Sunday, January 26, 2014

Learning about Prohibition

In a recent posting I mentioned going to Minnesota History Center. The reason for that visit was to see the exhibit about Prohibition and then to attend a concert by the Rose Ensemble featuring songs about drinking and songs against drinking alcohol.(Note: the program for the Rose Ensemble carries a message to the audience that alcoholism is not a joke or should not be belittled, but that we should know about the culture associated with drinking and not drinking,)

Prohibition started started in the United States on January 20, 1920. The starting date was one year after the 18th constitutional amendment was passed by a state. That required 36 states to adopt the amendment and Nebraska became the 36th state on January 19, 1919. Minnesota became the 37th on January 20, 1919. The gap of a year was necessary in order to enact the legislation to regulate Prohibition.

This legislation was commonly known as the Volstead Act, named after a Republican member of the House of Representatives who came from southwest Minnesota. The Volstead Act made it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell liquor, but it was not illegal to drink liquor.This Minnesota connection has always made Prohibition of special topic in history in Minnesota.

Also much to surprise of many, illegal liquor included beer and wine, except for sacramental wine. The inclusion of beer and wine into prohibition came as a surprise to many that had favored its enactment.

The cry for Prohibition had been building for years. One exhibit shows how much alcohol Americans drank is 1830.

 What is never mentioned when the amount of alcohol is discussed is that beer, wine, and cider were consumed because water was not safe and a huge source of illness. Public health history is full of stories about how hard it was to convince public officials to establish safe water systems and at least in the Midwest United States this did not really start until the early 20th century.

The exhibit included a growler.

 A growler was used to carry beer home from the saloon or would also we used by workmen to take beer to work. Lard was smeared on the side to control the foaming of the beer and thus increase the amount of beer that could be purchased and carried.

Another thing I didn't know is that a major political effort in front of prohibition was the establishment of income tax -- for something had to replace the revenue from alcohol tax.

One of the early proponents of Prohibition was the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

At this time women did not have the right to vote in the United States, and the women associated with this movement quickly figured out they would have no political power unless they could vote. Thus women's suffrage quickly became linked with the Prohibition question.

 At least in Minnesota the WCTU also advocated for kindergartens and other progressive social changes. This movement from being a one-issue organization led to the development of the Anti-Saloon League. Prohibition was all the Anti-Saloon League wanted and as the exhibit says, the Anti-Saloon League made strange bedfellows in this effort.

One group with which the Anti-Saloon League joined was the Nativists. That is what anti-immigration folks were called then.

In case the print is too small, it says Prohibition, in the view of the Nativists, would make life less comfortable for the Germans, Irish, Italians, and Jews. An equably coalition, in my way of thinking, was made with the Ku Klux Klan.

The most famous person from this Anti-Saloon League is Carrie Nation. She was from Kansas and threw bricks through the windows of saloons and used a hatchet to break up the bars inside the building.

The sign under the picture says she had the muscles of a stevedore, the face of prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.

Well, as noted above, with the use of a lot of political persuasion and dirty politics which makes the present era look almost innocence, Prohibition passed. It is said, using great alliteration, that the only people happy were the Baptists and the Bootleggers.

Near here was a little game to play to learn if one knew how Prohibition worked. Not the best video I've ever done but it's hard to shoot a video and play a game at the same time!

 The next part of this exhibit introduces one to the speakeasy -- the place where one went to drink -- remember drinking wasn't illegal. I also learned that up to this time the Minnesota Highway Patrol only made sure things were safe on the roads and the troopers were also there to help stranded motorists.

Prohibition turned this patrol and probably many in other states into law enforcement agencies.

And there was plenty to do in Minnesota. This state had many German immigrants who knew how to make good beer, it had lots of good water, it had lots of good corn to make moonshine, and a rather impervious border with Canada where Prohibition was not in place.

Rather quickly there was a cry to end Prohibition, but for awhile no one believed that could be possible. Then suddenly in the early 1930s it was all gone. Why? This is my explanation, not a historians. The economic depression that began in 1929 led to a sudden drop in income and equal drop in income tax and snap! bang! Prohibition was gone.

States retained a right to make laws about liquor and many of them remained "dry." Kansas, the home of Carrie Nation, was a dry state for a long time. I remember once flying on plane between Minnesota and Texas and the flight attendants stopping serving drinks while in "Kansas air space."

Here are a couple of funny examples shown in the exhibit.

Woe to anyone who used swear words in a North Carolina bar.

Apparently this law is still in effect -- has anyone seen liquor advertisement in California that are gaudy?

The Rose Ensemble concert was held in an auditorium in the History Center. As were welcomed at the ticket desk, each was given a drink holder with this insignia:

The Rose Ensemble is noted for presentation of early classical music so this concert is quite a departure from its usual repertoire. The musicians don't just stand there and sing. Some songs are presented by all, some are presented by a soloist, and some by 2-3 musicians. They are accompanied by a piano, guitar and bass.

The first act was presented in late 19th century costume, the 2nd act is 1920s clothing.

One song I enjoyed was Bevo.

The title is a play on words for the slavic word, piwo, meaning beer.

I couldn't quite figure what would be the Minnesota Battle Hymn. Well, like this:

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Minn-e-sota shall by dry.

I didn't know Irving Berlin wrote songs from the genre. One is "I'll See You in C-U-B-A." Apparently the fashionable went to Cuba for legal drinking vacations.

The last song presented was the Modranska Polka, commonly called in the Midwest as the Beer Barrel Polka. I've known this song all my life. I found one of the musicians and told her I had heard this song being played in the Rynek in Warsaw last summer. She thanked me for sharing that and went on to say that for anyone in the Midwest the Beer Barrel Polka is in our genes.

A great afternoon and evening at the History Center.

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