The Roaring ‘20s Come Alive at the NCC’s American Spirits

Stepping back to the early 20th century, American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is the best opportunity you’ll ever have to journey to the Jazz Age. It is the latest blockbuster exhibit at the National Constitution Center, and runs through April 28, 2013.

It is a story of a political movement to ban alcoholic beverages that lasted 60 years, yet was repealed less than 14 years later.  The 18th Amendment is quite certainly the most foolish amendment ever placed into the Constitution, and not just in hindsight.  It is the only one to be repealed, and moreover, its repeal was not difficult.  The Volstead Act – the legislation passed to enforce it – was riddled with legal loopholes, such as a generous grandfather clause permitting any alcohol legally possessed prior to Prohibition, to be consumed at home, along with a host of other exceptions which made the law both unpopular and unenforceable, in many cities and states.

You will be magically transported into a speakeasy of the 1920s, and learn why they were appealing in the years after the Great War, to a young generation weary of wartime restrictions and imbued, both literally and figuratively, with high spirits – “let’s eat, drink, and be merry” – and the song “Ain’t We Got Fun” was a symbolic title of the Roaring ‘20s.   (Especially if you plan to see the upcoming movie, The Great Gatsby, this is the place to come first.) 

Their disdain for Prohibition was matched throughout the immigrant-heavy cities of the East and Midwest, where effective enforcement was almost nonexistent, and virtually vanished near the end.  In industrial Philadelphia, the vast amounts of legal alcohol - required for the city’s then booming-industrial sector - provided easy opportunities for bootleggers to divert -literally - tons of it for illicit alcohol.

In cities, “wets” were in control, and even if they hadn’t been, the appalling, gargantuan profits made by bootleggers meant that they could create a pandemic of corruption throughout the political system, from the governor of a state to mayors and down to the average cop on the street.  The federal government also made laughably low appropriations for enforcement, making the bribing of its Prohibition agents relatively easy.

Of course, the NCC has done its usual magnificent job in curating the exhibit: among the many incredible artifacts you’ll see are the various artful items used to conceal flasks, a jug of original Hires root beer (a substitute for liquor, invented by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires), symbols of both the Temperance and “Prohibition Repeal” political movements, and many photo opportunities with people you’d never imagine.  You’ll find out if you were a “dry” or a “wet”, and come to better understand a remarkable era in American life. 

Overall, you’ll travel through the Temperance movement that began to take off during the late 19th century, and end with “Happy Days Are Here Again”, the iconic theme song from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, in which he pledged “Prohibition repeal”.

He kept his promise – the 21st Amendment was in effect less than a year after he took office in 1933.  But ironically, as the NCC notes, “The repeal of Prohibition actually made it harder, not easier, to get alcohol.

Section 2 of the 21st Amendment returned the regulation of alcohol to the states and states responded with new laws intended to prevent the lawlessness of Prohibition and the excesses of what came before.”

We won’t ruin any more of the surprises for you, but be prepared to walk through a journey that you could never have imagined, in an era still viewed through the romantic glasses (literally and figuratively) of speakeasies… It also ushered in drastic, revolutionary changes in the interactions of young men and women socially, as the all-male saloons of the 19th century were replaced by the speakeasies, in which both males and females drank together.

Also, Prohibition has left many other legacies for us, beyond the romance of the Roaring ‘20s.  Organized crime, plea bargaining, speedboats, NASCAR, a larger Coast Guard, and the Caribbean cruise industry are among them. 

It’s educational as well as entertaining.  Don’t miss it!

National Constitution Center – American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition – Hours, Admissions and Pricing

There is no unique pricing for tickets for American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  You pay your flat admission fee, which grants you access not only to American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, but to the rest of the National Constitution Center's remarkable displays and exhibits.  We would recommend that you budget a full day for this exhibit, especially since the permanent exhibits are well worth visiting as well.

Adults – $17.50

Seniors ages 65 and up, and Students – $16

Children, ages 4 to 12 – $11 

The Story Of We the People which includes the live presentation of "Freedom Rising" is also included.