It’s interesting how elections or social movements can create a swell that forces change. Less than 100 years ago, such a movement led to creating a “dry” America. Temperance supporters campaigned strongly to create and pass a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol in the United States. The group succeeded, as the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1920, thus creating an era of Prohibition.
Was it successful? Did Prohibition end the use of alcohol across the United States? The Durham Museum is hosting “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” exhibit through Jan. 29, which looks at the temperance movement and the eventual repeal of the 18th Amendment.
Alcohol use in the early days of the United States was rampant. In 1830, Americans averaged consuming 90 bottles of 80 proof alcohol.
Omaha had its share of some excellent breweries before Prohibition. Storz, Metz and Falstaff were produced in Omaha. The Omaha breweries were owned by German immigrants, who brought their native beer tastes to the United States.
As the temperance movement grew, the Anti-Saloon League and its supporters used propaganda to persuade voters to support the amendment to banish alcohol. The “dry” movement was led by notables Carry Nation and former Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan. Nation was known to take a baseball bat into saloons and swing away at bottles and more.
As efforts to ratify the 18th Amendment swept through the nation (an amendment required 75 percent of Congress and state legislatures for approval), the ground work was being set for breweries and distilleries to deal with being a “dry” nation. Anheuser-Busch switched to soda and other beverages. Coca Cola enjoyed a boom during Prohibition.
Not all business was legitimate. Prohibition brought about the growth of organized crime. Bootlegging became a way of providing booze for those willing to risk breaking the law.
“Speak easies” grew around the United States. They were secret clubs that required a password for entrance. Inside, bartenders created new mixed drinks using what they could. Dancing and bands were part of the speakeasy scene. The Charleston dance was popular during the 1920s.
It was during this time that Omaha’s most infamous organized crime boss became the most powerful man in the city. Tom Dennison ran the city’s crime syndicate, including alcohol distribution and sales, as well as prostitution.
The federal government sought to crack down on organized crime during this era. Eliot Ness was a Prohibition agent who led a team known as “The Untouchables.” He fought mobsters and his own agency, as corruption was well known with some agents.
The “American Spirits” exhibit displays mug shots of some of the better known criminals. Visitors can also have their mug shot taken with some of the mobsters.
The country started to turn against Prohibition during the early 1930s. The Great Depression hit in 1929. As efforts were taken to rebuild the nation, the federal government realized its tax base had suffered serious hits.
The 21st Amendment was ratified in 1933, ending Prohibition. The 18th Amendment became the only amendment to the Constitution to be repealed.
The damage of Prohibition was done, however. Several breweries failed in their efforts to restart their beer production. Farmers avoided developing vineyards for wine. The breweries and wineries that did rebuild quickly enjoyed success.
Today, craft breweries are among the major beer producers in the United States. The Omaha area has a few, including Lucky Bucket and Nebraska Brewing Company.
Was Prohibition a success? Or a black-eye in American history? You can make your own decision when you visit “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” at the Durham Museum.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Durham Museum for the complimentary admission to the exhibit. However, all views and opinions are ours.
For more information on the exhibit, as well as the other exhibits at Durham, please visit www.durhammuseum.org.