American Spirits: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition

November 13, 2012 7:48:19 AM PST
As long as you're over 21 and aren't driving, the law says you're welcome to consume a moderate amount of alcohol. But for 15 years in the last century...producing, selling, possessing and consuming most alcohol was a crime, forbidden by constitutional amendment.

Prohibition was the law of the land from 1918 to 1933, yet quite a few Americans managed to find a way around that.

The system also made a number of willing lawbreakers wealthy and famous. You can encounter it all in "American Spirits: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition", daily through April 28th at the National Constitution Center.

The exhibit, created by the center's staff, was inspired by a book penned by Dan Okrent. It will be taken on the road to five other museums around the country when it leaves here.

Okrent told Action News that Prohibition had a fatal flaw - you can't stop something that people really want. The law declared consumable alcohol to be illegal, with exceptions for medicinal purposes and certain religious ceremonies. So a number of alcohol-enriched patent medicines sprang up. But so did a number of illegal distilling and import operations that quenched the nation's thirst for potable alcohol.

Atlantic City was famous for its ability to import foreign-made liquor, hidden by a corrupt administration and often using local police to get cases from boats offshore to trucks on land. That liquor usually found its way to Philadelphia to be cut, rebottled, and distributed.

The city was already the home of chemical firms which made legal alcohol for industrial purposes. It was a simple matter to secure that, color and flavor it, and sell it as liquor. Hence, Philadelphia's criminals were among the country's biggest suppliers.

Okrent says that despite Prohibition's repeal almost 90 years ago, its legacy remains. When the constitution was re-amended in 1933 to make liquor legal again, its regulation was specifically given to states.

The governor of Pennsylvania at that time was no fan of alcohol and determined to make it relatively hard to obtain. Some would argue that, despite efforts in recent years to make them more user-friendly, Pennsylvania's state-owned liquor stores do exactly that.

Okrent also argues that the mentality which gave us Prohibition also shows itself in other areas. He says prostitution is almost impossible to eradicate because, despite being illegal, there is always someone willing to pay for the service and someone willing to provide it.

"American Spirits: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition" is at the National Constitution Center through April 28th. This is a limited-time, extra-cost attraction and you need special tickets.

For more information or to get tickets, visit the National Constitution Center. You may also phone them at 215-409-6600.


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