A century ago, Virginia embarked on a grand social experiment that didn’t work out so well: the prohibition of alcohol.
In our era of explosive growth of wineries, craft breweries and distilleries, it’s difficult to imagine the commonwealth established a statewide ban on alcohol that went into effect in 1916 and then toughened it in 1918, in advance of the federal Prohibition that was enacted in 1919.
Prohibition was pushed through by a movement aiming to improve lives and society by eliminating the availability and temptation of “demon rum.” Clean living might have been a noble goal, but the effort resulted in a bevy of unintended consequences, which ultimately led to national repeal in 1933 — and sort of a mess in between, including this:
“Prohibition’s most profound failure was at the personal and local level — well-documented in the Prohibition records — pitting neighbor against neighbor, making criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens, and provoking senseless violence,” said Gregg Kimball, director of public services and outreach at the Library of Virginia.
The library considers Prohibition and its legacy with a new exhibition that debuts next week: “Teetotalers & Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled.” The exhibit, on display in a gallery just off the library’s main atrium beginning Monday, April 3, through Dec. 5, is free and open to the public during library hours, which at the moment are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. (Come July 8, the library will be open again on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
The exhibition is produced with the assistance of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Distillers Association.
There will be actual parts of copper stills and miniature models of stills on display and even a jar of clear liquid confiscated in 2005 by state ABC agents, its lid sealed shut with “evidence” stickers and the jar itself in a glass case so as to prevent the possibility of any free samples. But there is much more, including music, newsreel footage and the audio of letters to the Virginia Prohibition Commission being given voice: citizens complaining about neighborhood bootleggers, and a jailed prisoner protesting the selective enforcement of the law (i.e., rich people seldom seem to be arrested for boozing), among them.
“We do exhibitions to talk about our collections,” said Barbara C. Batson, exhibitions coordinator for the library, which maintains the records of the Prohibition commission. “We’re a lot more than governor’s records and legislative records. We’ve got a lot of great stuff here, and it’s fun.”
The exhibit includes records that show the surge of wealthy Virginians applying to import cases and cases of alcohol from Maryland before the state’s ban went into effect and then the pages and pages of applications of businesses requesting licenses to sell alcohol after the repeal of federal Prohibition. For your listening pleasure, there is also a collection of period Prohibition music — for and against — including a Virginia version of the 1800s tear-jerker song “Father, Come Home” (about the evils of drinking) and one from the other side of the issue called “I’m Wild About Moonshine.”
The exhibition looks at the economic and social costs of Prohibition, as well as its legacy: from the creation of the state ABC department to the birth of NASCAR, where the earliest drivers gained their driving experience hauling bootleg liquor on back roads at high speeds, and ultimately to the modern era of brewing and distilling.
From a financial point of view, the notion of Prohibition was perplexing in that taxes on alcohol provided considerable funds to the federal budget, Kimball said, and by making alcohol illegal it drove all of the revenue to those breaking the law. From a practical standpoint, Virginia’s Prohibition also seemed slightly unnecessary since much of the state — operating under local options — was already dry.
“You have to look at temperance and Prohibition as a progressive thing,” Batson said. “It was a period of great reform and great positive reform: children’s labor, women’s labor, housing regulations and things like that. (Prohibition) is a case where I think they got a little carried away.”