Thursday, September 29, 2011

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathtub Gin

By Annmarie Dean

Imagine not being able to walk into a bar and order a beer. Instead, walk up to a locked steel door, someone on the other side opens a peephole and asks you for the password to get inside. After the password is whispered, it is a speakeasy after all, the locked door opens and entertainment and booze are abundant. The air is seasoned with jazz music full of propulsive rhythms and improvisation. People in attendance include women wearing slinky knee-length dresses and chin-length bobbed hair sipping on illegal sidecars and men dressed in suits drinking illegal old fashions. That is the picture painted in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s three-part documentary, Prohibition; the series premiers on WNED-TV at 9 p.m. on Oct. 2, 3 and 4.

Citizens of Detroit heeding a "last call" in the final days before Prohibition went into effect, 1920. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.Alcohol has played a prevalent role in America’s rich culture and history. In fact, the hull of the Mayflower, which carried the pilgrims to Plymouth, Massachusetts, was filled with barrels of beer. Narrator Peter Coyote says that “for most of the nation’s history alcohol was as American as apple pie.”

Alcohol perhaps played too large a role in society at the turn of the century and lead to the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League, both of whom spearheaded the crusade for Prohibition. After much lobbying, the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution was ratified in 1919. The Amendment prevented the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors and the Volstead Act defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than .5 percent alcohol by volume. Overnight, Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into outlaws.

A so-called "flapper" flouts the Volstead Act by carrying a whiskey flask in her garter, ca 1920s. Credit: John Binder Collection.As with any law, loop holes around the Eighteenth Amendment abound, but you’ll have to tune in to learn all about that. Of course there were people who outright broke the law, the mobsters and infamous Chicago Outfit with Al “Scarface” Capone, George Remus in Cincinnati and many other colorful characters. In fact, the list of characters in the series is very eclectic, among the very many profiled: Carrie Nation who wielded a hatchet and bible while destroying bars, Mabel Walker Willebrandt known as the “First Lady of the Law,” Al Smith, Governor of New York and presidential hopeful in 1928, Lois Long, writer for The New Yorker under the pseudonym “Lipstick,” and Pauline Sabin, founder of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

PROH-5The series is absolutely fantastic! I highly suggest that you tune in or set your DVR to make sure that you don’t miss a minute of this historic yet entertaining series. The complex stories of the years leading up to and following this “Nobel Experiment” are just as fascinating as the Roaring Twenties.

Are you looking forward to this exciting premier? Do you have any family stories to share about Prohibition? Feel free to comment below.

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