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Hatchet, speakeasy help tell tale of Prohibition

Sunday, November 11, 2012 | 4:31 p.m. CST
This Oct. 10 photo shows lifesize pictures of mobsters Meyer Lansky, left, and Al Capone on display for visitors to Philadelphia's National Constitution Center's new exhibit, "American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," to pose for photos with. The exhibit runs through April 19 and will then embark on a four-year nationwide tour involving at least seven venues including St. Louis.

PHILADELPHIA — A hatchet used to bust up saloons, the verdict sheet from Al Capone's trial and lawman Eliot Ness' sworn oath of office are among the more sobering artifacts in a new exhibit documenting the driest period in U.S. history.

But the items help tell a lively tale as part of "American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." The installation now on view at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia also includes a re-created speakeasy, where visitors can learn the lingo and fashions of the Roaring '20s and how to dance the Charleston.

"We've never had as much fun building an exhibition," said Stephanie Reyer, one of its developers. "Of the 27 amendments we have to work with, this is by far the sexiest."

Exhibit organizers describe the 18th Amendment, which essentially banned alcohol from 1920 to 1933, as the country's "most colorful and complex constitutional hiccup." Yet they say the lessons of Prohibition remain relevant in current debates over issues such as legalizing marijuana and the role of government in private lives.

To that end, the exhibit aims to answer a simple question: "How did this happen?" And the first step, of course, was admitting the nation had a drinking problem.

In 1830, the average American downed 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor per year — three times current consumption. Women were among the imbibers, as evidenced by the exhibit's bottle of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound: The remedy for "female complaints" was nearly 21 percent alcohol.

A combination of social pressures led to the temperance movement headed by hatchet-wielding Carry Nation (sometimes spelled Carrie). Her weapon of choice and one of its victims — a mirror from a Kansas barroom — are both on display.

The exhibit uses dozens of artifacts and creative displays to propel the story forward, from lobbying and ratification to the emergence of rumrunners and organized crime. There's also a section on products that filled the alcoholic void, from Hires root beer to perfectly legal "malt syrup." Ahem.

An interactive quiz set amid "church pews" lets visitors see if they'd be considered a "dry" or a "wet." One custom-made video game illustrates the difficulties of intercepting illegal booze, while another tests knowledge of loopholes that permitted alcohol consumption.

Also on view: A letter from Susan B. Anthony seeking a partnership between suffragists and temperance crusaders, Pennsylvania's original ratification copy of the 18th Amendment and bootlegger Roy Olmstead's phone, the subject of a landmark wiretapping case.

The final sections of the exhibit deal with the repeal of Prohibition and its legacy, which includes the radical variations in liquor laws found among states today.

America's dry era left an "indelible mark" on the country, according to exhibit curator Daniel Okrent, author of "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition."

"And though it may have been a wild card in our constitutional history, it came into being through the invention and deployment of political tactics and strategies still in play today," Okrent said in a statement.

The exhibit, which Reyer described as the center's biggest and most ambitious, runs through April. It will then travel to museums in Seattle; St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis; Austin, Texas; and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Reyer hopes for at least one more stop.

"I'm trying to get it into bourbon country," she said. "I'd love to get it into Kentucky."


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