Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Prohibition Exhibit Open at Philadelphia Constitution Center

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Prohibition Exhibit Open at Philadelphia Constitution Center

Article excerpt

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. …

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