League occupied near the Capitol and the resolution was passed: 'Now we can get an amendment to the Constitution' (barring the sale of alcohol). And one was absolutely causative. You could not have it without the income tax amendment.

"And the end of the story is, to localize a little bit, the repeal movement. First it was paid for by the DuPont family, overwhelmingly. They financed it and they led it. I found documents in their files at the Hagley Museum (in Wilmington), one DuPont brother writing to another DuPont brother, saying, 'If only we can bring back liquor and the liquor tax, we can get rid of this damnable income tax.' "

But it was not until the stock-market crash in 1929 and the onset of the Depression that the repeal movement gained unstoppable momentum. High unemployment devastated income tax revenues, while the weak stock market eliminated capital gains taxes.

"The government was running on fumes," said Mr. Okrent. "That led to the actual repeal because of the need to end the Depression. And many of the people who had supported Prohibition on moral grounds or social-welfare grounds, they switched their positions between 1930 and 1933 because they realized not only had it failed as social policy, but it was also making it very difficult for the country to function at all."

Along the way, Prohibition saw the creation of the first political "pressure group" -- the Anti-Saloon League -- which has served as the model for pressure groups to the present day. Wayne Wheeler, the league's Karl Rove-esque political powerhouse, was known to virtually everyone in the country.

Carrie Nation, hatchet-wielding temperance proponent, chopped her way through barrels of Kansas beer and saloon doors, creating an aura of righteous violence all around her. Her ax and a shattered saloon mirror grace the exhibition.

Temperance ushered in its flamboyant twin -- the Roaring '20s of Al Capone, flappers in cloche hats, rum runners like Roy McCoy and integrated entertainment joints like Harlem's Cotton Club. This was hardly an era of national introspection and moral certainty.

In fact, Mr. Okrent points out, only with repeal did Prohibition begin to alter American drinking habits. Government regulation proved far more effective than the outright ban on alcohol sale and transport.

The show at the Constitution Center, said exhibitions chief Ms. Reyer, presents this story in multiple ways.

Videos and interactive electronics play important roles, but the center has also put together imaginative environments. A church, complete with pews, allows visitors to pick famous preachers, including William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, to denounce drink.

A speakeasy invites visitors to belly up to the bar, hear stories from the barkeep and learn the Charleston. An office of the Justice Department provides visitors with an opportunity to learn about the rise of federal law enforcement power and the proliferation of gangsters like Capone and growing criminal syndicates.

Crime and corruption notwithstanding, said Ms. Reyer, "I've never had so much fun working on an exhibition."

state - lifestyle


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