Minnesota History Center exhibit shows how Prohibition came to be — and came undone

  • Updated: November 8, 2013 - 1:41 PM

This is a photo of ANDREW VOLSTEAD ORG XMIT: MIN2013110514392139

Minnesota’s most infamous connection to Prohibition has nothing to do with bootleggers. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution got its start as the Volstead Act, named for U.S. Rep. Andrew Volstead of Granite Falls, who later lost his seat because of voter outrage. As an addendum to the national traveling exhibit “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” the Minnesota History Center will display a letter from an incensed voter threatening the legislator with death.

The 18th Amendment is not just the only one ever repealed. “It’s also the only one that sought to limit freedom rather than guarantee it,” said Dan Spock, the curator overseeing the exhibit. “The exhibit shows how on earth we as a nation convinced ourselves it was a good thing to do.”

A coalition of strange bedfellows got Prohibition passed, he said — social progressives who didn’t want men drinking up their paychecks, anti- alcohol Christian fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan, who had no love for either immigrants or Catholics.

Highlights of the exhibit, which originated at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, include a film showing people celebrating after the repeal, a quiz you can take to see whether you would have been a “wet” or a “dry,” and a 20-by-8-foot “Amazing Amendment Machine” that shows all the stars that had to align for Prohibition to come about. For example, it might never have come to pass if a national income tax had not been instated in 1913. Before that, taxes on alcohol were a primary income source for the U.S. Treasury.

“Today we think of Prohibition as an enormous failure, but in fact, before it was enacted, the per-capita consumption of alcohol was three times what it is today,” Spock said. “Men drank all day long then, at work, to cement deals, socializing after work. It was effective in limiting drinking in spite of all the ink the lawless flappers and bootleggers were getting.”

Kristin Tillotson

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