WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Two of the U.S. Constitution’s Amendments are about alcohol — one to ban it and one to undo the ban.
“American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” which first brought the story of the Prohibition era to life at the National Constitution Center in 2012, is back in Philadelphia through July 16.
The 5,000-square-foot blockbuster of an exhibit features over 100 artifacts, from the dawn of the temperance movement, through the Roaring ’20s and the unprecedented repeal of a Constitutional Amendment, including:
A modified “Whiskey Six” six-cylinder car used by bootleggers to hide and transport illegal booze and drive fast enough to evade authorities. This practice of souping up cars sparked America’s love affair with auto racing, leading to the formation of NASCAR.
Original ratification copies of the 18th and 21st Amendments.
Flapper dresses, cocktail couture and other women’s and men’s fashion accessories from the 1920s.
Home manufacturing items with which Americans made their own beer and liquor.
An official guilty verdict against Al Capone, convicting the infamous crime boss of tax evasion.
An angry letter written in 1921 to Andrew Volstead, the U.S. Representative from Minnesota that introduced the National Prohibition Act of 1919, which led to the 18th Amendment. “That people like you are enabled to enact your narrow views into laws, simply because the average citizen is too busy to prevent it, is an evil in the system of government which some day will be blotted out,” the typewritten letter says. “The people are beginning to wake up, and when they do and realize what you have put across, they’ll blot you out of political existence.”
Volstead was out of Congress less than two years after the letter was written, but not before he served in the House of Representatives 20 years. His house is a National Historic Landmark.
An old-school candlestick telephone used by former Seattle police officer Roy Olmstead to operate his bootlegging empire. He was the plaintiff in Olmstead vs. United States, one of the most important Fourth Amendment cases to arise during Prohibition.
Why was booze made illegal?
Check out the displays about alcohol’s impact on American society in the 1800s. Apparently 1830 was the highest year of per capita consumption on record — drastically different compared to today.
Part of the exhibit involves sitting in a pew of a recreated early-1900s church and learning about the rise of the Anti-Saloon League. However the temperance movement was more complicated than moral outrage over drunken bad behavior. Take a quiz to see if you would have been a “wet” (opposed to prohibition) or a “dry” (in support of prohibition) 100 years ago.
So speakeasies were illegal bars?
The 18th Amendment outlawed production, importation, transportation and sale of all alcoholic beverages, starting in 1920. In “American Spirits” you can step inside a recreated speakeasy to learn the Charleston and explore the music, fashion and culture that made the ’20s roar.
Also, see if you would know what could and could not be consumed under the rules in the “Is it Legal?” interactive quiz.
What other visitor experience elements should I look for?
Play a federal Prohibition agent chasing rumrunners in a custom-built video game.
Join gangsters Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in a criminal line up for a photo opportunity.
View a newsreel reporting on the latest repeal-related events, projected in a 1930s-style theater.
References to the women’s suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Where in Philly is the National Constitution Center?
525 Arch St. on Independence Mall.
When can I go?
“American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” continues through July 16. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
How much are tickets?
$17.50, $14 for youths 6-18, free for members, active military personnel and children 5 and under.