ST. LOUIS —
I’m not old enough to remember Prohibition. I never thought about the conditions that impelled the 18th Amendment. I wasn’t aware of how society was changed by it. Frankly, I just never thought much about it until I visited the Missouri History Museum’s exhibition “American Sprits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”
To begin with, guests are faced with a wall of bottles representing liquor consumption in 1830. At that time, the average American above the age of 15, consumed the equivalent of 7 gallons of pure alcohol every year. That works out to four shots of 80 proof liquor every day. Consumption then was at the highest level in American history — about three times today’s figures.
Temperance organizations were already active in Europe and taking hold in America. In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the most powerful and active groups, was founded. Carry Nation (and her hatchet) became the poster child of the movement’s history and she is highlighted — including one of her weapons — in this exhibition.
Founded by Protestant ministers in 1893, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) became the most powerful political enemy of “demon rum.” And, of course, men had the vote.
In the early history section of the exhibit, visitors can take a test to determine if they would have supported the “wets” or the “drys.” And they can enter a replica of a church to hear a fiery sermon by Billy Sunday on “God’s worst enemy” and “Hell’s best friend.”
The machinations of modern politicians have nothing on Wayne Wheeler, who was the chief strategist for the ASL. In a brilliant display, the course he negotiated to the constitutional amendment to ban the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol is graphically illustrated. It took seven years of political maneuvering, but on Jan. 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect. The many moves and round-aboutations required to reach this point are illustrated in “Wayne Wheeler’s Amazing Amendment Machine” — a Rube Goldberg path to Prohibition.
The effect was said to be success for two groups: Baptists and bootleggers. The drys had their law but the wets still managed to get their liquor.
Society underwent a sea change — the combined result of the end of World War I and Prohibition. Saloons, which had been the exclusive territory of men, were replaced by speakeasies where men and women mingled freely. Skirt hems went up; inhibitions went out the window. In big cities, another taboo was broken when races mixed in clubs called “black and tans” where jazz, dancing and drinking provided an atmosphere of equality in a world which, outside, was still strictly segregated. Another innovation — the “powder room” — was created. Saloons hadn’t needed them but now, jazz babies needed a place to straighten their hose and powder their noses.
Fashions in clothes changed and the language changed, too. Flappers also were called “Whoopee Mamas” and a dirty club or bar became a “crum-joint.”
Before Prohibition, the bartender’s manual at the Waldorf Hotel listed recipes for 513 drinks. With Prohibition, many of the ingredients were impossible to get. Bartenders relied on gin, cheap and easily made, mixed with syrups or cream to create cocktails like the Clover Club (gin, grenadine, lemon or lime juice, sugar and a whipped egg white; shaken, strained and topped with a maraschino cherry) and the Alexander (gin, crème de cacao and cream).
While the speakeasies were the best place to get a drink, if you knew the right words, you could order one in some regular restaurants. The secret: Order a ginger ale. When the server asked, “Imported or domestic,” a reply of “imported” would get you a cocktail.
How many movies have you seen where, at the shrill tweeting of police whistles signaling a raid, customers scramble to escape? Truth is, the proper response was to sit calmly at your table. The law didn’t prohibit drinking only the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcohol. This whole exhibition was packed with fascinating information.
The last major section of the exhibit highlights the rise of crime brought on by Prohibition. Here you’ll find Eliot Ness’ signed oath of office from 1926 and Al Capone’s guilty verdict from his conviction in Chicago in 1931.
The entire exhibition incorporates a number of interactive features from a lesson in how to dance the Charleston to, in this section, a photo op where guests join a police line-up, which includes gangsters Meyer Lansky, Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
St. Louis is the third stop on American Spirits’ four-year, seven-city tour — it will never be closer. And the St. Louis stop has something extra, a whole section on Missouri’s history with wine-making and beer brewing. Of course, Anheuser-Busch is prominent in this area. One of the most interesting artifacts is a 1930 red-and-white-striped, amphibious vehicle used by the brewing company to promote a non-alcoholic malt beverage it produced during Prohibition. The prototype was developed by the company’s vehicle department for military surveillance but World War I ended before it was put into use.
Prohibition lasted until the ratification of the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933. This amendment did, however, give states control over their own liquor laws, resulting in a hodge-podge of wet and dry states, dry counties in wet states and other variations on the theme. This was a fascinating period in our history and the exhibition is fun and educational.
If you want to see this super exhibit, you’ll have to hurry. Aug. 17 is its last day in St. Louis before it leaves for Indianapolis where it reopens Sept. 19.
St. Louis is a little more than a seven-hour drive from Edmond — four-lane all the way — a good long-weekend trip.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.