by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was a very lengthy crusade as religious organizations, women’s groups and others fought hard to ban the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in America. The movement began far back into the 19th century and gradually yielded effects through state legislation before, finally, Congress passed legislation for the eighteenth amendment to the federal constitution.
That was accomplished on 18 December 1917 as the United States was immersed in its recent entry and ongoing preparations to join the Allies in Europe fighting the First World War. Ratification by the states followed and was accomplished on 16 January 1919 with the ban on production and sale to start in one year. To set the terms for legal enforcement, the Volstead Act (a.k.a. the National Prohibition Act) was passed by Congress on 28 October 1919, so that the official date of enforcement would be on 17 January 1920. The “great social experiment” was on.
The Homestead is commemorating the centennial of the ratification of Prohibition by mounting two exhibits in the Homestead Museum Gallery. The first of these, Elevate & Cleanse: The Surprising History of Temperance covering the period up to the onset of Prohbition, is now ready for viewing. Thanks to the talents of a few of my colleagues, this display vividly covers the main issues leading up to the amendment, using eye-catching design, an interactive “coffee club” component, and a display of artifacts from the museum’s holdings.
A large and easy-to-spot decal with the exhibit title is on a wall facing the entrance to the Gallery, beckoning visitors to come on in and check out the display. On glass walls and doors dividing the space from a conference room, the team designed a timeline spanning from 1820 to 1920 providing national, state and local information relating to the topic.
For instance, the prodigious consumption of alcohol (several gallons per capita each year!) led Protestant reformers from about the 1820s to start calling for a ban on distilled spirits, such as whiskey and rum, and for the moderate consumption of fermented alcohol, such as beer and wine.
Massachusetts, home of the Puritans, was the first to jump in, banning, in 1838, the production of alcohol in amounts less than 15 gallons. Thirteen years later, Maine went to the point of banning liquor manufacturing and consumption, though the law lasted just five years before being repealed. The first attempt at prohibting alcohol making and drinking in California was in 1854, but it did not pass the state senate. By the mid-1860s, a National Prohibition Party was formed to fight for the concept (it is little known that the party still exists.)
By then, the Workman family was a producer of significant quantities of wine and brandy. William Workman distilled whiskey in Taos, New Mexico from the 1820s until he came to California in 1841. He then planted grapes near his home not long after settling on Rancho La Puente and gradually expanded his production over the years. In the mid-1860s, he built three brick wineries south of the Workman House—in fact, the largest of them was about where the Homestead Museum Gallery and Prohibition exhibit are today!
While the temperance movement gathered increasing momentum in the last decades of the century, there was also significant opposition by those who simply wanted to continue to have the right to drink, but also by those who argued that the economic effects of banning alcohol were significant. After all, a large portion of federal revenue came from excise taxes on alcohol making and selling.
Among the foremost proponents of going “dry” was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and it was initially established in the 1870s for temperance objectives. It soon, however, branched out into other reform efforts, such as better education, improved working conditions, voting rights for women, and others. This tended to distill (sorry) the message of the group.
A singl-issue group, though, that quickly made inroads on temperance and prohibition reforms was the Anti-Saloon League, created in Ohio the 1890s. With its relentless focus on banning alcohol manufacturing and sales and emphasizing the destruction that alcoholism had on marriages, family life, productivity at work and other elements of life, the Anti-Saloon League, which had a very active California branch headquartered in Los Angeles, was particularly effective at spreading the “dry” gospel.
The “wets,” on the other hand, fought tenaciously against the reformers. Chambers of commerce and other business groups hammered home the economic point, while others devoted attention to the freedom of choice issue. Slowly and surely, however, the “wets” were on the losing side of the battle.
In 1899, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance capping the number of saloons in municipal limits to 200 and forbidding them in residential areas. It is a reflection of how dramatically Los Angeles changed, being called more Midwestern than the Midwest because of immigration, that the country’s largest chapter of the WCTU was in the City of the Angels.
A significant boost for the “drys” was Progressive-era reform in California, culminating in 1911 with the expansion of voting to women for all elections and a “Local Option Law” permitting incorporated cities, as well as townships, to allow voting on prohbition, so long as at least a quarter of registered voters signed a petition for such a vote.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Congress passed the sixteenth amendment to the constitution, bringing back a federal income tax (there was one briefly during the Civil War to raise funds for the fight against the Confederate States of America). By World War I, about 60% of federal revenue came from alcohol-related taxes, so the need to find other sources was paramount.
In 1916, two propositions (this concept also was introduced in 1911) were placed on the state ballot in California to end all production and sale of alcohol, with exceptions for medicinal use, religious purposes and others and to halt sale in public places. Both measures, however, failed.
The next year, though, voters in Los Angeles approved a measure to ban saloons in the city, end the sale of any alcohol over 14%, and limits the hours of sale in public establishments. The enactment of the measure, of course, was superseded by the passage of the Prohibition amendment, of which only two states (Connecticut and Rhode Island) declined to ratify.
Among the Homestead artifacts displayed in the exhibit are items related to local alcohol production, such as photos of grape pickers, a saloon, and a group of men holding wine bottles and glases; a wine bottle; a bottle ticket (label); an invoice from a local wine company; a sales pamphlet for a dealer; and a California Prosperity League letter warning against prohibiting alcohol making and selling.
These are countered by objects connected to the Prohibition movement, including a WCTU report; news clippings about the 1917 Los Angeles saloon vote; an Anti-Saloon League letter pamphlet, convention announcement, and poem; and postcards humorously depicting an alcohol-free Los Angeles.
Brightly colored and eye-catching text panels summarize the differences between the “drys” and the “wets”; discuss the 1916 state propositions; and ask how visitors would vote. The interactive is an area devoted to being a “coffee club,” a mechanism “drys” utilized to get people to exchange alcohol for coffee, but also to talk about issues like temperance and other reforms.
We will actually put out coffee during tour times and then ask visitors to leave comments on post-it notes affixed to the wall about the issues of consumer choice in the matter of drinking, protecting women and children from harm caused by alcohol, and the matter of single-issue voting. A graphic on the table shows that, while the 1916 propositions were defeated, the did pass in all southern California counties, a palpable reflection of how the temperance movement was strong in greater Los Angeles.
Later this year, we’ll replace this exhibit with another that delves deeply into the Prohibition years, especially as we present our “Ticket to the Twenties” festival in early October, where programming related to the “great social experiment” will be featured. Many thanks especially are due to my colleagues Gennie Truelock (who shepherded the content and wrote the text), Jennifer Scerra (who employed her design skills with the panels and decals), and Michelle Villarreal (who organized and displayed the artifacts in the exhibit case and pedestals) for their fine work.