Park City Museum exhibit pops the cork on Prohibition
The 18th Amendment ratified 100 years ago
One of the simple pleasures in life is being able to meet friends at a local bar and enjoy a cocktail or two.
What would it be like if something like that was taken away not only for a weekend, but for 13 years? American citizens knew exactly what life without liquor was like 100 years ago this year.
A new exhibit called “Spirited: Prohibition in America” at the Park City Museum examines, which is up through May 25, details the events and shifts in the American culture paradigms that came with the passing of the 18th Amendment, said Courtney Titus, curator of collections and exhibits.
“We need to be clear that Prohibition was the outlawing of the manufacturing, transporting and selling of alcoholic beverages during this time,” Titus told The Park Record during an exhibit tour. “It is interesting to note that it wasn’t illegal to consume these beverages. You just couldn’t make, sell or transport them.”
The amendment went into effect nationwide on Jan. 17, 1920, but Utah had been dry nearly two-and-a-half years prior.
“Our anti-alcohol laws went into effect on Aug. 1, 1917,” Titus said.
“Spirited” is a chronological exhibit that starts pre-Prohibition and discusses how “dry” legislation came to be.
“It examines what was going on in our culture at the time to make people want to make alcohol illegal,” Titus said. “It shows how alcohol was everywhere, and documents the rise of the saloon.”
The saloon culture allowed men a place where they could socialize and relax after work, because women weren’t allowed in the facilities.
“While saloons were called community centers by some, they also served as places where men could avoid their families and responsibilities at home,” Titus said. “It is theorized that saloons also encouraged alcohol and domestic abuse.”
Consequently, the beginning of the anti-alcohol protests and Temperance Movement started with women.
The Temperance Movement is documented as a organized effort to encourage moderation in the consumption of liquor, Titus said.
“The women were sick and tired of the abuse and neglect of themselves and their families,” she said. “But because the women didn’t have the right to vote at that time, they didn’t get too far with the crusade. Although they started things going, they weren’t the reason why the 18th Amendment passed.”
The man responsible for that historic event was attorney and prohibitionist Wayne B. Wheeler, a member of the Anti-Saloon League, an organization that lobbied for prohibition.
“There is a section of the exhibit that details the actions Wheeler and his allies took throughout the years to make is possible to pass the 18th Amendment,” Titus said.
Once the amendment was ratified, it needed laws to enforce it. And that’s where the Volstead Act, known now as the National Prohibition Act, came into play.
“The Volstead Act was written in very general terms on purpose, and it also had a lot of loopholes,” Titus explained. “While alcohol as a beverage was illegal, it was legal for medicinal and religious purposes.”
One of the exhibit’s interactive kiosks tests people’s knowledge about what was or not legal under the Volstead Act.
“It can be really tricky, because the wording is so vague,” Titus said.
Another issue the exhibit addresses is the different changes Prohibition caused in American culture.
“Instead of saloons, speakeasies began to pop up, and unlike saloons, women were accepted into speakeasies,” Titus said. “In fact, men and women would socialize together.”
Soon afterwards musicians began playing live jazz music in these venues, which would usher in the nightclub.
“The music was often performed by African-American musicians and people danced to the music,” Titus said.
One famous dance was the Charleston, and the exhibit gives viewers step-by-step instruction on how to do the iconic craze.
“The dancing and speakeasy scene also led to a change in fashion, both in clothes and hairstyles, and accessories,” Titus said.
In the end, Prohibition failed and the last sections of the exhibit explores why.
“One reason was the way people legally took advantage of the law’s loopholes to sell medicinal alcohol for consumption,” Titus said.
Of course there was the illegal side that included the rise of bootlegging and organized crime. Homemade stills and bathtub gin were some of the results.
“Unfortunately, these also proved dangerous,” Titus said. “Since making alcoholic beverages was illegal, no one could regulate or control the quality.”
Sometimes people would attempt to turn industrial alcohol, which was legal to purchase, into drinkable alcohol.
“Since there was so many contaminates in industrial alcohol, many of the stills weren’t able remove the poisons,” Titus said. “There were many cases of people going blind or dying because they consumed homemade alcohol.”
Still, other capitalistic minds created other drinkable options during this time.
“This showed up with soft drinks, Kool-Ade, grape juice and Near Bear, all of which are are still a staple of our drinking habits today,” Titus said.
As far as the law-enforcement history of Prohibition, “Spirited” gives insight on the criminals and the law-enforcement agents who either did their best to enforce the laws or succumb to corruption.
“Interestingly enough, once Prohibition was repealed, it actually became more difficult to get a drink because a lot of laws were put into place to regulate alcohol,” Titus said.
“Spirited” is one of the largest exhibits to show at the Park City Museum.
“I actually had to leave out two sections because it wouldn’t fit in the gallery,” Titus said.
The exhibit is based on another exhibit that is at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“It was adapted into a tour by Mid-American Arts Alliance, which is where we get a lot of our exhibits,” Titus said.
The Park City Museum was able to show “Spirited” through NEH on the Road, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“Resources like this are important for making sure small museums like us get exhibits like this,” Titus said. “We are happy that they are a resource for us.”
In addition to the display, the Park City Museum will present a couple of events that will focus on Prohibition.
Historian and journalist John Feinauer will present a Prohibition lecture at 5 p.m. on May 4. And Rob Brooke will give a lecture about alcohol’s influence in Park City’s evolution from 5-6 p.m. on May 24. Both events are free and open to the public.
For information, visit http://www.parkcityhistory.org.
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