by Paul R. Spitzzeri
My talented and creative colleagues in our public programs and collections areas have done it again! As part of our commemoration of the centennial of Prohibition, the “great social experiment” in which almost all alcohol production and consumption was banned by the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, our new exhibit in the Homestead Gallery covers the fourteen-year period between 1919 and 1933 that the law was in operation (or, at least, partly!)
This display replaces (or, rather, carries on a broader narrative) one that focused on the temperance movement leading up to the passage of the amendment. As my co-workers develop these exhibits, they are definitely becoming more imaginative and harnessing their strengths in concept, design and execution to create visually striking as well as educationally meaningful elements.
As before, a pair of decals on the wall opposite the entrance to the space has the striking commentary about just how much alcohol Americans (largely men) consumed in the 19th century. This led to the rise of temperance and the result was Prohibition, constituting an attempt at “Drying Out” the nation.
The timeline developed for the temperance display has been extended with a section dealing specifically with the Prohibition era and, as with the rest, there is blending of national, state and local components. For example, it has largely been forgotten that a chief national enforcement officer for Prohibition was a woman: Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who lived in Temple City for parts of her life. Additionally, one of the major bootleggers in greater Los Angeles was Tony Cornero, who brought alcoholic beverages by ship and landed containers on local beaches (something drug runners do frequently today).
The prevalence of bootlegging, whether by professionals like Cornero or done at home by large numbers of citizens, and the rise of organized crime associated with it, was among the major reasons why a movement arose during the 1920s to repeal the amendment. Loss of tax revenue also was a significant factor, among others.
As the display notes, there was distinct lack of understanding of what the ramifications of national Prohibition would be. One instance is that law enforcement was hampered by the proclivity of some federal and local agents and officers to accept bribes or to quit their low-paying jobs to find more lucrative work in the industry they previously were sworn to crack down upon.
Moreover, there was an explosion in the number of registered pharmacies in the country. This was because a prime way to evade the strictures of the law was to have a doctor write out a legitimate prescription, under the auspices of Prohibition, for alcohol as medicine. In fact, the Homestead has, in its collection, one such prescription form dated Christmas Eve and prescribing whiskey for the patient!
Then, there was the “wine brick,” a product developed by grape growers from which concentrated grape juice could be made, but, if “accidentally” rendered, could easily be turned into an alcoholic product, namely wine. Wineries engaged in making these bricks, as well as seeking exemptions to make sacramental wine for churches or in utilizing beer brewing techniques for “near beer” and other products.
There were many earnest attempts to get Americans to forsake illicit drinking for alternatives that were promoted as healthier and safer (after all, some “hooch” or illegal alcohol could literally be dangerous, as almost 1,000 Americans died annually from toxic alcoholic products.)
The soda fountain and ice cream were among the products promoted as better analogues to alcohol. As one panel in the exhibit notes, there was a 55% increase in ice cream consumption during the Prohibition years, though exchanging the sweet tooth for the urge for alcohol (which converts sugars to affect the brain’s pleasure centers for that “buzz” that drinkers experience) had, of course, its own health consequences. Moreover, some soda fountains got very creative in their mixing process and it was commonly understood that alcohol and soda were very popular in these establishments!
Attesting to the creativity of my colleagues is our very own soda fountain, which offers fruit juice to our visitors, with a beautifully rendered backdrop of a mirrored wall, a root beer keg, and a spigot near containers with flavors like chocolate, lemon, and “Don’t Care,” basically a mixing of flavors. We’re also asking visitors to use Post-It notes and leave comments about whether they would have supported Prohibition and why or why not.
The display also notes that, while women were among the principal lobbyists for the creation of Prohibition, being concerned about the welfare of families and the preservation of marriages, among others issues, many realized that the unintended consequences of the ban were very serious. Groups like the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform and others worked to overturn Prohibition as the 1920s came to a close and the 1930s set in.
An exhibit case features a selection of artifacts from the Homestead’s collection, including medicinal alcoholic product packages, photos of illicit stills and means of hiding illegal alcohol, the aforementioned prescription, and a document signed by Walter P. Temple, then-owner of the Homestead, attesting that he would be making grape juice with virtually no alcoholic content.
A copy of a historic photo from spring 1928 shows Temple and members of the Altar Society from St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in nearby Puente (changed to La Puente in the 1950s) standing along rows of tables under the grape arbor at the rear of the Workman House. The group, dressed in costumes redolent of pre-American California as they celebrated with a fiesta, holds mugs with dark liquid in them. Who knows whether this was the grape juice or not?
We do know, actually, from some documents and oral histories that, as did so many Americans, Temple was very much honoring Prohibition in the breach. There are references in letters by his son Thomas to drinking at the ranch during the 1920s, while an oral history with Jack Romero, whose father was an employee and whose aunt, Maud Bassity was Walter Temple’s paramour and stands near him in the photo, and who told me that his father had a special hidden compartment in one of the Temple automobiles for transporting illicit alcohol from Los Angeles to the ranch.
As we approach our annual “Ticket to the Twenties” festival, coming up on 5-6 October, this is a perfect time to transition our exhibit from temperance to Prohibition. In fact, the temperance exhibit is being reinstalled at the Workman House, so that we can continue to have that story be told for visitors that weekend.
Meantime, for the remainder of the year, keep an eye out on this blog for more about Prohibition, as artifacts from the Homestead’s collection relating to the “great social experiment” are highlighted!
Thanks go out to Gennie Truelock for content development and general organization, Jennifer Scerra for her continued excellent and creativity in design, and Michelle Villarreal and Amanda Foster for their selection and display of historic artifacts, though others on our staff contributed in various ways as part of an overall team effort in getting this striking exhibit together.