National Constitution Center exhibit focuses on Prohibition

A "Mr. Dry" bar set from around 1920 will be among the artifacts displayed at the National Constitution Center.
A "Mr. Dry" bar set from around 1920 will be among the artifacts displayed at the National Constitution Center.
Posted: August 02, 2012

The entrance to the auditorium at the National Constitution Center was beset by faux demonstrators Tuesday morning, a ring of young women carrying signs denouncing the evils of drink.

Inside, a raucous jazz quartet from Bucks County's Pennsbury High School filled the room with Prohibition-era tunes. Constitution Center marketing staffers were decked out in flapper feathers and red dresses.

All the hubbub was in service to the Constitution's 18th Amendment - and the center's big fall exhibition, "American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," which will open Oct. 19 and run through April 28, 2013.

The show, which the center is mounting itself, was announced at a news conference featuring noisy theatrics and an absence of alcoholic refreshments.

After Philadelphia, "American Spirits" will travel to at least five other venues, in St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis; Austin, Texas; Seattle; and Grand Rapids, Mich. David Eisner, president and chief executive of the center, said negotiations were under way for two additional tour cities.

The show - put together by Daniel Okrent, a consultant and chronicler of Prohibition, and the center's vice president for exhibitions, Stephanie Reyer - is partly funded by a $400,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. While no private sponsors have bellied up to the bar as yet, a number of marketing partners are engaged, including Philly Beer Week, the nonprofit and decidedly non-dry consortium of local beer-business interests.

The exhibition itself will be marked by theatrics. In a re-created speakeasy (complete with bar, dance floor, bandstand, and powder room), an actor portraying a bartender will expound on Prohibition-era life. Visitors will be able to learn the Charleston.

On opening night, Oct. 18, those over 18 will be able to attend a "Bootlegger's Ball."

An installation featuring a re-created church pew will give visitors the opportunity to learn about the rise of the Anti-Saloon League, the pressure group that forced the country into Prohibition with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified Jan. 16, 1919, and effective Jan. 17, 1920.

In addition to an array of interactive elements, the exhibition will feature about 120 historical artifacts - everything from an ax wielded by Carrie Nation as she broke up saloons in Kansas, to a certificate accompanying a case of beer sent to the White House when Prohibition finally was repealed in 1933.

While "American Spirits" is not the first exhibition curated by the center, it is by far the largest and most ambitious.

"Prohibition is the Constitution's most fascinating story," said Eisner, noting that the story weaves together the rise of the women's suffrage movement, the imposition of the federal income tax, and the "most active era" of constitutional amendments since the passage of the Bill of Rights.

Okrent, who was on hand for the news conference, said the title of his prizewinning 2010 history of Prohibition, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, was the choice of his publisher.

His proposed title was How the Hell Did That Happen? This exhibition, he said, will provide some answers.


Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @SPSalisbury.

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