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Home / Spirited Cedar Rapids exhibit at The History Center serves new perspectives on alcohol in America
CEDAR RAPIDS — In 1830, the average American drank 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor each year — about four shots per day.
From its inception, America had a different relationship with alcohol than many countries. In its fledgling colony days, European visitors took note of American habits with hard liquor.
“Early on, drinking water couldn’t always be trusted, so it made sense to drink wine as opposed to water,” said Tara Templeman, curator for The History Center. “But it became part of the culture. … It turned into this issue where everyone drank all the time, including children.”
With the advent of heavy machinery and the popularity of cars, drinking posed more danger.
Eventually, women had had enough. Through a coalition of women’s voices, evangelists, saloon busters and politicians, the 18th Amendment became the first amendment that did not guarantee a freedom, but rather mitigated one.
Spirited: Prohibition in America, a nationally touring exhibit at The History Center from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, explores a tumultuous time in American history where “wets” and “drys” fought a battle of the bottle in a war that would change the fabric of America, impacting how women and African Americans participated in society. The 7,000-pound exhibit, transported in 22 crates, takes up most of The History Center’s first and second floor.
Where: The History Center, 800 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids.
Hours: Tuesday from 12 to 4 p.m., Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m., Friday from 12 to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: Admission to the museum is $7 for the general public, $5 for students and free for members of The History Center.
Details: The exhibit will be open to the public through Aug. 11. The History Center will be close from Aug. 12 to 27 to de-install the exhibit.
The exhibit is organized by the National Constitution Center in partnership with the Mid-America Arts Alliance.
How it started
Though reasons for higher alcohol consumption started as practical, drinking soon became part of a culture in the United States that later led to the rise and fall of Prohibition.
Perhaps it’s not surprising for a country where colonists arrived with much more wine and beer than water. The Arbella arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 with 10,000 gallons of wine for 700 settlers. It had three times as much beer as water.
Many drank hard alcohol early on because wheat, rye, corn and barley could be distilled into whiskey that was easily transportable. Traditional wine grapes didn’t grow well in North America and importing wine was expensive, according to the exhibit. Beer could be made locally, but it wasn’t until the introduction of lager from German immigrants later in the 19th century that mass brewing and transportation was feasible.
Between 1850 and 1890, beer consumption exploded from 36 million gallons to 855 million gallons — the equivalent of every adult increasing intake from 2.5 gallons to 21 gallons per year.
Women led the charge
“There was this politicization of alcohol,” said Templeman. “Women were not necessarily treated well when their husbands were drinking a great deal. So they started to push back for temperance.”
The conversation, she said, started with women asking people to drink less.
But without the right to vote, many men ignored their pleas, shunning their legitimacy to participate in the conversation.
“That really pushed women to fight for suffrage because they wanted to participate in the temperance conversation and they were kept from that,” Templeman said. “The two were definitely tied. Prohibition and suffrage happened close to each other.”
Important early leaders like Carrie Nation, whose husband drank himself to death, emboldened growing organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as she destroyed saloons with a sledgehammer.
As the failure of Prohibition became apparent in the 1920s and 1930s, women also led the charge to repeal Prohibition with the 21st Amendment.
Effects to this day
Though drinking has seen a marked rise since the pandemic of the 21st century, drinking today still pales in comparison to the levels of drinking before Prohibition.
Estimates from the exhibit said that drinking — though it was far from erased in American culture — decreased by 70 percent after the 18th Amendment went into effect, with lasting effects to this day.
In addition to alcohol laws that can trace their roots to Prohibition, the movement established a drinking age.
But perhaps some of the most lasting changes were with how women and African Americans interacted with the rest of society.
After Prohibition, women started to drink more publicly, no longer confined to the “ladies entrance” where saloons would sell them growlers to take home to enjoy with friends. Prohibition didn’t make it illegal to drink — just to manufacture, transport and sell alcohol.
As with smoking, drinking for women was much more taboo before the Roaring Twenties. In many cities, the arrival of speak-easies allowed men and women to mingle like never before.
As African Americans migrating north introduced jazz to cities like Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit, white and Black Americans became more comfortable mingling through new establishments for drinking.
In large cities, racial and gender barriers were further eroded with the arrival of “black-and-tans,” integrated cabarets and nightclubs, usually in Black neighborhoods, where jazz was the music of choice for drinkers. Speak-easies and black-and-tans were the predecessors of the modern nightclub.
If you like cocktails, you can thank Prohibition for that, too. With no regulation of how alcohol was produced, poor liquor quality led to the popularity of cocktails and mixed drink recipes. Using flavorings, bartenders could mask the taste.
The fall of Prohibition
With the opportunities to be seized in the Black market, organized crime expanded out of the consolidated pockets where gangs previously controlled gambling, prostitution and narcotics. And with the need to ship large quantities from one place to another, mobsters needed partners in other cities.
But before long, the scenes of mob turf wars were splashed over the front pages of newspapers across the country. The dramatic and graphic increase in violent crime contributed to the growing public opposition to Prohibition.
Coupled with the devastating effects of the Great Depression, the repeal of the 18th Amendment — the first repeal of an amendment in American history — was made more feasible. Before its repeal, few Americans believed that two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures could agree on the failure of Prohibition.
But as unemployment rose, federal income tax revenues plummeted and capital gains taxes dried up, a desperate Congress saw the value in new revenue from alcohol sales.
Prohibition took six decades to put into the Constitution, but less than 14 years to dismantle.
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