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Smithsonian Takes Its Own Dive Into Prohibition
June 11, 2018  | By David Hinckley

This may come as a posthumous surprise to those who couldn’t get a legal drink in the 1920s, but Prohibition was only incidentally about alcohol.

Drinks, Crime and Prohibition, a two-part special debuting Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Smithsonian, examines the complex roots and unforeseen consequences of America’s most misguided Constitutional amendment.

For those whose interest in the history of American alcohol doesn’t go back further than Carrie Bradshaw cosmos from Sex and the City, Prohibition was a 13-year period between 1920 and 1933 when the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbade the production, sale or transportation of alcoholic beverages.

In practice, “prohibition” worked about as well as you’d expect, which was basically not at all. The promise that removing alcohol from the national equation would force weak-willed menfolk to sober up and become responsible family providers and social pillars didn’t quite pan out.

Drinks, Crime and Prohibition begins by explaining how we arrived at the futile notion that it could, then tracks the way the whole experiment fell apart.

The 18th Amendment ultimately spawned the 21st Amendment, which essentially said, “Never mind.” The 21st repealed Prohibition and made it legal again to do what most folks had been doing all along.

In many ways, this Smithsonian special is a shorter, more bemused version of the fine Ken Burns Prohibition series that ran on PBS in 2011. Like the Burns series, this one draws heavily on the 2010 history of Prohibition written by Daniel Okrent, and Okrent (left) serves as one of the expert commentators.

Drinks, Crime and Prohibition does offer a couple of different spins, including recipes for some famous Prohibition-era drinks like the Scofflaw and a scene in which one of the experts taste-tests the modern equivalent of industrial alcohol.

He suggests “industrial alcohol” may be as ominous as it sounds. But it was used in all sorts of everyday items, like perfume, so it was exempt from the Prohibition ban. And if some of it made its way directly to the lips of thirsty consumers, well, let’s just say human beings are creative that way.

Alcohol could also be prescribed by doctors for “medicinal use.” The Smithsonian museum has an amusing collection of whiskey and other alcohol bottles that contained regular old booze, but were meticulously labeled as being strictly an Rx.

Entertaining as all those fun facts can be, Drinks, Crimes and Prohibition focuses more on the 18th Amendment campaign itself. It was considerably more complicated than simply convincing an alcohol-friendly nation that Demon Rum needed to be exorcised. 

The “drys” put together a coalition that included the growing women’s suffrage movement, members of which saw temperance as a way to assert women’s power through a parallel social movement.

It also brought in Americans who were scared by the early 20th century wave of immigration. Immigrants were linked to ominous and dangerous alcohol consumption, and when America went to war with beer-loving Germany, it became even easier to sell Prohibition as a counterpunch to swarthy foreigners who were overrunning American cities.

Under the shrewd hand of a strategist named Wayne Wheeler, this odd coalition of nativists and idealists slowly won state-by-state bans that provided the momentum necessary for a Constitutional amendment.

Drinks, Crime and Prohibition suggests one of the practical problems that led to the failure of the 18th Amendment was the lack of any enforcement strategy.

Almost by default, enforcement fell to the federal government, which found itself taking a much larger daily role in American life than it had ever taken before.

That became one of the legacies of Prohibition, along with a more powerful organized crime network and a vast increase in incarceration. 

Smithsonian’s take on Prohibition often runs to the anecdotal, which somehow seems fitting for an experiment about which everyone had a story and which almost no one, by 1933, wanted to continue or repeat.


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