Caught red-handed: New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, ca. 1921.
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Wet or Dry?

Meryle Evans / December 2012

Philadelphia—The Roaring Twenties, the era of “Joe sent me,” speakeasies, bootleggers, mobsters, and flappers, is vividly re-created in “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” a lively and thought-provoking exhibit currently on display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The campaign to rid our nation of the “evil of drink” began with the 19th century temperance movement and culminated with the 18th amendment on January 16, 1919, that prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating beverages.

The early colonists brought a zest for alcohol to the New World, and by 1830 Americans were guzzling about 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor annually. To combat the devil rum, a coalition of ministers, suffragists, social reformers, and progressives sought to stem the all-male whiskey and hard cider saloon culture they considered a destructive force in American life. In a church setting with pews and pulpit, visitors to the exhibit can listen to temperance sermons and hymns like “Tell Your Mother I’ll Vote Dry” and take an interactive quiz to determine their own leanings toward wet or dry. In the late 19th century, if you favored votes for women, direct election of senators, social reforms, and lived in a rural setting, you probably would have been dry. The bottle-smashing hatchet of extremist Carrie Nation, who called her raids on saloons “hatchetations,” is on display, along with temperance propaganda from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Between 1870 and 1900, with a tremendous influx of immigrants, the number of saloons increased from 100,000 to 300,000, and anti-liquor forces concluded that only a constitutional amendment could make the country dry.

With the current craze for the Prohibition era captured by popular TV programs like Boardwalk Empire and exhibit curator Daniel Okrent’s book Last Call, the American Spirits exhibit brings to life the real personalities of the period—the rumrunner and bootlegger, gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Owen “Owney” Madden, whose iron knuckles are on display.

But speakeasies came up with clever schemes to outwit the enforcers. At New York City’s 21 Club, an elaborate shelving system could dispose of the entire contents of the back bar down a long shaft at the press of a button. A series of metal grates broke the bottles, releasing the incriminating booze down a cellar drain right into the sewer.

Ultimately the “Noble Experiment” fizzled and failed. A major factor was the Great Depression, when unemployment rose, federal income tax and capital gains revenues plummeted, and Congress saw relief in a tax on alcohol. With the support of newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition on December 5, 1933, and the nation toasted “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

After it closes at the National Constitution Center on April 28, American Spirits will travel to Seattle; St. Paul; St. Louis; Austin, Texas; and Grand Rapids, Michigan, but meanwhile, Philadelphians are enjoying a speakeasy renaissance at dozens of bars and cocktail lounges across the city.

At Village Whiskey, one of chef Jose Garces’ seven local restaurants, cocktails are classified Prohibition or Repeal. The former features classics such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan, while the latter includes novelties like The Atomizer, with rye whiskey, dry vermouth, ginger syrup, lemon, and orange bitters. The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company, named after the largest alcohol ring in the country, catagorizes cocktails from traditional (Easy Going) to adventurous (I Asked for Water, She Gave Me Gasoline).